What is success? For artists, the public is really only aware of a very few. The ones that have withstood the test of modern, media time, artists that an average, educated adult could identify. By identifying an artist, I mean not the name that is linked with a single iconic work, but one whose style is unforgettable, really registers. The ones that still sell posters, lunchboxes, and magnets, in every Midwest city bookshop, who are accepted as clearly being artists by people who would never on their own visit an art gallery in their life. Among these few are Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali, M.C. Escher, and of course Alphons Mucha.
The humble artist who was tapped by stage and screen star Sarah Burnhardt to work his designing full time, turned out to be more than a smart promotions move. This Bohemian slumming it in Paris happened to have the most fluid, expressive line around, a quality that was just at that moment in time deeply desired by the elite – and it happened Mucha became one of just a few artists that really transformed all of visual design and the printed layout at the time. It may be better to say that central to this was a totally new exposure to Asian art, and it was Mucha that codified the new design rules into the European style book.
The turn of the century, when 1899 became 1900, was for some a hopeful time, thanks to science people were beginning to think humans really could be wizards. Inventive, not necessarily noble people were getting rich, sometimes with inventions or improved machinery, sometimes through the savage colonization of people with less sophisticated weapons. The bizarre magic of electric lights and the motion pictures were appearing everywhere. For the European elite, the turn of the century was extra charged. Each new country occupied by a European nation meant a boost to the market, so to speak, regardless of the long-term costs to all parties. People were getting very close to making the first successful powered flight in an airplane, 1903, and gliders, balloons, and other contraptions occupied dilettante minds and hovered overhead. In 1905 Einstein wrote a paper on photoelectric effect, one birth of quantum mechanics. Thanks to potatoes and a reprieve from plague, population had exploded, making labor in Europe unbelievably cheap, while dissolving the traditions of apprenticeship. This meant young designers with a fancy hand on the pencils could afford to employ seasoned craftsmen.
For the great majority of the people however, all of these wonders were carnival instances between lives of drudgery, but in this day, as though remembering through time and space, Mucha is best known as a poster artist, the artist who filled Paris with the most beautiful, free art posters you could imagine, and is still a household name.
Coming into his own at just this time was Mucha, who with little access to the world of owning fine things, had set about creating them for himself and been granted the situation to run with it. He must have known that the 1900 Universal Exhibition was going to be a tremendous competition. It was an intense concentration of high skill and inspiration on display in the new style, and it remains legendary for this reason. Presenters had been working as long as ten years to prepare for it. It showed what people are capable of, a side that is rarely seen.
It has been argued that it was so exceptional because the optimism brought by science and technology introduced a relief from the pessimism and lack of choice that followed a long reign of apocalyptic beliefs. Or that it was a relief for the collective mind to see as new the art of other cultures, which helped break the aesthetic and symbolistic controls of their environment, that had been hardening in place for nearly two thousand years. Though technology’s romantic side quickly gave way to an orgy of weaponization and destruction, Art Nouveau could be argued to be the aesthetic of humanism.
Reading the materials of the time, however, he was painted as quite the opposite. In the New Century in 1904 he was described as a new version of the same old mysticism, the stuff of that his art rejects science and analysis in favor of natural beauty. He is described along with a roster of artists as among those trying to resist modernity, and vestiges of this view remain. One gets the sense in the article that this distaste for Nouveau was a casualty of the fever for hunting and eliminating old viewpoints, a foretaste of the passionate desire and then shame of fascism that would from these beginning claim all its acts to be in the name of science, modernity and progress.
As the fair approached, the style in his posters was already being imitated across the city and beyond. Even as wallpaper and textiles, these flames from a spark that appears to have come from Mucha’s flyer doodles. Things had fully come to a boil, all in the new style that Mucha had been promoting. And the greatest artisans there weren’t just introducing their own product lines, they could also be found competing to win the prize for the best booth design. At the same time he was designing a dozen lines, from posters to objects, Mucha managed to create an exquisite gilded metal bust for a perfumery booth, for the same fair he revealed his elaborate jewelry designs.
We all know that a certain Rene Lalique came out of that fair with his name synonymous to the 1900 style. And this must have been a difficult outcome for Mucha, after he invested considerable time into a joint venture with another master jeweller of Paris, Georges Fouquet, he might even have been sure of himself. Perhaps it was not a problem at all, they sold much jewelry besides. I think the key difference is visible in the work, that Lalique is slightly better suited to the jewelry medium. Familiar with the materials, a family background in glass, he could design with the specific capacities of the materials directly in mind. Young Mucha’s designs instead show a kind of monotony of scale, and when he set down to invent jewels, they were like his posters, only miniaturized. The complex drawings are just a little too fine for the way light plays on a small object, just a little too delicate to be held firmly in the human hand, and greatly increased the time in production of each piece. He was too much of an illustrator to be a perfect craftsman.
What both Lalique and Mucha had in common, that Fouquet and other contemporaries seem to have had less of, was a childlike permission to draw from their imaginations. Both Lalique and Mucha continued uninterrupted throughout their careers to draw the snakes, skulls, goblins, naked girls and magical themes that motivated them since boyhood. Their adolescent imaginings were perfectly time with the young art movement, leaving them no need to change their repertoire, unconditioned to deliver the epics and myths required for institutional careering.
This made them odd birds for making jewelry, one of the more engineering oriented and metallurgical arts, but this only compounded the refreshing character of them. It was a moment when design became more valuable than production or materials, and people in the right position for it could pick almost any field to work over and gain quick notice with little competition. Many of Fouquet’s designs still held an adherence to the sharp corners of Victorian design, almost half way into the new style; he was either an apologist or moved with the times begrudgingly. Fortunately, in executing Mucha’s designs, he was also rigidly dutiful, or was not allowed to stray by the artist. The artist would in turn make his shop into perhaps the most elaborate, fantastical jewelry shop of all time.
Lalique would eventually turn to revising the glassworks of his own background, almost every rare car’s radiator would be eventually capped by one of his fabulous cast glass plugs, flowers draped from his affordable line of vases. Mucha left jeweling behind, but nevertheless became so respected he would redesign the money of his native Czechoslovakia, making arguably the most beautiful paper money ever produced. There, decades later, he demonstrated with engraving a way that his finer lines could be put to their best use.
In a way, like all great changes in art movements, Nouveau was a premonition of today’s consumer culture, driven by the tastes and pocketbooks of elite identities. But it was more than that, it had a rebellious, minor key tone to it that retains an almost populist respect, as though it were an artform that could not be criticized as merely excessive. And it is uniquely identifiable, the curious arrival of a very new aesthetic, just at the dawn of mass production, that would help to unravel aesthetic as a cultural norm. It suggests what modernity is capable of, and is at the same time a reminder of how easily beauty can be set aside and overpowered, perhaps this is why it remains protected by the public at large.
Anyone with sense would be happy to say they took second place to Lalique for the gran prix. But the astounding display of skill that year didn’t last for very long, war and its draining of the cultural market would see the taste for an optimistic and energized aesthetic vanish just as quickly as it arrived, and like so many people at the time, Mucha retired to the contained virtual reality of nostalgia for a mythic past.