Pamela Colman Smith – Life and Work
Through April 11. Pratt Institute Libraries
Brooklyn Campus, 200 Willoughby Avenue; 718-636-3420
The artist and publisher Pamela Colman Smith died in obscurity in 1951, at 73, and is mostly remembered for illustrating the widely used Rider-Waite-Smith tarot card deck. An overdue retrospective, “Life and Work,” which lines three levels of a Victorian stairwell at Pratt Institute Libraries, shows how much more Ms. Smith accomplished. The curators Melissa Staiger and Colleen Lynch have gathered examples of her book and magazine illustrations, paintings and theater set and costume designs, all flavored with Art Nouveau and the stirrings of surrealism.
Ms. Smith was born in London to American parents and spent her childhood shuttling between England, the Caribbean and Brooklyn. She studied art at Pratt, and by her mid-20s had won acclaim for illustrating books of Jamaican and Irish folk tales and issuing her own magazine of ballads and legends, “The Green Sheaf.”
She traveled in literary and artistic circles, painting portraits of the British actress Ellen Terry and illustrating horror stories for the novelist Bram Stoker. Alfred Stieglitz’s Manhattan gallery showed Ms. Smith’s eerie watercolors of mermaids and waterfront cliffs concealing gargantuan deities. (His leftover inventory is now at Yale).
Ms. Smith (who is the subject of a new monograph from the publishing company U.S. Games Systems) pursued studies in the occult, too, joining a group called the Isis-Urania Temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In recent decades, tarot devotees, intrigued by the initials “PCS” on each card, have spearheaded the rediscovery of her work.
The mazelike display at the Pratt show suits Ms. Smith’s enigmatic art, but it feels cramped. This tribute to a prolific experimenter deserves to be expanded and brought out of the stairwell.
EVE M. KAHN