A WET September weekend Monday wandering around Glasgow's much-loved Kelvingrove Art Gallery is always a comforting affair. There's that familiar Kelvingrove smell, a mix of wet coats, stuffed animals and museumness.

Even better for me and my 12-year-old daughter, we have two senior curators by our side telling us the stories behind key artworks from Glasgow Museums collection which are about to be moved to take centre-stage in a major new exhibition called Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty.

At the time of our visit, this touring exhibition, which opens at Kelvingrove a week today, had yet to be assembled. If its two previous outings (at Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth and Sainsbury Centre in Norwich), are anything to go by, the Kelvingrove version has the makings of blockbuster.

Loading article content

Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) is one of these artists whose work you might recognise but unless you're steeped in the annals of art history, you may not necessarily know why.

Widely viewed as the Father of Art Nouveau, the Czech painter and illustrator first attracted attention when his elongated and beautifully detailed posters of actress superstar Sarah Bernhardt started appearing all around Paris in early 1895. This single poster proclaimed the advent of a style which became known as Le Style Mucha. It placed Alphonse Mucha right at the heart of the burgeoning French Art Nouveau scene.

For the next 40 years, Mucha worked tirelessly at his art. But by the time of his death in 1939, his sensually decorative illustrations from this period were considered outmoded.

Fashion is a fickle mistress though and just thirty years after his death, Mucha was adopted as a poster boy for psychedelia. I'm told no self-respecting teenage bedroom or student flat was complete without a Mucha or an Aubrey Beardsley poster during these heady days when the idea of beauty was being reclaimed as a universal truth.

This touring exhibition is being staged in collaboration with The Mucha Foundation, set up by the Czech artist's family in 1992.

Focusing mainly on work from Mucha's Paris period, it tells the story of how key players in the international Art Nouveau movement bounced off each other's ideas and idiosyncrasies. It examines how Mucha's philosophy is reflected on the development of his work beyond the fin de siècle period with which he is generally associated. Also included are several examples of of works produced after his return to the Czech lands in 1910 when his art started to focus on his Slavic nationalism.

Pippa Stephenson, Curator of European Art with Glasgow Museums, explains:

"We have 13 works from Glasgow Museums' collection which will be part of this exhibition.

"The objects from Glasgow Museums' collection have been carefully selected to accompany the artworks by Mucha. We have paintings and posters by artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Duncan, as well as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his Glasgow Style contemporaries. They all serves to highlight the dynamic interchange of artistic ideas between Scotland, the rest of the UK, and continental Europe."

Old friends heading for the Mucha exhibition include; The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890) by Glasgow Boys George Henry and E.A. Hornel, John Duncan's The Coming of Bride (1916-1917) and Regina Cordium – Alice Wilding (1866) by Rossetti.

Rossetti was an influential figure in the Art Nouveau movement, explains Dr Joanna Meacock, Curator of British Art with Glasgow Museums as we stand before Rossetti's glowingly beautiful Regina painting.

"By the time of Rossetti's death in 1882, his work was not widely knows because he was afraid of criticism and as a result didn't show his work," she says. "He had patrons who knew about his work and bought it but it wasn't shown in exhibitions. His paintings have all the elements which were to find their way into work by Mucha as well as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the other leading exponents of the Glasgow Style.

"The iconography is similar. There's the gold leaf background, the heavy symbolism, the use of flowers and woman as the epitome of beauty in the form of a single female figure. It's all about allusions. Not depiction. And it's full of references to literature. You can see why the Symbolists on the continent liked his work. The sensual and the decorative seduced the eye completely."

It was this single female figure, also illustrated in the exhibition by Danae or The Tower of Brass (1887-8) by Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, which Mucha would go on to weave into so many of his illustrative works.

Just six years later, in 1894, Mucha's famous Gismonda poster, depicting Sarah Bernhardt as an exotic Byzantine noblewomen in a sumptuous golden patterned gown, appeared on the streets of Paris.

As he wrote later in his life, for Mucha, women were "creative forces to bring forth new beings". As he forged his own style, it was The Devine Sarah – superstar Parisian actress, and director – who acted as a catalyst.

When Mucha met Bernhardt at the end of 1894, he was a young semi-successful book designer. She was 50 years old and had only just taken on the lease of the Theatre de la Renaissance on Paris' boulevard Saint-Martin. Gismonda was the first of Victorien Sardou's plays in which Bernhardt produced, directed and starred.

Her invitation to design a poster for Gismonda changed the course of Mucha's life. The new art form of the poster, as typified by Toulouse Lautrec's famous posters of the Moulin Rouge, had taken Paris' streets by storm but before Mucha's fateful meeting with Bernhardt, he had not been able to get in on the action.

As Tomako Sato states in the book which accompanies In Quest of Beauty, Bernhardt fell in love instantly with Mucha's depiction of her as Gismonda.

"Despite Mucha's inexperience in the genre, Bernhardt was struck by the novelty of Mucha's design, which featured a life-size figure in an unusually tall format rendered by elegantly flowing outlines and delicate flowing colours," he writes.

The poster was revealed on the streets of Paris on New year's Day 1895 and such was the reaction to it, Bernhardt offered Mucha a six-year contract as chief designer and artistic director of the theatre.

His fame as a designer spread and soon everyone wanted a piece of Mucha gold-dust. Instantly recognisable, alluring and accessible Le Style Mucha became the backdrop to fin-de-siecle Paris.

The Mucha exhibition also invites visitors to consider links between Glasgow Art Nouveau – or Glasgow Style as it was known – and the Continental version.

At the heart of Glasgow Style was a group of artists known as The Four; Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his future wife Margaret Macdonald, her younger sister Frances Macdonald and her future husband James Herbert McNair.

Drawing on ideas which stemmed from Symbolism and Aestheticism, they created a visual language based around natural forms and a distinctive attenuated line.

Like Mucha, The Four were all a dab hand with a poster. There will be rare examples of posters Mackintosh designed in 1896 advertising The Scottish Musical Review on show alongside furniture and books in the Glasgow Style. The parallels are striking. Long skinny sexy ladies, symmetry, distinctive fonts and stylised botanical forms.

The Mucha exhibition in Glasgow has also led to the restoration of an original poster by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec which lay in a dusty corner of Glasgow Museum's vast archives since the start of the twentieth century.

Part of a mysterious "unregistered" group of objects, Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris came to light when Pippa Stephenson started to forage in the archives looking for work which related to Mucha.

Tightly rolled up, it was in a parlous state. Thankfully, in the hands of Glasgow Museum's paper conservator Ann Evans, who put in 240 hours worth of painstaking restoration work, today it looks almost as good as the day it was plastered on a Parisian wall in 1893.

If posters could speak, this rare object could perhaps tell us about about its maker.

Lautrec's Paris was Mucha's Paris and it was against this Bohemian backdrop that a most distinctive way of looking at the world was drawn up for posterity.

Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty is at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow from October 8 – February 19 2017

glasgowmuseums.com

[pictures copyright Mucha Trust 2016]