If you’ve wandered through the International Terminal Main Hall Departures Lobby at SFO this month, you may have noticed SFO Museum’s newest exhibit, The Allure of Art Nouveau: 1890–1914. It focuses on a movement that inspired incredible creativity in everything from jewelry to architecture, and was inspired by nature at a time when the harsh, dehumanizing aspects of the Industrial Revolution were freaking people out.
In contrast, Art Nouveau celebrated organic life: curling tendrils of vegetation, vivid colors, and lots and lots of curvaceous women. Art Nouveau slid out of fashion by World War I, but echoes of its influence have burbled up through the decades — most notably during the heyday of rock concert posters and handbills in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Some of those artists are alive and well, and still living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Norman Orr, who did about a dozen posters for Bill Graham from 1970 to ’71, says he was influenced by was the Moravian artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939). “It was the sensuality of the graceful, flowing lines of the Mucha work, and the way that the female form was combined with the sensuality of the line work that I found to be most appealing.”
“In my poster for the Poco concert,” Orr says, “I employ a flowing quality to many of the design elements. The snake element, and stylized foliage are reflections of the admiration that I had for the Art Nouveau style.” Orr, now based in Mountain View, still works in a medium – wood – those artists would appreciate.
Jim Phillips of Santa Cruz goes even further.
“Art Nouveau was a blossom on a vine that has crept and spread through every civilization since the first primitive man carved a snake coiled around his knife handle. God commanded Moses to adorn the ark with gold cherubim spreading their wings, and Egyptian art such as the King Tut sarcophagus were milestones in the importance of decoration. Kings demanded their crowns and chariots be sculpted with endless ornamental and figurative designs, countless artists and craftsmen worked tirelessly for thousands of years on every conceivable surface to the point where it seems that most every figure and floral pattern possible had been done. Art Nouveau seems to be an organic ejaculation of all that was art until then.”
Those sensuously drawn women, along with the bulbous letters and flat space inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, would come to define what we think of when we think of San Francisco Bay Area’s Psychedelic rock scene of the late ’60s. Which is not to say LSD and marijuana had nothing to do with the art, but again, look at those images up top. Let’s just say imitation is often considered the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also true many rock era artists were pulling inspiration from pop art and the advertising of the day.
The aesthetic has lingered through the decades. Phillips sees the influence in his 1996 handbill for George Clinton at Maritime Hall, “with the wistful soul-piercing look of a colorfully lit and adorned woman, with the lettering for Clinton made from feathers.” He adds: “I do not consider that my posters were done in an Art Nouveau style per se, but for me the movement was an essential element that I did attempt a nod towards.”
The SFO Museum recently featured the Bay Area’s most psychedelic chapter in art history with an exhibit called When Art Rocked: San Francisco Music Posters 1966–1971. The guest curator was Ben Marks of the Rock Poster Society, (whose byline you will recognize from many articles written for KQED).
“You can draw a straight line between Art Nouveau and psychedelic rock posters,” Martin Hohn, president of the Rock Poster Society, says. “Mucha, Jules Chéret, Aubrey Beardsley. Borrow from everything. The world is your palette. It was all meant to be populist art. It was always meant to be disposable.” He later adds: “What the artists were saying graphically was the same thing the rock bands were saying musically.”
“The sheer number of concerts held during those years created an enormous demand for eye-catching graphic art,” Marks wrote for Boing Boing when the exhibit was up. Back then, the posters and handbills were an easy way for artists to make a little bit of money off of concert promoters like Bill Graham. Today, the originals can fetch thousands of dollars from collectors. It’s not difficult to see why.