Malevolent Visions: The Art of Der Orchideengarten • 1920 • Issues 9 - 16 by Thomas Negovan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I supported the kickstarter for this volume, the fifth in the series, mostly because I could get the book and a set of postcards featuring art from Der Orchideengarten for about the same price as just buying the book later. I'm using the postcards as postcards for a snail-mail roleplaying game that I am participating in, which is set in the year 1921. What better way to add authenticity than by using postcards showing macabre art from the year 1920 in a snail-mail RPG set in 1921? I've sent one thus far, and it seems to have done the trick of giving the player to whom it was sent a visual to go with the (handwritten) words of my character to his. Verisimilitude helps.
And what of the book itself? I'll admit that, because I was so focused on the use of the postcards, I didn't read or didn't absorb the fine print in the kickstarter. I had expected (ignorantly) that the book would include facsimiles of all the issues of Der Orchideengarten for the stretch of issues indicated. I was mistaken. While there is some interesting commentary about the stories and their authors, there is little directly quoted from them. There are decent summations of many of the stories, but they are merely summations. The information about the artists lends a bit of depth to the book, especially as it relates to how the artist's political sympathies were manifested, in time (you can imagine why), but the real focus of the book is the art itself.
At this, it succeeds wonderfully. Certain artists predominate, most notably (the notorious) Karl Ritter, who did the majority of the covers for the issues examined in this volume, but there is a variety of styles shown throughout. Wilhelm Heise's "Nocturnal Garden" is akin to a black-and-white illustration in the style of Der Blaue Reiter; Paul Neu's illustrations for the story "The Elevator" and Carl Rabus' illustrations for "Giulio Balbi's Disappearance" are heavily-influenced by cubism, but with an art-deco flair, and Ritter's work is composed of grotesque, but fine line work with a sort of Aubrey Beardsley depth, albeit far darker in both its subject matter and its artistic tone. There are also several illustrations that are purely anonymous, which somehow seems appropriate for a periodical focused so much on the grim and macabre arising out of Germany's interwar years art scene.
The book is, as you might imagine, lavishly illustrated with plates showing full-color covers and even one maquette of Karl Ritter's shown opposite the final cover for issue eleven of Der Orchideengarten, an intriguing pseudo-diptych of the expressionist work-in-progress alongside the finished product. One wonders why various changes were made by the artist, what led to the alterations? It also shows that this cover, at least, wasn't just a fever-dreamed off-the-cuff outpouring of artwork, but something more methodical and thought-through. Many critics of "modern art" don't understand (or don't believe) the crafting that goes into many modern (and "post-modern") works. Such dismissiveness is, I believe, to be dismissed. Here and elsewhere, Malevolent Visions shows both the art and artifice needed to generate these enduring (if somewhat forgotten) works of strange art.
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