Alphonse Mucha and the Beauty of Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau was a luxurious style of the decorative arts that swept through Europe at the turn of the century. It lasted from about 1880 to 1914. At the end of the 19th century, designers began turning their back on the influence of the past. They were searching for new sources of imagery, and they turned to nature and to abstraction. They developed a style based on swirling, sinuous forms which were derived from nature but highly stylised. Art Nouveau was based on the conscious exaggeration of nature.
The style is based on flowing, sinuous lines and for this reason it flourished in graphic design and illustration. Alphonse Mucha was a Czech graphic designer who came to Paris. His work typically features beautiful female figures arranged in highly decorative compositions. The hair spirals into Art Nouveau curls and the drapery flows into sinuous lines.
Mucha produced a wealth of commercial art, including labels for Moet et Chandon. These images combine female beauty with an intoxicating array of swirling foliage. The images follow the same format, but within this structure, the lines are typically spirited and free-flowing. Most of Mucha’s work is defiantly asymmetrical, revealing the influence of the Japanese prints that became popular within progressive artistic circles in Britain and Europe.
Mucha designed a series of theatrical posters featuring the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who became famous for a series of performances at the Theatre de la Renaissance. The first advertised her performance as Gismonda. The figure is statuesque, but asymmetrical. Once again, the image becomes an intense decorative scheme, with great emphasis placed on the embroidered pattern of the characters clothing. There is also a playful treatment of visibility and invisibility, in that the star's first name is obscured along with part of the name of the theatre. Bernhardt was so pleased with Mucha's inspired design that she hired him to produce a whole series of posters.
Another is based on Medeé, a Greek tragedy in which a woman discovers that her husband is having an affair, and to punish him kills their children. The character has a fearsome countenance with mad eyes and a dagger dripping blood. The children are sprawled at her feet, but they have been drawn with typical Art Nouveau sensuality, swooning in death. Based on Ancient Greek culture, the image is infused with Greek motifs. The Greek honeysuckle emblem, frequently used in temple architecture, is visible. Mucha uses a mosaic effect, which refers to Greek architecture and interior design. The figure herself is dressed in Classical robes.
This was produced at a time when women’s roles were changing. Combined with Sarah Bernhardt’s performances, these images constructed a female role that was empowered through sexuality and fame. Our cult of celebrity starts here.
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