Sarah Bernhardt and Alphonse Mucha: Friends and Fellow Travellers – Victoria and Albert Museum

Art Nouveau posters in the V&A
Art Nouveau posters in the V&A

I had lots of Art Nouveau posters on my wall in my student days, and my love of this art form has persisted for several years. Since childhood, even, as my parents had a mirror featuring the Alphonse Mucha design La Dame aux Camélias on their wall. Mucha is one of the most significant proponents of this art form, so I was interested to go along to this day-long event at the V&A discussing the relationship between Mucha and the actress Sarah Bernhardt.


‘I predict fame for you’: meetings and inventions – Dr Justine Hopkins

The first talk, delivered by Dr Justine Hopkins,  explored the relationship between these two figures. Sarah Bernhardt was born Rosina Bernard, but took the name Sarah to celebrate her Jewish heritage and added letters to her surname. She was brought up in a convent, but pursued an acting career.

In the mid-1870s Bernhardt was told that she had been overdoing it and must not act for six months. With time on her hands, she decided to take up art, creating sculptures including ‘After the Tempest’ (1876), ‘The Fool & Death’ (1877) and ‘Fantastic Inkwell’, a self portrait as a sphinx (1880). She also wrote at least one novel, and penned an account of a trip over Paris in a balloon.

Mucha, who was sixteen years younger than Bernhardt, grew up in a tiny village in what is now the Czech Republic. He had a choir scholarship, so spent much time in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, Brno, built in 1738-48. Determined to become an artist, when he was turned away by art school in Prague he moved to Vienna and worked as a theatre designer. He began to paint portraits and moved to Paris in 1887, when he was 27.

The pair met when Mucha turned to illustration and designed the poster for Gismonda, in which Bernhardt was starring. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship, in which Mucha designed many more posters for Bernhardt and also designed jewellery for her.

Sarah Bernhardt and Alphonse Mucha were seen as “kindred spirits”: photos and paintings exist of both working in their respective studios. Both understood that art nouveau challenged what fine art could be; both believed that art had the ability and duty to communicate; and both knew what would sell, but raised art above the merely commercial.


Posters for Posterity: Alphonse Mucha and the V&A Collections – Margaret Timmers

Mucha helped to establish the reputation of French poster artists. He initially took up posters for financial reasons, but became glad of this later on as the art form began to be appreciated. He designed for many clients after Sarah Bernhardt, and created several designs for drinks manufacturers.

The Victoria & Albert Museum has been collecting posters since the late nineteenth century, with the collection formed to represent style, method and design. An 1894 exhibition of posters was held at the Royal Aquarium, while the museum received one of the Gismonda posters in March 1895, very soon after publication.

In 1963, a Mucha poster exhibition helped to renew the popularity of the art nouveau style in the public consciousness. The style was huge in the fashion and art of the time and helped to create the pop art style.


Bernhardt in Performance

After a break for lunch, we came back to something very exciting: video and audio clips of Sarah Bernhardt. A 1900 clip of the star as Hamlet, showing the duet with Laertes, was fascinating. Bernhardt was the first major stage actress to appear in a motion picture: in Daniel, in 1921, when she was nearly eighty.


‘My two hands in yours my dear friend’: continuations and developments – Dr Justine Hopkins

The second talk by Dr Justine Hopkins focused on the later years of Bernhardt and Mucha. Bernhardt visited America in 1880 and made several visits in later years, including several “farewell tours” of America. Mucha also became involved with the US: in the New York Daily News in 1904 he was described as “the greatest decorative artist alive in the world”. He produced a poster for the St Louis World’s Fair that same year. A good teacher, he wanted to encourage US students to find their own American art.

Closer to home, he became more involved in patriotic projects from 1910, and wanted to produce an epic relating to the Moravian people. He produced a poster in 1912 for a gymnastics festival which was really a political rally where the people plotted revolution. He also produced a poster for the Lottery of National Unity, which donated fees to teach children Czech, as well as a bank note in 1923. From 1912 onwards he mostly worked on his ‘Slav Epic’.

Sarah Bernhardt died in March 1923. Alphonse Mucha died in 1939, 16 years later: called in by the Gestapo in Prague, he was released after two days but caught pneumonia.

A close up of La Dame aux Camélias at the V&A
A close up of La Dame aux Camélias at the V&A

I thoroughly enjoyed my day at the V&A, and I learned a great deal.

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