In the spring of 2017, visiting Amsterdam with my cousin, we were able to wander across the street (well, with the help of our hotel’s concierge) to the Van Gogh Museum to spend a morning with Prints in Paris 1900. It was an engrossing exhibition (the tagline read “The fin de siècle comes to life”).
The exhibition was a special effort to demonstrate how the artists of the day “decorated the entire French capital” – as the catalog’s authors described it – with their prints in the period 1890-1905. Popular posters were apparently everywhere in Paris, on the streets and on every open surface where one could be pasted. At the same time, and totally unconnected to that more public poster experience, some artists created limited-edition prints for the elite, to be experienced only privately, in homes, private collections, fashionable theatres, and exclusive galleries.
Something of the “feel” of that 2017 experience came to me recently when Andrew Berner and I visited the Poster House, the new poster museum just opened in Manhattan at the end of June, on 23rd Street just west of Sixth Avenue.
We New Yorkers are so lucky to have this museum, and the two opening exhibitions include “Designing Through the Wall: Cyan in the 1990s,” introducing us to the German graphic-design firm Cyan, founded by Detlef Fiedler and Daniela Haufe in 1992. It’s a small exhibition and – for me – pretty difficult to understand, as I’m not a specialist in this type of graphic art.
On the other hand, (and probably more related to the excitement I found in Amsterdam in 2017 and certainly renewed at the Poster House a couple of weeks ago), I have to admit that it was the work of Alphonse Mucha that appealed to me and led me to the new museum (so far the only poster museum in America). Andrew was already familiar with Mucha (much more than I), for in 2001 he had led a rare books and art tour to Prague. He described a special visit he and his guests experienced:
…After lunch we walked a bit more, to a square facing the entrance to the massive Prague Castle. We paused outside one of the houses on the square, and our guide went to ring the bell. This was once home to one of the most famous Czech artists, Alphonse Mucha, whose amazing Art Nouveau posters would be familiar even to those for whom his name was not. We were expected for a visit with Mucha’s daughter-in-law, Geraldine. Or were we? There was apparently some confusion, and Ms. Mucha seemed unaware that she was about to have 25 people descend on her home. She was most gracious nonetheless, and we were welcomed into the house.
Ms. Mucha explained that while her father-in-law is best known for his posters, he considered himself a painter and not a graphic artist. A number of his paintings were hanging in the house, or standing on easels, and while they are wonderful in their own right, I have to confess that it was the Art Nouveau posters, and the various drawings and studies for the posters, which were of greatest interest to me.
That this was not a museum, but a home, was evident. Every square inch seemed to be occupied by a painting, drawing, photograph, bearskin rug, lace, or assorted objets d’art (a decorating style with which I am only too familiar, living in a tiny Manhattan apartment as I do). Upstairs, in the living room, was a small organ, and nearby, a photograph of someone sitting at the organ. This wasn’t just anyone, though. The person sitting (in short trousers) and playing the organ was Paul Gauguin, who had been a friend of Mucha’s. It was a delight to have an opportunity to see this wonderful home and its contents, and to meet and spend some time with the charming Geraldine Mucha.
It was a personal memory that added greatly to our visit to the Poster House when we went to see New York’s newest special museum. In “Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau/Nouvelle Femme,” Mucha’s story – and in particular his time in Paris – is well told. Some 80 works are displayed, with most on loan from the Richard Fuxa Foundation in Prague (although some are noted as being from the museum’s permanent collection). For many of us devoted to Art Nouveau, we got our start with Mucha’s beautiful women, the stunning (often highly colored) clothing, the flowing “spaghetti” hair, and the delicious floral and botanical decorations. In fact, as I’ve discovered over the years, when I find myself in a conversation about Art Nouveau with someone who is not as interested in the style as I am, it is the work of Mucha and his well-known posters and advertisements that when mentioned provides my listener with a familiar visual image. For many, Mucha’s work almost defines Art Nouveau, and that is evident at the Poster House.
Mucha (1860-1939) had a very successful career, and the exhibition gives full attention to his work, most especially after he moved to Paris at the end of the 1880s to continue his studies and to find work in art. His first jobs were in magazine illustrations, and he was successful enough that he soon had a regular income. He then was able to do book illustrations, and it was in late 1894 that his real break came – an opportunity to work with the famous Sarah Bernhardt. Basically, the story is that the actress needed a new poster for Victorien Sardou’s play Gismonda. The play was already successful, but it was to be extended and Bernhardt wanted a new poster for the added run. As it was holiday time, regular artists at the publishing firm Lemercier were not available. When the great actress called the publisher, Mucha happened to be at the plant correcting proofs and as he had already done some magazine illustrations about Bernhardt in the play, he was asked to design the new poster. It was a sensational success and Bernhardt ordered four thousand more copies of the poster and gave Mucha a six-year contract to produce even more, making him suddenly very famous.
And despite the success, it wasn’t all Bernhardt. Contracts were soon awarded to Mucha for travel posters, champagne, cycles, and sweet wafers, the most famous being Lefèvre-Utile gaufrettes (known – thanks to Mucha – as LULU, or LU biscuits), a crispy wafer to be served with creamy desserts. Another successful client, also among his most well-known work, was Job, a cigarette rolling paper company. And it is not difficult to see why the designs were such a success, for the beautiful women immediately caught the eye of anyone who was looking for feminine charm in illustrated posters, an idea well established throughout “Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau/Nouvelle Femme” at the Poster House.
The opening of the Poster House has been given good coverage in New York in the last few weeks, and for anyone interested in visiting the museum, two articles provide an excellent introduction: In The New York Times for June 20, 2019 there’s Graphic, Grabby and Democratic: Posters Get Their Own Museum / Introducing the First Museum in the United States Devoted to the Art and Global History of the Medium, by Ted Loos. In its July 8 & 15, 2019 issue. The New Yorker has Beauty in the Streets: How Posters Became Art, by Hua Hsu, a fascinating, almost historical story about posters and how they moved from what might be called “incidental” decoration to a more accepted role in art and popular culture and about the Poster House.
Poster House is located at 119 West 23rd Street in Manhattan (posterhouse.org). “Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau/Nouvelle Femme” can be seen until October 6. For New Yorkers and visitors, a visit is highly recommended.