Alphonse Mucha was a struggling artist whose fortunes were changed by a chance meeting with a French superstar. Now synonymous with Art Nouveau he’s considered a pioneer of brand identity
By Steve Lee
It’s impossible to say whether we would still be talking about Czech artist Alphonse Mucha were it not for his chance meeting with the actor Sarah Bernhardt. Desperately seeking someone to design a last-minute poster for the imminent opening of her play Gismonda, French superstar Bernhardt happened upon Mucha in a Parisian print shop on Boxing Day 1894 and, with the company’s regular artists away on a Christmas break, he was handed the commission. Days later, when Mucha’s design was posted around the city, it caused a sensation.
“The poster was so in demand that the public literally tore it from the advertising hoardings to take home with them,” explains Xanthe Brooke, curator of the forthcoming Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty exhibition at Liverpool’s Walker Gallery. “It instantly propelled Mucha to fame.”
The much lauded actor and Mucha, who had been studying and working in Paris for some time, then began a close working relationship that was to last many years. “He provided her with a distinctive image the public could relate to,” says Brooke. “And her patronage gave his career a huge lift as she was the most celebrated stage personality of the period.”
Mucha’s poster designs soon became emblematic of the Art Nouveau period that flourished a decade either side of the century’s turn. With his tall posters, almost invariably featuring a sensual female figure at their centre rendered in subtle, pastel colours, the work was as distinctive as it was desirable. “He creates lots of curvaceous, whiplash lines in his designs, often from clothing, plants and flowers, and also a halo effect around the women’s faces using their swirling, abundant hair,” says Brooke.
Alongside many such posters – including an original for Bernhardt’s Gismonda – the exhibition will also feature work from Pre-Raphaelite artists who influenced Mucha, drawings, photographs, an incredibly rare relief of Bernhardt’s face fashioned into a light fitting, several commercially-made ceramic pieces based on his originals, short films and even information illustrating a lasting influence on everyone from tattoo artists to contemporary advertisers.
It’s telling that Mucha continues to inspire commercial work because, following initial success with theatrical posters, he became in demand from companies looking to capitalise on his popularity. His designs helped advertise everything from luxury goods such as champagne and perfume to the more prosaic, such as cigarette papers and bicycle tyres. “His work is very beautiful but also very eye-catching and his posters affect people in the street, which is what a company wants from advertising,” Brooke explains. “But this also dovetailed with Mucha’s desire to create art for the people.”
His work stands the test of time, remaining both fresh and eye-catching a century on. “He devised a format and style that is still used in advertising today with things like company logos as part of the patterning and design,” says Brooke.
“You could actually claim Mucha helped create what we now call brand identity, so his legacy looks like it will continue in more ways than one.”