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Playing cards have been with us since the 14th century, when they first entered popular culture. Over the centuries packs of cards, in all shapes and sizes, have been used for games, gambling, education, conjuring, advertising, fortune telling, political messages or the portrayal of national or ethnic identity. All over the world, whatever language is spoken, their significance is universal. Their popularity is also due to the imaginative artwork and graphic design which is sometimes overlooked, and the “then & now” of how things have changed.

Arnold Schoenberg

In around 1909 he created three sets of playing cards. His inventiveness was driven by a passion for rules, order and numbers.

Playing Cards created by Arnold Schönberg

"Self-expression is the thing! Direct self-expression! But not expressing one's taste, one's education or one's intellect, one's knowledge or one's skills. None of these acquired qualities. Rather the innate, instinctive qualities. And the quest for form - the conscious quest - is bound to involve some kind of mathematics, or geometry, the golden section and so on..." - Extract from a letter from Schönberg to Kandinsky, 24.1.1911.

Arnold Schönberg's (1874-1951) creativity was not limited to music. He practised several extra-musical pursuits, producing at least 250 paintings, toys, games, chess sets and playing cards for his own use. He even did his own bookbinding. In around 1909 he created three sets of playing cards. One set used grotesque imagery and visual puns from his caricatures and doodles, with the suit symbols integrated into the designs (see image→). Another set (shown below) is more severe and geometric, almost digital. His inventiveness was driven by a passion for rules, order and numbers, and his cards also reveal his capacity for highly personal expression. The elongated cards are divided into four suits (based upon clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds) each comprising both numeral and double-ended court cards. The designs don't contain many curves and are more technical than fluid. The influence of Jugendstil is recognisable. The third set is probably for children.

facsimile edition of playing cards painted by the composer Arnold Schönberg in c.1910, published by Belmont Music Publishers and produced by Ferd Piatnik (Vienna) in 1981

Above: this facsimile edition of playing cards painted by the composer Arnold Schönberg in c.1910 was published by Belmont Music Publishers in 1981 and produced by Ferd Piatnik (Vienna), with a preface by the composer's daughter, Nuria Schoenberg-Nono. The original cards were made in watercolours and gouache on cardboard with gold and silver, size: 10.5 by 5.5 cm. No reverse has been found for the cards so a coloured pattern painted in one of his diaries was used. (Click above image to see more). Thanks to Eike Fess for additional information; see Arnold Schönberg Centre website. All images courtesy Barney Townshend.

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By Barney Townshend

Member since October 06, 2015

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Retired Airline Pilot, interested in: Transformation Playing Cards, Karl Gerich and Elaine Lewis. Secretary of the EPCS. Treasurer of the IPCS.

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