Where Mucha’s Magic Began: The Gismonda-poster

At thirty-four, and almost half of his life, Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) seemed to be kind of an unfortunate lad. Imagine yourself, for instance, going to Vienna because you finally found a job, and, shortly after you arrive, your workplace burns down! Mucha made it to Paris though, and one fine Christmas day in 1894, a woman stepped into his life and changed everything. Doesn’t that give hope? Okay, he did not quite win the heart of that woman – but that would have been expecting too much given who she was: Sarah “G.O.A.T.” Bernhardt. (You don’t know Sarah Bernhardt? Click me, I’m concise information and a photo!) She needed a new advertisement poster for her latest play, Gismonda, and she needed it quickly. Mucha, not really having any experience in designing posters but being the only designer around on Christmas, seemed to be the perfect choice, and he produced this:

Poster for 'Gismonda', 1894. Colour lithograph, 216 x 74.2 cm. Mucha Foundation, Prague.
Poster for ‘Gismonda’, 1894. Colour lithograph, 216 x 74.2 cm. Mucha Foundation, Prague.

Sarah Bernhardt fell in love immediately. Not with the artist (was it due to his lifeofbrianesque appearance?) but with their newly born child: the “Mucha Style”. And on New Year’s Day, Paris followed. Sarah Bernhardt signed him on the spot, and Mucha became the greatest artist the Czech Republic has ever seen. But what made his Gismonda-poster an artistic revolution?

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Wasn’t there another great Parisian poster artist of the late 19th century? Right, Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)! His poster style, highly en vogue until then, displayed few but well-defined lines and highly contrasted colours. Mucha’s Gismonda-poster did quite the opposite with its flowing, arabesque curves and pastel shades. If it grabbed the attention of the passers-by, firstly it did so thanks to its mere dimensions: 216 x 74.2 cm – it was an almost life-sized Sarah Bernhardt people saw fiddling around with a palm branch on the roaring walls of Paris! (We will ingeniously render this by giving you the full size experience below.)

 

Poster for 'Gismonda', 1894. Colour lithograph, 216 x 74.2 cm. Mucha Foundation, Prague.
A lot of scrolling, huh?

Secondly, and most importantly, nobody has ever outperformed Mucha when it comes to depicting women. His thinking was quite simple: A poster wants to attract people’s attention. How do you attract people’s attention? Well, show them something attractive! Mucha excelled in bringing out the best in his female models – and he knew where the men were to be placed:

At Sarah Bernhardt's feet!
At Sarah Bernhardt’s feet!

Sarah Bernhardt for instance was not a but the definite drama queen. Unlike so many of his models, Mucha did not try to bring out her seductive side (the hair, with Mucha, always check the hair first!), but rather the almost arrogant dignity, the narcissism, the “Ain’t none o’ y’all better, and that’s exactly why you want to watch me play,” of a real starlet. Do we know what the play is about? Who cares! Here’s my money; where do I get the ticket?

With the Gismonda-poster, Mucha did his magic for the very first time. More was to follow. Enough to fill a whole book. Two, actually. Check them out:

MS Mucha

BO Mucha

By Arik Jahn

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