Alphonse Mucha and art nouveau

what we think of as modern art today began in 1860, then careered onwards through the next century

Aristide Bruant, 1892 by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were its first influences. Art Nouveau in 1900 was a kind of prelude to the 20th century version. The painters most closely associated with it, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard and Gustav Klimt, became so through their posters and decorative work, not their paintings.

It was a movement purely concerned with design, with elaborate surface decoration and curvilinear forms. The trends that followed by comparison were bare. Its importance to the printed page due to the inclusion of letterforms in printing and signage, as well as its contribution to the fields of fashion design, textiles (William Morris) and furniture (Charles Rennie Mackintosh), influenced subsequent graphic design greatly. A technical breakthrough, stone lithography, allowed designers freedom from dependence on the rectilinear restrictions of letterpress printing. At the same time, Japanese prints became popular, which freed the use of space.

See that Mackintosh chair on the far left? I spied it on set back in the ’90s in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode entitled “Devil’s Due.” His furniture has appeared in several movies and TV shows that needed a futuristic, otherworldly or avant garde look, a testament to timeless design.

Designers brought up in the shade of the Bauhaus and the formalistic International Style, whether they know it or not (see “The Bauhaus and The International Style”), may dismiss Art Nouveau as overdone, but love of decoration remains persistent. More at home in the 19th century, traces of it emerged in the 1960s and ’70s when phototypesetting and lithography replaced lead type for the most part.


So where does Alphonse Mucha come in? Patience, Grasshopper! My art history ramble is meant to create a context for contemporary design, and is not mere nostalgia. He was born in 1860 at the very beginning of the movement in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. He studied art there, in Austria and Germany, then settled in Paris where he happened to walk into a print shop one day. The printer urgently needed a poster designed for Sarah Bernhardt, the city’s most famous actress. Mucha did the deed and the rest is history. Bernhardt loved the poster so much she signed a six-year contract.

The body of work in paintings, posters, advertisements and book illustrations, as well as designs for jewellery, carpets, wallpaper and theatre sets was called The Mucha Style and only later became known as Art Nouveau. He tried to dissociate himself from the fame that came with his commercial art, however, and believed that art should be for communicating a spiritual message. Ah, how things changed by the time Andy Warhol came on the scene (see “Pop Art: Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol”). But I digress.

One thing Mucha said I’ve thought of many times over the years. He had always wanted to visit Rome to see the great masterpieces there, but considered himself too immature until he was 50 years old. It struck me when I read that at art school as a young man because I’d been in the neighbourhood of Antoni Gaudí’s amazing architecture in Barcelona shortly before, but had no clue of his existence and work, a neophyte travelling in Europe, wide-eyed but ignorant.

Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, Spain. Construction began in 1882, then architect Antoni Gaudí took over in 1883, transforming it with his gothic and art nouveau architectural and engineering style. At his death in 1926, less than a quarter had been completed, then the Spanish Civil War interrupted progress completely. In 2010, construction passed its midway point. Anticipated completion is 2026, Gaudí’s centenary.

Sagrada Familia basilica seen on the distant horizon from a bus window, I thought were ruins! Gaudí, whose work contains no straight lines, is also memorable for saying, “Originality consists of returning to the origin,” and “Everything comes from the great book of nature.”

The Nazis considered Art Nouveau to be “reactionary” and ageing Mucha was among the first to be arrested by the Gestapo when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia; he died in Prague a short time thereafter. The world was changing rapidly, and the style was soon considered dated, as were many of the early modern art movements such as Cubism, Surrealism, Art Deco, etc. (see “Art Deco: only a sideshow”) but it still enjoys great popularity today, especially since the ’60s (psychedelic art to be the subject of another post).

~ Robert Grey

postscript: power to the poster

Speaking of which, the poster below (not the Haight-Ashbury homage to Mucha to the right), though not of the Art Nouveau school, started it all for me. The keys seem like a symbol of the future now. The visual dissonance created by complementary neon inks of equal tone intrigued my young eyes. But it was the extremely low line-screen of the halftone dots, probably because the photo was sourced from an old newspaper image and enlarged greatly, that made me want to understand how it was created. I still have it and apparently it’s worth something nowadays, as an antique!