I have, in previous articles, despaired of pretentious architecture and art. The Three Disgraces (26) and Emperor’s New Paintings (30) serve as examples. To counter any accusations of blanket snobbish negativity, though, I have made known some of my own tastes and preferences in Pictures Of This And That (16), The Ubiquitous Oh-Jive (48) and Save Empress Place (104). Much of the writing has been contentious, deliberately so, but today’s piece surely leaves little scope for doubting artistic genius.
In the Montmartre district of Paris, somewhere between the travertine Sacré-Cœur and sex-saturated Pigalle – I am familiar with both – lies a little architectural gem (Figure 113.1). Thousands of Parisians pass beneath it every day, but I bet few have time to stop and dwell on its aesthetic beauty. Above the édicule (entrance) to Abbesses station, the deepest in the Paris Métro, lies an iridescent glass canopy with ‘whiplash’ iron curves and the word ‘METROPOLITAIN’, designed by French architect Hector Guimard (1867-1942).
Figure 113.1: The art nouveau designs of Métro station entrances are strongly influenced by the forms of plants. 86 of the original 141 entrances still embellish the streets of Paris.
Copyright © 2017 The Art Story Foundation
It is universally recognizable. Guimard’s famous design epitomizes perfectly both the city of Paris and the Art Nouveau movement. Inspirational to this total art style was Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) (Figure 113.2), a Czech-born painter and decorative artist whose works were largely forgotten after his death. I found time, just last weekend, to visit a touring exhibition of Mucha’s works – some world-famous, others undeservedly obscure – and was entranced by the painstaking attention to tiny detail evident in almost everything he created.
Figure 113.2: Neither ‘mucker’ nor ‘moocher’ – the artist in profile
Mucha arrived in Paris at the age of twenty-seven. He was the archetypal dirt-poor, fledgling artist, combining study with whatever bits of commercial work he could secure. His life-changing break followed a visit to a print shop, where he applied to create a poster advertisement for the play Gismonda (Figure 113.3), featuring the renowned stage actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). The quality and public appreciation of the poster landed Mucha a six-year contract to produce further posters, all featuring Bernhardt, in his characteristic ‘new art’ style.
Figure 113.3: A four-act Greek melodrama, written by French dramatist Victorien Sardou (1831-1908), Gismonda premiered in 1894 at the Théâtre de la Renaissance, Paris.
Copyright © 2017 Mucha Trust
Many were on display in the gallery. The low-level lighting was especially dim. This was not a cost-cutting exercise, but rather a consequence of Mucha’s earliest works having been created on low-quality paper which was not designed to last. Perhaps Mucha never originally expected that they would outlive him.
Mucha’s artistic style was daringly original. There were several of his Bernhardt posters included in the exhibition. Each measured approximately two metres in height by one metre in width. This elongated format was most unusual at the time and reflected Mucha’s courage in rejecting existing norms. Furthermore, he had the confidence to break an unwritten rule of poster design. To attract public attention, poster makers routinely used bold colours. Mucha, on the other hand, confined himself to pale pastels, which were harmonious and free from obvious contrasts.
Most of the displayed works featured elegant ladies in long, flowing garments. Each picture was filled with sweeping curves, masses of flowers – usually lilies – and tiny six-pointed stars. The fonts Mucha used were equally lacking in angularity and complemented well the gracile female form. He emphasized feminine beauty with every brush stroke.
Mucha’s general philosophy was admirable. He viewed his art as a device to elevate the morale of ordinary people and, if possible, improve their quality of life. He enjoyed seeing his posters on display on Parisian streets, which he described as art exhibitions for all. After his death in 1939, following interrogation by the Gestapo, his work was considered outdated. It was rediscovered in 1963, owing partly to an exhibition at London’s V & A Museum, and enjoyed an unexpected revival, inspiring 1960s counterculture art, pop psychedelia and the 1967 ‘summer of love’.
This 21st-century celebration of Mucha’s masterpieces was long overdue (Figure 113.4).
Figure 113.4: Information regarding present and future exhibitions can be found at: http://www.muchafoundation.org/
Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery
Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery