The name may be in no way familiar, but the works are instantly recognizable. The Czech-born painter, illustrator and graphic designer Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), whose name is synonymous with Art Nouveau, rose to fame virtually overnight when he accepted an eleventh-hour commission to create a theatrical poster for actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was starring in a production of the Greek drama Gismonda in Belle Époque Paris.
Call it being in the right place at the right time. It was the day after Christmas, 1894, and Mucha was checking proofs after hours at a printing house when the call came in for a poster to advertise the legendary actress’s latest play — ready for distribution on New Year’s Day. The quick turn-around proved no obstacle for the wildly inventive draftsman, even though he had never created a poster before and had had little success up to that point as an illustrator in Paris.
The end product defied the cardinal rules of poster design — it was near-life-sized, pastel-colored and highly ornamental, with gold metallic. But it was nonetheless embraced by Bernhardt, who immediately enlisted Mucha to use his poster prowess to promote her performances and to design the programs, costumes, sets and her jewelry, too.
“He became her go-to guy for five years because of this poster. This poster hits the streets of Paris on New Year’s Day, and it breaks all the rules. People had never seen an ad like this,” chief curator Angelina Lippert said on an opening-week tour. Heretofore, posters were roughly 3-feet by 4-feet, used primary colors and were very “free form.”
An Intuitive Understanding of His SubjectThe first section of this inaugural show in the museum’s main gallery is dedicated to the alliance between the actress and artist. Her fame is a draw, his curvy, sensuous renderings of the female form — in spaces chock-a-block with floral motifs, Byzantine mosaics, roundels, arches, “macaroni” hair, sinuous lines and extraordinary detail — an even bigger one. The approach, heavily influenced by Czech folk art, was dubbed “le style Mucha.”
The two got on because Mucha had an intuitive understanding of his subject. Bernhardt loved the Gismonda poster, “because this is the first time an artist sees her the way she wants to be seen,” Lippert said. “Everyone who had done a poster prior to that ... represented her as an ingénue. This woman was a single mother, a powerhouse businesswoman and her own PR machine, so this is how she saw herself.”
Mucha’s ingenuity extended to taking photographs of his subjects prior to creating the drawings for his posters. “No one else was doing that for advertising. He was re-inventing what commercial advertising meant, what it involved,” Lippert said.
Bernhardt and BiscuitsWalls of posters with Bernhardt in the guise of Hamlet, Medea and a variety of historical and Biblical figures give way to an appealing section devoted to product advertisement. Think biscuits, cigarette rolling papers, chocolate, bicycles, champagne and liqueurs. The common denominator: an attractive, self-assured woman, with big hair, subtly shilling.
The biscuit maker, Lefèvre-Utile, which is still in existence, became simply “LU” for Mucha. And that’s how the cookie is known today, the curator said. “He hides [the initials] throughout his posters as a brand re-emphasis,” she said, encouraging her audience to search for the letters embedded in the ads, rather like hunting for the “Ninas” buried in an Al Hirschfeld drawing.
And Mucha imagines elegant settings for the cookie, like an opera box or a private garden (see “Flirt,” 1900). “He makes it an aspirational item. He creates environments that are lush, classy and sexy, and he makes the products associated with stuff like that” — but accessible to everyone because, hey, it’s only a cookie and the poster is behind the counter or in the window of the shops for all to see. He democratizes Art Nouveau and gives it mass appeal.
Dream-Like StatesThe final section, in a lower-level gallery, offers Mucha’s decorative panels — allegorical images of beautiful women representing the seasons, time of the day, precious stones and flower types, sans lettering or text of any kind.
The designer and the printing house that owned the rights to his work were catering to dealers and collectors who wanted to purchase “a Mucha.” Stripped of commercial claptrap, these works are like mood pieces. They are soft hued and airy, meant to transport viewers into a pleasing, dream-like state, a kind of reverie.
Fed up with the daily grind of churning out incredibly intricate pieces for commercial clients, Mucha gave it all up and traveled to the U.S. in 1904, where he failed to gain traction as either an illustrator or a portrait painter, his dream job.
He eventually found his way back to Czechoslovakia, where he completed “The Slav Epic” (1911-28), a masterful painting series marking key moments in Slavic history. None are included in the breezy show here, a long-dive into his creation of strong, empowered female figures at the turn of the last century — a.k.a. the nouvelle femme (new woman).
As the organizers state, “These women were part of a budding 20th-Century world wherein they had newfound independence and social agency. Through them, Mucha changed the world of advertising and brought Art Nouveau to the streets.”