It was just before Christmas in 1894 when the production of Gizmonda, starring the most revered actress in Paris, Sarah Bernhardt, needed a poster. As the story goes, no one was around to draw it. So a little known artist, Alphonse Mucha (the ‘ch’ is pronounced like ‘Bach’) rose to the challenge. By channeling traditional Slavic popular art, he played a large part in creating the image of the ‘nouvelle’ woman.
It didn’t fail to impress the huge star’s ego when the posters were printed so large (2 meters tall) that pedestrians stood eye-to-eye with them. They became a part of the street scene. And with this campaign, the Art Nouveau movement was born. It would soon dominate the everyday lives of westerners as the flowing interlocking patterns would soon cover nearly every practical space and everyday object around. And you can see the allure.
Society was moving quickly. There were airplanes overhead; cameras recording everything; the Eiffel tower brought a festival of lights to Paris and forms blended together in dizzying, psychedelic speed. It is no wonder that Mucha’s designs were an instant hit. The hair is a sexy beast in itself. The neoclassical dresses of the slender, young, erect figures, seemed just about to fall away. His works were often peeled off walls and collected by fans. It wasn’t long before his fame eclipsed that of Toulouse-Latrec, whose Moulin-Rouge posters seemed amateur and slapstick next to Mucha’s delicate tapestries of fluid, pastel forms. Men didn’t fashionably wear long hair then, so the roles were clear.
This was the idealized western woman. She’s sexy, but not vulgar.
He’s the man in the background. Supporter, or sometimes, voyeur.
The Parisian, and soon American public, loved this “macaroni hair”. His style began making its way into advertising and this overnight success got him into a new studio to experiment with the emerging art of photography. He produced a book called ‘Documents Decoratifs’, a bible for Art Nouveau, which spread his style across the world.
It is clear to see how a humble artist from Moravia (modern day Brno, Czech Republic) was able to conceive of the earliest sex symbols of the 20th century. Even though most people have never heard of him, we have all likely seen one of his images. His influence has resonated throughout the century, reemerging in the late 60’s as the major influence of Bob Masse’s psychedelic rock posters and at home in tattoo studios for years to come.