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WesternSFA


Diabolical Fantasia The Art of Der Orchideengarten Volume 1
by Thomas Negovan
Century Guild, $29.00, 88pp
Published: 2018
Like 'Beautiful Macabre', which I also reviewed this month, this teasingly brief volume is a fine art book that explores treasures from the collection of the Century Guild Museum of Art, which the author founded in 1999. It's a fresh delight, this time taking focus on the art in what appears to be the first fantasy magazine published anywhere in the world. It first saw print in 1919 and continued until 1921 with 51 issues published.

'Der Orchideengarten' unsurprisingly translates to 'The Orchid Garden', an evocative name that could be entirely benign but not, of course, to writers of supernatural fiction in the Victorian era, many of whom were represented within its pages from the expected countries: Americans like Poe, Irving and Hawthorne; Britons like Dickens and Wells; and Frenchmen like de Maupassant and Hugo. The majority of translated work published was French, but this was a German magazine and it published original fiction too.

As the literary content of 'The Orchid Garden' has been looked at elsewhere and, frankly, I'm sure that I can imagine many of the short stories featured in the magazine's pages just by looking at their names, Tom Negovan chose to focus on its artwork instead. Just like the American pulps that would follow it, there was plenty of art to accompany the literature and this book takes a look at what was included within the first six issues. Century Guild have published further similar books to continue that journey into later issues.

Flicking through Negovan's books at Gaslight Steampunk Expo last year, I was immediately hooked on this once I caught sight of the cover that adorned the first edition of 'The Orchid Garden'. It isn't the cover of this volume, by the way, because that's the cover of the magazine's second edition, just as weird but not as evocative.

It's a drawing by Edwin Henel in delightfully sickly red, yellow and black, featuring a giant and grotesque plant, surely an orchid, bursting through the broken panes on an underground building's shattered roof into the pitch black clouds above a yellow sky. It's a fantastic piece made all the weirder by the odd creatures clustered on its tendrils, like a naked lady absorbed by a mirror, unaware that her tendril is being sawn away below her, and the victim of a hanging, oblivious to whatever someone is doing to his rope. The plant even appears to be hatching demonic figures.

There's only one other piece of art by Edwin Henel here and it's completely different but equally fascinating. He's my discovery here and I'll be going in search of more of his work. Certainly I prefer it to the cartoony style adopted by other artists here, some of which is primitive by comparison, if often rather effective. There are Victorian vignettes, of a style I remember from Hugh Lofting novels and even copies of 'The New Yorker', whose quality ramps up through politely dark scenarios to grotesque pieces that remind of fairy stories.

Given the location and timeframe, it's not surprising to see so much German expressionism here. I'm a huge fan of German silent films of the era, and I should note that 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' was released during the three years 'The Orchid Garden' was publishing. Quite a lot of the art here has a focus on strange angles and vast shadows. It's only appropriate: the covers may have been printed in colour, but the contents are all monochrome, where shadows are so easily conjured.

In between the expressionism and the vignettes are what I can only describe as sketches, some very rough indeed but some exquisite. There's a piece by Rolf von Hoerschelmann called 'Evening Peace'. It looks like it's a sketch in ink but it's deep and haunting. I don't know whether the figure sitting on a stunted tree is alive or dead, male or female, awake or asleep, but it demands that we read on to find out.

Finally, there are much older pieces that weren't commissioned works, but a selection of classics, centuries old woodcuts like Dürer's 'The Horsemen of the Apocalypse', which is instantly recognisable. There's also a Goya here and I believe later volumes of the magazine featured work by Doré, of whom I've been a fan for years. The value of Tom Negovan is that every one of his books that I devour introduces me to new favourites and for that I'm rather thankful. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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