Charles Gesmar by Angelo Luerti
Charles Ges(i)mar, simply known as Gesmar, was one of the greatest designers of costumes and posters during the golden age of the Paris music hall during the Jazz Age and was primarily renowned for his work for the great Parisian star Mistinguett. Although his tenure was short, his output was prolific and his creativity and talent unrivalled.
Charles Geismar was born in Nancy on May 21 1900 to a Jewish family. He attended the drawing School of Applied Arts of Auguste Vallin, and at the outbreak of the Great War, the Geismar family sought refuge in Paris. Here in early 1915, Charles met Mlle Spinelly, the famous actress-dancer who was enthusiastic about his work and asked him to design her costumes, previously created by the couturier Paul Poiret. Gesmar also designed for L’Arciduc, a show at the Folies Bergere in October 1916 and provided illustrations for La Baionette, La Vie Parisienne, and Fantasio and Le Rire.
Allegedely, effeminate and neurotic, one day in early 1917 in Spinelly’s house, he tried to shoot himself after an altercation with the actress but the bullet went into the lavatory cistern and flooded the house instead. Spinelly was not amused and their relationship ended. Mistinguett, often called the “Queen of the Paris Music Hall” was impressed by his unique talent and took him under her wing as her costume designer, describing him as ‘one of those gentle, ultra-sensitive lads, so feminine that you felt one harsh word would have shattered him.’
Over the next decade, although he designed mostly for Mistinguett, he was in great demand by all the main music halls in Paris. His first work for Mistinguett were the costumes for Grand Revue at Folies Bergère (March 1917) He then worked on several Mme Rasimi’s shows starring Mistinguett, at the Ba-ta-Clan including Celle à Miss (1917) and Ca Mord (1917). He also designed costumes for a string of shows at the Casino de Paris including Laisse-les Tomber (1917), Pa-Ri Ki-Ri (1917), La Grand Revue du Casino (1919), Paris en L’Air (1921), En Douce (1922), Y a qu’a Paris (1923), On Dit Ca (1923), Revue Olympique (1924), Bonjour Paris (1924) and Paris en Fete (1925). Gesmar was also busy working for the Theatre Michel (1918-1925), the Palace Theatre (1923-1927), the Theatre de Paris (1923-1924), the Concert Mayol (1923-1927), Music Hall des Champs Elysées (1925-1926) and the Theatre Daunou (1925-1927).
Despite his unique relationship with Mistinguett, Gesmar created costumes and poster designs for most of the stars of the Paris Music hall including Barbette, Maurice Chevalier, Dolly Sisters, Gilda Gray, Earl Leslie, Jane Marnac and Mitty and Tillio, to name but a few.
In late 1923 Gesmar went to New York with Mistinguett, travelling aboard Leviathan from Cherbourg arriving 26th November. Gesmar designed all the costumes for the Shubert revue Innocent Eyes starring Mistinguett that was launched in Atlantic City, January 1924 and having a regional run before being staged at the Winter Garden Theatre, New York on 20th May 1924.
Jacques-Charles who had staged shows at the Casino de Paris, had signed a three-year contract with the Moulin Rouge that had been closed for ten years following a fire. Mistinguett went to the premier of his first show New York – Montmartre on 20th December 1924 and was so impressed that she believed that, if she was going to maintain her position as ‘Queen of the Paris Music Hall’, she had to appear at the Moulin Rouge and nowhere else.
Despite the fact that had had fallen out with Jacques-Charles she managed to gain a contract stating that she would be the leading lady of the next show, would be a co-director of the Moulin Rouge and would have the privilege of her name in the title of the revue. The next show was therefore titled La Revue Mistinguett (1925) and for this and subsequent revues (Montmartre Aux Nues, 1926; Ca C’est Paris, 1926; Paris aux Etoiles, 1927 and Paris qui Tourne, 1928) Gesmar excelled himself.
The extravagence of the costumes were crucial to the success of any show and Gesmar, an incredibly precocious genius, had an endless source of new ideas. Mistinguett said that many others pinched his ideas. Gesmar said ‘Let them.. I don’t care. There are plenty more ideas where these came from.’ He was fascinated by bright colours and sequins glittering in the beams of the spotlight and the exuberant atmosphere made of feathers and silks and other sumptuous effects. Gesmar could efficiently condense all these ingredients into his creations, adorned with a profusion of feathers, beads, jewellery, flowers and veils. Once again Mistinguett observed ‘ideas came pouring out of him… there was no-one like Gesmar for concocting a stage costume out of brilliants and plumes and ospreys.’
No less sensational is Gesmar’s illustrative work for the theatre. He had an amazing and passionate use of colour and a wonderful graphic virtuosity that developed a style that will remain forever associated with the carefree joy and splendour of the golden age of music hall.
Gesmar’s costumes and graphics caused as much excitement at the time that was equal to the that shown a few years earlier by the elegance of Leon Bakst’s Ballets Russes. The seductive and sophisticated elegance of his art influenced generations of graphic designers and he was indisputably a bridge linking the works by other two great artists who worked for the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and René Gruau (1909-2004).
Gesmar’s art was equally in demand in other countries – particularly Germany. In 1925 along with Czettel, Montedoro, Erte, Brunelleschi and Aumont, Gesmar created deisgns for the Herman Haller show Achtung! Welle 505! at the Theatre Adrmiral Palast, Berlin. He also provided designs for the Grosses Schauspielhous, the Theater des Westens and the Haller show Schon und Schick (1928). He also worked on the Emile Schwarz show at the Ronacher theatre, Vienna (Der, Die, Das, 1925), the Hubert Marischka show Wien Lacht Wieder with Zamora (1926), and the Emil Schwarz show Sie Werden Lachen both at Vienna Stadttheater (1928).
Gesmar allegedly died of pneumonia in February 1928, before his 28th birthday. During his short career, Gesmar had been amazingly productive and created over 12,000 costumes and about 200 illustrations and graphic works of 60 posters. His unique style captures the spark of the Jazz Age perfectly.
Angelo Luerti is a passionate lover and collector of set and costume designs and theatrical programs and lives in Milan, Italy.
Angelo Luerti’s book Charles Gesmar 1900-1928 contains a biography of the artist, 230 photographs and historical documents, a window on the historical and cultural context of those years, a catalogue of all Gesmar’s graphic art including 60 posters and 50 programs covers each illustrated with analytical cards, a selection of 50 of his costume designs, illustrations from entertainment magazines, and the chronologies of Gesmar’s contributions.
Hardback and case covered in silk, 24x34cm, 192pp, text in Italian and French, 90 Euro.
‘…my admiration for the fantastic work you made so well documented and illustrated! I am sure that this book will be, now, the inevitable reference for everybody who will work about Gesmar…’ Cecile Coutin (Conservateur en chef, Dépt. des Arts du Spectacle, BNF)
Angelo is also the author of Not only Erté – Costume Design for the Paris Music Hall 1918-1940, with the biographies and contributions of 40 great costume designers, made in relation to the history of the main music hall and the shows of those years.
Hardback and case covered in silk, 24x34cm, 288pp, 500 photographs of costume design, text in Italian and English, 90 Euro.
Both books can be ordered by contacting Angelo Luerti by email: firstname.lastname@example.org