The Revival of Playing Cards as Art

Playing cards are among the world’s oldest gaming devices. They are also the most versatile and most common as well.  The number of games that use playing cards numbers in the thousands and over a hundred million decks of cards are sold each year.

The earliest playing cards date back to the 6th century in both China and India, and historical accounts refer to playing cards in Persia in 13th century.  The oldest deck in existence is from the 15th century. These cards differed greatly from the playing cards of today as they contained more suits and ranks.

Our modern playing cards’ origins date to France in the late 1300s.  It was there the modern day suits, ranks and court cards were established and have remained virtually unchanged since.

The popularity of card games has led to some modern day innovations.  To make the games available to a larger number, cards have been adapted to meet the needs of certain individuals. Braille decks are available, as are four color decks, (black, red, blue, green) and cards with jumbo indexes. The latter two innovations have also proven to be beneficial to those that broadcast card games and online games that host live dealers.

One aspect of playing cards that has not changed since the first playing cards were developed is their role in the art world.

The earliest decks of cards were handmade and painted by hand. The designs were often very intricate and the art was of high quality. Cards were therefore very expensive and available only to the very wealthy.  The early European decks were likewise hand made until the early 1400s, when mass printing became available.

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The court cards have long been a source of artistic expression.  The King, Queen, and Jack (Knave) were symbolic representations of royalty. Religious symbolism was often used in the designs as well.

Medieval Europeans were connoisseurs of art and playing cards were often seen as miniature masterpieces.  Playing cards as art took on a new dimension when the playing card companies began to print designs on the back of the cards in order to lengthen their playing life by hiding dirt and marks. This aspect of playing card art is just still widely practiced today and includes the artistic and the inevitable promotional and advertising messages.

The artistic aspect of playing cards has spawned a very active community of playing card collectors in several different areas, many of which are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance.

Jokers

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The only true innovation to the standard deck set up since the 1400s is the Joker, an American addition. Since the Joker has no rank or suit, it was a prime candidate for artistic expression.  Many publishers used the Joker as a company logo and card designers were often given a great deal of latitude in design.

Promotional

Promotional cards cover a very wide range and have a large number of subsets in the collectors market.  Promotional cards often used both sides of the card, with the backs sporting company logos and the faces often having 52 distinct images.  In addition to promoting businesses and services, the promotional cards are often of an educational nature, such as how to tie knots or identify different bird species, or to serve propaganda purposes. The most recent, and perhaps most famous of the latter, was the Iraqi Most Wanted cards that were produced during the war with Iraq.

Artistic designs

One of the most active areas is in the artist playing card markets.  Many of the newer artistic designs have had surprising success through crowdfunding efforts.

The Persian Empire playing cards are one example.  The cards which are manufactured by Bicycle were designed by graphic artist CY Arian who raised over $16,000 to fund his project through a Kickstarter campaign.

Another graphic designer, Tyler Deeb, quit his day job and turned to Kickstarter to launch his Miscellaneous Goods Company and his new playing card design. Deeb raised almost $150,000 from more than 4000 supporters to bring his design to fruition.

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Mainstream institutions and companies are also involved in the art card movement, including the British Museum, which produces cards with artwork from Francis Button.

The Pin-up

Pin-up playing cards are one of the oldest variations of playing cards and another area that is experiencing a new wave of interest and creativity. While some decks were decidedly not family friendly, many were in the more classic, and demure, style that became popular in the 1940s.

The pinup artist Vargas’s designs were featured on several different decks of cards.  Many companies, especially those that catered to a then predominately male clientele, such as auto supply stores and oil field companies, featured somewhat generic pinup girl designs on advertising materials including playing cards.

The modern era of design has also seen companies use the pinup model playing cards for advertising. One of the more interesting designs is the decks produced by the UK lingerie company Lascivious. The decks feature modern pinup art along with tasteful erotic images to create decks that “encourages pleasure through viewing and playing, just like our lingerie.”

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One artist that has been especially active in the pinup genre is Australian artist Leon Ryan . Ryan has made numerous forays into the pinup style art, ranging from the forties classics styles to the seventies comic style to the modern designs which are featured on one of his late

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