Over one hundred years since it first appeared, Art Nouveau remains one of art’s most popular movements. During the short period covering the last decade of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th, artists from all Europe seemed to have independently created work that all fits neatly into the same pigeonhole – it shared a fascination with nature, colour and elongated, sinuous lines. Klimt in Austria, Gaudi in Barcelona and Rennie-Mackintosh in Scotland are the rock stars but there were many more, working in every discipline from glass work to architecture. There is little to suggest they knew each other’s work in the beginning, except perhaps that they might all have seen Alphonse Mucha’s work.
Mucha was a Czech artist, living in Paris, who happened one day to meet megastar actress Sarah Bernhardt. She commissioned him to do a poster for her Theatre de la Renaissance, and his distinctive work was so popular the public tore down the posters to put on their own walls. His subsequent commercial art was so ubiquitous that it would have been difficult for any visitor to France to avoid. As this excellent exhibition makes clear, Mucha’s work has stood the test of time. The Kelvingrove has underlined his enduring influence by including a handful of works from their own collection: Lautrec, Burne-Jones, Rennie Mackintosh, Grateful Dead albums and Marvel comics all justify their space here.
His stylistic trademarks continue to be copied: the voluptuous women; the circular ‘halo’ framing the upper body; the mosaic-like repetition of simple motifs; bright jewel colours; full-length figures framed in long thin vertical strips. Forced to work to the constraints of advertising spaces he messed with the internal composition, creating a customised grid of shapes that he would connect with curlicues of hair or flora. He was also the first designer to incorporate a unified approach to fonts. While competing adverts of the day seemed to make a point of using as many typefaces as possible Mucha chose just one for each ad – his own sinuously hand-drawn fonts are beautiful in their own right. For that reason alone I think he can also claim the title of father of modern graphic design.
It would seem he was also the first example of artist-as-a-businessman: Mucha was never short of commercial commissions, designing calendars, packaging and posters to sell perfume, bicycles, biscuits and even cigarette papers. His work was so well-known that, between these lucrative commercial projects he produced sets of unbranded prints specifically to sell as affordable artwork for the working classes. Themes such as ‘the four seasons’, or ‘the fine arts’ sold well. As his stock rose he produced thick books of design ideas, for use by interior designers, in an attempt to create a unified language of design. Mucha managed to do this and retain his reputation as a serious artist, as Warhol, Koons and Hirst would do later. After twenty years as a self-imposed exile Mucha lived his final years in his native Czechoslovakia, working on the twenty monumental canvasses of his Slav Epic. These are worthy but, when compared to his earlier work, rather dull.
The Kelvingrove has managed to assemble and impressive range of Mucha’s art, and while not much of it is the original artwork, it doesn’t feel like cheating; after all, these works were designed to be mass-produced. It’s remarkable that these faded posters, designed to be pasted onto walls and torn off after a few weeks, are now a century old but still retain their weird sexy charisma. They deserve to be seen up close.
Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty runs from 8th Oct until 18th February 2017 at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum