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Gismonda. Sarah Bernhardt. Renaissance Theater
© BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / BnF image
Publication date: May 2006
Mucha enters the scene
When Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) arrived in Paris, he was twenty-seven years old. The actress wants a poster for her new play, Gismonda. She notably distinguished herself in Phaedra, Hernani, but it's mostly in Ruy Blas that she knows a huge triumph. The one nicknamed the "Divine", the "golden voice", successively attended the Conservatory, the Comédie-Française and the Odeon before traveling the world and enjoying international fame. In 1893, she took over the management of the Renaissance Theater where Gismonda, drama by Victorien Sardou (1831-1908), is to be played on January 4, 1895. The originality of her work seduced Sarah Bernhardt to such an extent that she offered her a six-year contract.
At that time, the theater was the favorite pastime of Parisians, and the French scene enjoyed great prestige. In addition, there are also mobile media such as the cab-advertising and the man-sandwich.
The birth of the "Mucha style"
It is understandable that the great Sarah Bernhardt, very concerned with her image and her person, was enthusiastic about Mucha's poster. In the center, the tragedian appears, divine, dressed in the costume of Gismonda. Her pose is taken from the last act of the drama, when she participates, palm in hand, in the Palm Sunday procession. The idealized and magnified woman holds a special place here. The shallow space gives the impression of pushing the female figure towards the viewer. With this composition, Mucha develops a new style of theatrical poster and surprises audiences in several ways.
First of all, its format. Narrow, all in height and allowing to represent the model almost life-size, it innovates in a striking way. The softness of the pastel tones as well as the golds, bronzes and silvers also contrast with the colors usually used by the great poster artists of the time.
Since 1880, poster art has been well established in France with the works of Jules Chéret and Toulouse-Lautrec. These artists used large areas of color, garish and vibrant tones. Mucha's delicacy is intriguing. But the artist also innovates with particularly original graphics. In the final version of the poster, Sarah Bernhardt's heavy and sumptuous garment is adorned with a multitude of golden and colorful patterns, sumptuous jewels that testify, just like the mosaic in the background and the hieratic attitude of the actress, from the artist's Byzantine inspiration. Mucha borrows from Iberian art the motif of the circle that will be found in many of his posters. Attention to detail and extreme refinement, the "Mucha style" is born with this "Gismonda". The words "Théâtre de la Renaissance" appear at the bottom of the final poster, included in the folds and folds of Sarah Bernhardt's dress. Arranged in this way above and below, the informative text fits into the image without weighing it down. From this composition comes all the subtlety of the artist's poster: Mucha whispers the commercial rather than shouting it.
The theatrical poster revolution
Mucha here continues the revolution started by Jules Chéret, the "father of the modern poster". In 1837, the French Engelman patented chromolithography, which made it possible to reproduce color images by successive printing. Jules Chéret applied this technique to the poster in 1869 and created an archetype, the "Chérette", an aerial and sensual young woman who is associated with all his creations. He was the first to take the poster from the stage of description to that of seduction. Therefore, the poster goes far beyond its advertising vocation to become an art in its own right and the preferred mode of expression for artists such as Steinlen, Toulouse-Lautrec or Eugène Grasset.
With "Gismonda", Mucha finds a composition and a style susceptible of variation which he will repeat in his later works. He discovered the power of stylization and the effectiveness of isolated figures. It is no longer just a play that he announces, he depicts a mysterious woman, with an eloquent and solemn gesture, to capture the attention of the passer-by. Mucha will produce six other posters for the Renaissance Theater: The Lady of the Camellias (1896) Lorenzaccio (1896), The Samaritan (1897), Medea (1898), Hamlet (1899), The Tosca (1899). At the same time, he took care of the sets and costumes for Sarah Bernhardt's plays and signed an exclusive contract with the Champagne printer for the production of decorative and advertising posters. This meeting with Sarah Bernhardt opened many doors for her in the world of theater, social circles, and earned the artist international fame. Having then been able to seize his chance, Mucha will thus pass from the modest world of illustrators to that of large poster artists.
- Art Nouveau
- Bernhardt (Sarah)
- French comedy
- Sardou (Victorian)
- Toulouse-Lautrec (Henri de)
Arthur ELLRIDGE, Mucha: the triumph of Modern Style, Paris, Terrail, 1992.Jack RENNERT and Alain WEILL, Alphonse Mucha, all posters and panels, Paris, Éd.Henri Veyrier, 1984. Renate ULMER, Alphonse Mucha, master of Art Nouveau, Cologne, Taschen, 1994.
To cite this article
Isabelle COURTY, "Mucha and the theater"