Thomas Negovan is a Chicago-based author, musician, collector and historian. In 1999 he founded the Century Guild Museum of Art in Culver City, CA, “to create a bridge of understanding between the aesthetics and ideals of the late 19th century and the present.”
The museum and archive are focused on the research, preservation and exhibition of Art Nouveau and Symbolist works from Germany, Austria, France and Italy c.1880–1920, including the artists Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Alphonse Mucha, as well as Art Nouveau objects and artifacts from the golden eras of opera, theater, silent film and cabaret. Negovan also maintains The Century Guild Decorative Arts Gallery, as well as Century Guild Publishing, which creates fine art books, exhibition catalogs and monographs.
A few weeks ago I published a Daily Heller on one of Negovan’s prize publishing examples, the post–World War I fantasy magazine The Orchid Garden. This gave me an excuse to reach out to him for an interview about the museum and the artistic passions he preserves therein.
Tell me about your background—a musician of eclectic and rare music who is an expert in eclectic and rare Weimar-era fantasy art and design?I’ve been an avid book collector since I was small—I used to buy so many books at library book sales that I’d have to balance the heavy brown paper bags on the bicycle handles and walk the bike home. That never stopped, and I’m trying now to create things that inspire people the way certain books have inspired me over the decades. I never went to college, so my own rabid studying took me down less-traditional paths, which is how I found things like the Salon Rose+Croix and The Orchid Garden, while others might have been studying Picasso and Chagall.
What is the Century Guild Museum and what are its unique attributes?
Our roots are in building the bridge between pop culture and its origins. For 14 years we had a large presence at San Diego Comic Con, and we were excited to be presenting work from the origin points of nearly everything artistic happening in that event: Art Nouveau, Expressionism and Symbolism fueled the artists who created the comic books and fantasy illustrations that are the building blocks of that universe. It certainly allowed for me to meet many of the artists who had inspired me to begin exploring those art movements in the first place, and I was very moved when I saw that our presentation of historical artwork was having a similar effect. And in the present: Exhibitions are temporary but books are forever, so that’s why we’ve shifted our focus to publishing.
As I look through Orchid Garden I am reminded of so many others—Lionel Feininger, Alfred Kubin, Henrich Kley, the German Jugendstil-inspired artists of Simplicissiumus, Jugend and others, as well as the Weimar-era erotic press. Who are the masters of your collections?
We’ve exhibited work by the usual peculiar suspects: Heinrich Kley, Odilon Redon, Alphonse Mucha, but enjoy even more reaching a bit further out into artists like Mahlon Blaine and Walter Schnackenberg. One thing I was always proud of with our events was mixing historical and modern: we had a series of exhibitions of European silent film posters alongside cinema-themed paintings by modern artist/director Dave McKean, and we would hang lithographs of Klimt and Schiele life drawings alongside life drawings by contemporary artists Bill Sienkiewicz and David Mack. We did three Halloween exhibitions of gruesome Grand-Guignol posters from the 19th century and placed paintings by Chris Mars and Gail Potocki amidst them. Those October events were really special. I’d recommend the exhibition catalogs to anyone who wants to see mindblowing images they won’t find on the internet; just look up Grand Guignol on centuryguild.net.
The art you collect and document—Symbolist, fantastic, eerie and surreal—comes out of a long German tradition. How did you become aware of this work and how does it relate to your musical interests?The only connection to music would be in the sense of theatricality; “Time” is my favorite David Bowie song, and it is because it reminds me of German cabaret. In art, music and film I’m very partial to things that can balance spirituality and the surreal with the eerie and fantastic. The book we put out last year, Le Pater: Alphonse Mucha’s Symbolist Masterpiece, is probably the best reference volume on how you can connect those seemingly disparate elements.
You say that German and Italian art and design of the early 20th century is your realm. What is the allure of this material?I think that it started because it was the origin point of the fantastic art that I loved when I was young: When I first saw Art Nouveau, I thought it looked like how you’d decorate a parlor on Mars or in Atlantis. Later I realized this was because the artists illustrating the early 20th century stories of those realms were directly referencing Art Nouveau as a style. And when you get deeper into it, the French work can feel a bit “ivory tower,” but the German work has an earthiness and the Italian work a feeling of historical elegance. They feel more “lived in” to me, more real.
Italian Novecento symbolism (pre-futurism) fits into your fantasy spectrum. What about the earlier French artists like J.J. Grandville or Alfred Robida?I think that their concepts are far-out, but their line work is very traditional. I’ve personally been more attracted to artists like Jan Toorop or Josef Fenneker, where the lines themselves take you into a different reality.
Where are you going next with your books and museum, and how can my readers become involved in your world?The next big book that we have planned is another Alphonse Mucha book; we have some of the original printing plates for his fairy tale “Ilsee, Princess of Tripoli” and will be making a beautiful exploration of that work. Mucha started out illustrating an entirely different story altogether, and was redirected mid-stream, so I’m working on a translation that marries the published work to the original lyrical sources.
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About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →