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WesternSFA


Beautiful Macabre: Rare & Peculiar Posters 1862-1973
by Thomas Negovan
Century Guild, $29.00, 88pp
Published: 2017

I first encountered Tom Negovan virtually, when he submitted a short film of his, titled Aurora, to ALIFFF, the Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival, an annual genre film festival I run in Phoenix each October. It was a beautifully produced labour of love, a half hour interpretation of the first UFO encounter to be documented in the US, way back in 1897 when locals in Aurora, TX claimed that a UFO had crashed into a windmill on the farm of Judge J. S. Proctor and a journalist for the Dallas Morning News immortalised it in print.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film, happily selected it to screen at ALIFFF in 2018 and Tom kindly gave me permission to screen it again as part of the Apocalypse Later Roadshow at a couple of steampunk conventions. As he was also at one of these events, Gaslight Steampunk Expo in 2019, I was able to host a brief Q&A with him, which was fantastic.

What I hadn't realised until that Gaslight was that Tom has produced a whole string of fine art books to document works held by the Century Guild Museum of Art, a private museum, gallery and archive which he founded in 1999. Just leafing through these beautiful books at Gaslight, the same care in design and production that I knew from his short film was also clearly evident in these publications too.

As you might expect for fine art books, these volumes are far from cheap but they're gorgeously produced works to treasure. 'Beautiful Macabre' includes reproductions of a range of posters from the Century Guild collection, all of which were originally put in front of the public on walls in American and especially Europe between 1862 and 1973, predominantly from the first half of that period.

The commonality is that they're all darkly fantastic, but otherwise serve to highlight the versatility of artists and the variety of uses to which they were put. There are posters here to advertise plays, operas and films, as you might expect, but also to display public service messages, warning about such dangers as syphilis during wartime, and hawk commercial products, such as a truly wild poster hawking radioactive powder as a magical component of the coating on glass lenses.

The earliest example is French, a fantastic lithograph advertising an opera by Ambroise Thomas, an adaptation 'Hamlet' for the Paris Opera House in the 1860s. A quick progression through time takes us through many countries in continental Europe with many different perspectives during such a turbulent era. The text is not effusive and I've have liked more but it ably serves to detail and explain each poster. I now have a few more favourite artists to delve into.

As a film historian, I gravitated towards those images, which include a set of posters for German expressionist films that are believed lost and, in the final few pages, posters for recognisable films by exploitation legends like Jess Franco, Alejandro Jodorowsky and American International Pictures.

However, my favourite images are dotted all through the book and they often go far beyond what we might expect from our modern sensibilities with regard to good taste. There's an outrageous poster featuring an army of roaches as they crawl up to and over a crying child. It's from circa 1900 and it serves to advertise a product that claims to deter such creatures. Less horrific is an advert featuring a horde of rats, some of which boast toothache bandages from their futile efforts to chew on a particular brand of tyres.

There's history here beyond the art too. I know about the Grand Guignol and was very happy to see posters from that gruesome Parisian landmark in these pages, but I didn't know anything about Léo Taxil or Henri Landru. However, the images pertaining to them are wild and eye-opening, the former pushing a book exposing the perversions of Catholic priests and the latter advertising an execution.

The former was an inveterate hoaxer who, after notoriously lampooning the Catholic Church for years, shockingly converted to Catholicism, rising so far within its ranks that he was even received by the Pope. After a decade, he pronounced at a press conference that it had all been a hoax to expose a pervasive prejudice against Freemasonry within the Church. The latter was a serial killer, known as the Bluebeard of Gambais, who was found guilty of eleven murders and executed by guillotine in 1922.

While this is a slim volume with a short introduction, it's still a delight, a fascinating set of images impeccably presented. Like Tom's other books, it is a welcome rabbit hole into a surprisingly dark past where the art mirrors the darkness of the times, but also points towards the future. The Grateful Dead poster, typical of its times, isn't far removed stylistically from some of the early Art Nouveau French posters included. Dive in with me! ~~ Hal C F Astell

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