While a choirboy at the Cathedral of St. Peter & Paul in Brno, the capital of Moravia, Alphonse Mucha had a divine revelation about the nature of the Baroque aesthetic. It took him to Vienna, Munich, and finally to Paris, where the 1900 Universal Exhibition brought him international renown. The spiritual and the commercial appear perfectly wedded in his work, but he was conflicted about this his entire life.
“For many years, [this design] was known as “Reverie,” the name given to the decorative panel widely sold by ‘La Plume’ without lettering… However, close research appears to establish that the original use of the design was an in-house poster for the printer to usher in the new year of 1898” (Rennert/Weill, p. 160). And though sifting out the commercial life of any design is all well and good, these details become insignificant in the face of the absolute beauty of what is clearly one of Mucha’s loveliest and most effective designs.
This is Mucha’s single most famous work. It seems impossible that such flamboyant effort would be devoted to selling cigarette papers. But: the exotic tendrils of her hair conjure up the fractal whorls of smoke from an idle cigarette. The image is breathtaking; the beauty intoxicating. Photographs are seldom able to capture the metallic gold paint used for the hair, which gleams and radiates in the light, delivering an experience not unlike a religious icon.
In 1921, a retrospective of Mucha’s work, featuring the first five canvases of the Slav Epic, was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, following a very successful showing in Chicago. This exquisite poster for the exhibition, in red, green and black inks, features a girl as symbol of the Slavic myth, holding a circle of thorns and stars signifying the past and future of the Slav people.
The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Mucha. Sarah Bernhardt. Hamlet. What more needs to be said? Bernhardt gazes out hauntingly, as the Prince of Denmark; behind her, the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father; below her feet, the drowned Ophelia. “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties…” After performing in Britain, the Birmingham Gazette wrote, “[Bernhardt’s] Hamlet is a man in constant frenzy, possessed with the one thought of avenging his father’s death. He is not mad, but maddened.” The rest is silence. This is a two-sheet poster.