I was pleased when I saw that Mucha was one of the artists to study this week. Mucha is one of my favourite artists and I was excited to dive into researching his work.
Born in the mid 1800s, Mucha’s success and rise to fame could be the plot of a modern day fairytale. According to the well-known legend, Mucha met Sarah Bernhardt, the glorified star of French theatre, in 1894 on the day before Christmas. The young man, fresh out of the Académie Julian, was working as an illustrator for Lemercier, a Parisian printer, when ‘La Divine’ came in. She was in desperate need for somebody to design the poster of her new show Gismonda. Mucha rose to the occasion and created his first poster. On its release, his interpretation of Bernhardt was the talk of the town, a fact that earned Mucha a six-year contract with the actress. Legend or not, this partnership with Sarah Bernhardt, who was at the high point of her career, transformed the career of this Czech artist.
With the industrial revolution and the increased development of consumerism in the 19th century, printing techniques became increasingly refined and sophisticated. By the early 20th century, the streets of Paris were tapestried with all kind of posters. Among both the general public and artists, the medium gained more and more popularity and respect. The commercial poster became a real Parisian trend and Alphonse Mucha, following his success with Bernhardt, emerged as its shining star.
Influenced by Symbolism and the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century, Mucha’s posters focus on one or more female figures that are glorified in their sensuality and beauty. With a passion for details, Mucha creates ornaments, incorporates gold and silver elements and represents organic shapes. The figures are detailed by expressive darker lines and enriched by natural soft colours, functional and decorative friezes usually frame the illustrations and the background space is filled by floral or abstract patterns. Mucha uses the flora and fauna of the natural as an endless source of design ideas, and this style would then go on to found the Art Nouveau movement.
The influence of Alphonse Mucha and other Art Nouveau poster designers on San Francisco rock posters has always been recognized. The opiated daydreams of art from the end of the previous century set an obvious precedent for ’60s psychedelia, especially given the counterculture’s quest to get beyond the sterile geometry of modernism as it had developed in the 20th century and return to what it saw as a more colourful, free spirited age.
Rock concert poster artists of the 1960s would definitely rework Muchas pieces into their own. Richly saturated colours, elaborate ornate lettering, collage elements and distortion were all hallmarks of the San Francisco psychedelic poster art style that flourished from about 1966 – 1972. Their work also translated into album cover art.
The best of Muchas advertising images are both triumphantly of their time and timeless. They have the instant quality common to all great advertising and, indeed, to all great pop art. They have a quality of immediate recognition, even if you’ve never seen them before. Now that is genius.