Monday, February 9, 2009

Gems of the Belle Èpoque

In honor of our new poster exhibition 'Gems of the Belle Èpoque,' I've decided to dedicate this entry to two of our big pieces--La Dame Aux Camille and Lorenzaccio, both by Mucha. 

Now, I normally think of Mucha as a candy-box artist--the kind of guy whose stuff has now wound up on mouse pads and Barnes & Noble calendars worldwide. We've seen his Four Seasons (or Four Flowers...or Times of Day...or, well, the list goes on...) so many times in the living rooms of our boyfriends' grandmothers' that they're synonymous with doilies and stale store-brand baked goods. 

This entry of  his art into the world of middle-class kitsch has almost made us forget that back in the late 1800s/early 1900s, his work was revolutionary. He was Mr. Art Nouveau, the golden child of Czechoslovakia (and, frankly, Europe). 

He was so famous, so popular, that he became the chief poster designer for almost all of Sarah Bernhardt's publicity images. Here we see her, larger than life (no, seriously, these things are nearly 7 feet tall) in two of her great roles. 

The first, La Dame aux Camelias, is arguably Bernhardt's most famous role. It revolves around the tried-and-true plot of a fallen woman rejecting her lover before watching him be outcast by society for associating with her (Verdi's 'La Traviata' was obviously based on this Dumas novel, too). This poster, however, I think is a bit more epic than the famous storyline. Look at those gorgeous metallic stars, the rich folds of her dress, the weight of the ermine stole, the resolved sadness in her face as she leans against the balcony behind her. Really, how much more elegant do you want it to get? And don't forget the fabulous details--the hand in the lower left holding the white camellias with such precious, pulling their roots out of the lower text; and above, in either corner, the hearts of the two doomed lovers pierced with thorns. 

Showing off just as much detail is Mucha's poster for Lorenzaccio,  a play by Musset revolving around the life of the famous Lorenzo de Medici. A complex psychological play, Lorenzo plans to transform society for the better by murdering the corrupt Duke of Florence. However, in order to get close enough to the Duke to assassinate him, he must embrace a similar lifestyle, ultimately resulting in his own corruption. So, basically, a play with all the juicy parts of Hamlet and the big works of Dostoevsky--good times. Now, I'm not sure when a dragon comes into the plot, or what the little Medusa-esque woman sheathing the dagger with her torso in the lowermost panel is supposed to represent, but I think it's a sensational work, complete with over four types of paisley!  

So, those of you out there who thinks Mucha is a bit passé, think again! This man rocks the proverbial socks of the large-scale poster, and kicks some serious Art Nouveau ass. 

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