Today we celebrate the birthday of Walter Wegmüller, Sinti/Yenische artist, sculptor, musician, poet, expert of the Tarot and historian of alchemy. Walter Wegmüller was at the heart of the cultural explosion of the late 1960’s and 1970’s with his paintings and music, depicting Romani and Traveller legends with an extraordinary vivacity and dynamism. He based his artwork of the Tarot on his research and travels amongst Romani and Traveller communities with the mystic, Sergius Golowin, that they undertook during the years 1968 to 1974. He remained friends throughout his life with the German designer and artist, H R Geiger, creator of the iconic ‘Alien’ in a series of films and graphic novels and, like Wegmüller, producer of album covers for progressive rock bands, such as ELP’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ (1973). Jürg Rüttimann described Wegmüller as “not an artist who can be pigeonholed”, with sculptures, paintings, prints and Tarot card designs all drawing upon a common “eternal, incessant urge to tell [stories]”, as Wegmüller has described it (see Urs Tempe’s page about Wlater Wegmüller here: http://www.gigeregg.ch/index.php?rubrik=walterwegmueller).
Wegmüller was born in Bern, Switzerland to a Sinti/Yenische family who were subjected to the policies of assimilation and eradication of Yenische, Sinti and Romani families and their cultures through the semi-government agency, ‘Pro Juventute’, who forcibly removed Walter from his family and placed him in foster-homes, usually amongst Swiss farmers where he was beaten, exploited and coerced through inculcation of a “a decent attitude through endless work”, as the assimilation programme was called. This “tough youth” as he has described it gave rise to the urge to create and tell his stories. He once said that if he had been able to write, he would have become a writer but that he writes by painting. His interest in Tarot imagery and the folktales of Romani people came early, as a resistance to the attempted erasure of his culture and inheritance. He did not know that his father was a fortune-teller until later in life when he found his family as an adult. His work though is not just an attempt to deal with the past, but to create new worlds and imaginations, particularly through reinterpreting Romani legends and stories as he did with his own Tarot imagery and decks of cards.
He was also an early proponent of the avant-garde, psychedelic rock and electronic music genre, a German phenomenon drawing from the political radicalism of the late 1960’s and influenced by classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, , Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and others. Walter’s own music was much more oriented towards the electronic and experimental, drawing upon Hawkwind, Pink Floyd and early King Crimson and itself influencing Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel (with the American psychologist, Timothy Leary). The 1973 album, ‘Tarot’ was produced by legendary German producer, Rolf Ulrich-Kaiser who went on to work with most of the most famous German progressive rock bands founding the independent Ohr label as a home to this form of ‘progrock’ (the term ‘Krautrock’ used by English music journalists in the 1970’s was rejected as racist at the time, though has since become widespread, much to the disappointment of early proponents). Despite his claims not to be a writer, Walter Wegmüller also produced a study of the Tarot in 1997 and lectured in various countries throughout the 1990’s on the subject, including a conference about alchemy, organised by Urs Tempe in St Gallen City Theatre (1990), the ‘Symposium for Alchemy’.
Walter Wegmüller sadly passed away last year (2020) a month after his eighty-third birthday, from COVID-19, in Basel where he had lived since 1957, with his wife whom he met during his travels on a trip to India and with whom he had two children. During his travels he had made jewellery and worked as a street artist, but returned to Switzerland shortly after marrying.
Dr Adrian Marsh, consultant to the RCAC says: “I first came across Walter Wegmüller when I bought his double-album (on vinyl at the time) in 1973, which came packaged with a set of his Tarot cards. As a teenager listening to a great deal of progressive and psychedelic rock music, I was fascinated by what music journalist, Archie Patterson has called “still a unique and magical listening experience.” (1995; see http://www.expose.org/index.php/articles/display/walter-wegmller-tarot-66.html) The Tarot cards were the second pack I had come across and the first that were so distinctive as an art-form (I had bought a French pack on a school camping trip to Normandy when I was 11 years-old, but they were for playing the game of tarroco, not divining). I was mesmerised by the colours and vibrancy and bought Alfred Douglas’ useful Penguin book on using the Tarot (still to be found with its associated Tarot deck from David Sheridan, https://www.sheridandouglas.co.uk/) to be able to ‘read’ whilst listening to the ‘cosmic’ rock of Wegmüller’s album; all very hippy-trippy (this was the early 1970’s).
Later I was able to tell Walter Wegmüller himself how much I had appreciated his music and his art at a conference about the alchemist Dr John Dee, organised by the Warburg Institute in London in 1997. If I’d had the Tarot deck with me, I would have asked him to sign it, but sadly I did not (and the vinyl album and original Tarot deck were stolen in Edinburgh in 2000). I was, however, able to speak with Walter and he seemed genuinely pleased that I knew of him and his work. He was, by that time, silver-haired and wearing a large fedora hat, with a moustache (rather than the hippy beard of the 1970’s), genial and friendly with a red kerchief and leather jacket. He did present his own research and scholarship about the Tarot, but asked knowledgeable questions and engaged in discussion, clearly enjoying himself during the two-day event. It was interesting that he did not subscribe to a ‘magical’ world-view, particularly about the Tarot; “Tarot is not based on magic, but based on experience and observation”, he once said and his understanding of John Dee and alchemy was similarly based in natural philosophy, not the supernatural, a view which has deeply influenced my understanding of the Tarot.
His work is much less well-known that it should be (outside of Germany and Switzerland) and he wasn’t featured as a Romani artist in Venice 2007 Biannelle, the Roma Pavillion, which is a great shame as he would have been brought to the attention of younger Gypsy, Roma, Traveller artists and been seen for what he was, a founder of Romani arts and a visionary of Romani music. I hope this remembering of him will bring his work to the attention of a much wider audience, especially as an inspiration to young Romani, Traveller, Sinti, Yensiche artists, musicians and practitioners of the Tarot…”
Text by Adrian Marsh, except where quoted.See Urs Tempe’s website about
H R Geiger, Walter Wegmüller and friends, http://www.gigeregg.ch/index.php?rubrik=walterwegmuellerListen to ‘The
Chariot’ from the album, ‘Tarot’ (1973) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5iwR1G8wOE