Psychedelic Posters: When Art Nouveau Meets Counterculture

Liz Catalano
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Amid the turbulence of the 1960s, a group of San Francisco designers found inspiration in decades-old Art Nouveau prints. Their creations joined turn-of-the-century aesthetics with the intensity of counterculture. This August, Swann Auction Galleries and Turner Auctions + Appraisals will present sales of both Art Nouveau and psychedelic posters. Auction Daily investigates the unlikely links between these styles before the auctions begin.

Left: Alphonse Mucha, Au Quartier Latin magazine cover, 1898. Right: poster from various artists with Artists Rights Today, 1986-1987. Images from Swann Auction Galleries.
Left: Alphonse Mucha, Au Quartier Latin magazine cover, 1898. Right: poster from various artists with Artists Rights Today, 1986-1987. Images from Swann Auction Galleries.

Aesthetics of Art Nouveau

It was the end of the 19th century, and according to the artists, cities were ugly. Rapid industrialization and the spread of new technology shifted interior design and architecture away from beauty. Designers in the late 1800s pushed back against this trend. In a movement now known by its French name, ‘Art Nouveau,’ these artists aimed to prove that functionality did not require the sacrifice of beauty.

Art Nouveau design relied upon soft colors, swirling lines, flower motifs, and the objectification of women’s bodies. Curvilinear forms and escapist imagery often appeared in Art Nouveau designs. Alphonse Mucha was the movement’s icon. The flowing fabrics, fluttering hair, and natural elements of Mucha’s posters had an enduring influence even after the artist abandoned the style. Swann Auction Galleries will present several Mucha posters in its upcoming sale, as well as works from other Art Nouveau designers. An advertisement for American Crescent Cycles, designed by Frederick Winthrop Ramsdell, is notable (lot #193; estimate: USD 3,000 – $4,000).

Frederick Winthrop Ramsdell poster for American Crescent Cycles, 1899. Image from Swann Auction Galleries.
Frederick Winthrop Ramsdell poster for American Crescent Cycles, 1899. Image from Swann Auction Galleries.

Development of Poster Design in the 20th Century 

Art Nouveau fell as quickly as it rose. Artists tired of its repetitive imagery and stagnant color palette. With Mucha’s departure for political painting, the style fizzled out of popularity. Early Modernism rushed into the void Art Nouveau left behind, only to be replaced by propaganda posters during World War I. Art Deco and consumer-based Modernism followed. 

The turbulent 1960s marked a change. The tide of public opinion turned against the Vietnam War and prompted significant social unrest in the United States. Increased use of psychedelic drugs, changing perceptions of sexuality, and pop rock music contributed to the growing discontent. Art reflected these changes, most visibly in the psychedelic posters that plastered the streets of San Francisco.

C. Braga poster for a Lightning Hopkins concert, 1967. Image from Turner Auctions + Appraisals.
C. Braga poster for a Lightning Hopkins concert, 1967. Image from Turner Auctions + Appraisals.

Psychedelic Posters: ‘Art Nouveau on Acid’

San Francisco was the epicenter of American counterculture in the 1960s. New bands often commissioned local poster artists to attract youthful crowds. In July of 1966, a young designer named Wes Wilson made an electric green and orange concert poster to promote an upcoming performance from The Association and Quicksilver Messenger Service. The piece displayed the concert information with cramped lettering that resembled flames. It was nearly impossible to read but matched the trippy visions caused by hallucinogenic drugs. 

Wilson’s poster was an immediate hit. Other local artists followed his lead, including Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, and Stanley Mouse. Colorful psychedelic posters flooded the streets to promote up-and-coming bands. Op Art and Surrealism influenced these posters. Mostly, though, they were “Art Nouveau on acid,” according to Vox’s Marie Cascione. 

Some posters lifted exact images from Art Nouveau posters, especially those designed by Alphonse Mucha. Artists used inverted color palettes to draw attention and subvert the softness of traditional Art Nouveau. Turner Auctions + Appraisals will offer examples of these posters, including a 1967 piece by C. Braga for Lightning Hopkins, in its upcoming sale (lot #129; estimate: $150 – $200). 

Despite the ecstasy of 1960s design, the new posters had much in common with their Art Nouveau predecessors. Both styles grew from a dissatisfaction with society and a desire for free, “natural” living. Both recognized the value of cheap, disposable art that existed outside of the corporate world. The viewing public recognized these parallels and even called the psychedelic poster style “Nouveau Frisco” for a time.

David Nelson Band Doobie Decibel System concert poster designed by Lee Conklin, 2014. Image from Turner Auctions + Appraisals.
David Nelson Band Doobie Decibel System concert poster designed by Lee Conklin, 2014. Image from Turner Auctions + Appraisals.

Endurance of Psychedelic Art

Countercultural posters could not avoid the mainstream forever. The style’s original enthusiasts turned away once it grew too popular, and postmodernism eventually took over poster design. However, psychedelic art has not disappeared completely. Contemporary music posters have started calling back to the past. 

Turner Auctions + Appraisals will bring several of these contemporary posters to auction this August. Among them is a 2014 concert poster for the David Nelson Band with drooping letters and a swirl of colors (lot #102; estimate: $50 – $70). A different concert poster from 2003 shows a violet-hued Alanis Morissette against a flowing purple frame (lot #28; estimate: $100 – $200). The poster reflects a new mashup of Art Nouveau and psychedelic art— one that might be ready for another comeback. 

Swann Auction Galleries’ upcoming Vintage Posters sale will begin at 10:30 AM EDT on August 5th, 2021. Find more information and register to bid on LiveAuctioneers. Turner Auctions + Appraisals will offer music memorabilia and psychedelic posters on August 7th, 2021, starting at 1:30 PM EDT. Browse the complete listings on Bidsquare

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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