Why Psychedelic Concert Posters of the Late '60 Were LSD-Infused Versions of Art Nouveau
Inspiration is the driving force of creativity, and for visual artists of the psychedelic ‘60s milieu, there was an endless amount of it. Most immediately, perhaps, the obvious comes to mind — hallucinogenic effects of mind-altering drugs, like LSD, psilocybin, and DMT, all of which were widely consumed by the free-spirited creatives of the day. But an argument can be made, as this one does, that these drugs were merely a psychedelic filter that helped artists elaborate on, rather than invent, artwork produced on the foundations of the art movements that came before.
Some argue that both the psychedelic art movement and the preceding Surrealist movement have a prescribed mechanism for obtaining inspiration. Poet and critic André Breton (1896 - 1966) — who, in 1924, published The Surrealist Manifesto and is regarded as the father of the movement — viewed Surrealism as a way of integrating the conscious with the unconscious realms of experience, resulting in ‘an absolute reality, a surreality.’” The idea is not entirely dissimilar to Timothy Leary’s 1966 "turn on, tune in, drop out" motto.
The word psychedelic comes from the Greek term for mind manifesting, which essentially embodies the same idea as Surrealism. Appropriately, some psychedelic works of the era feature vibrant colors, glaring contrasts, caricature like distortions, and weird iconography typical of dreamscapes. But, many of these artistic elements and creative design embellishments were not manifested by our unconscious, they were consciously plagiarized from Art Nouveau (c. 1890 - c. 1910) and other art movements that were closely associated with it.
Overall, Art Nouveau — or New Art in French — is a 19th century art movement that influenced interior design, graphic arts, furniture, glass art, textiles, ceramics, jewelry and metal work. Rejecting the imitative historicism that dominated much of 19th-century art and design, and revolting against aesthetics that emerged as a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, the movement focused on fusing beauty with pragmatism; feminine figures, abstract curves, intricate patterns, peacocks, flowers and other organic forms, were used to decorate everything.
The cultural upheaval of the 1960s had a similar effect. Artists and the youth at large rebelled against conservatism, the military-industrial-complex, and the social norms of the decades prior. These societal issues produced art that reflected the tumultuous time. Just as Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Surrealism, Futurism, and other art movements developed — with some presciently trippy manifestations in Brazil and other places — so too did the 60s psychedelic art movement, but maybe not in the way that most think it did.
Consider The Endless Summer (1963) poster designed by graphic artist and illustrator John Van Hamersveld at the start of his career. It features the florescent colors that many associate with psychedelic art, but the work was probably more influenced by the California sunsets and sunrises that he witnessed as a surfing beach bum in his youth. And even though he is not shy about disclosing his relationship with LSD, its effect is most evident in the design of his Shrine Concert posters that made him famous in 1967.
Still, when people talk about psychedelic art, they often tend to refer to the aesthetic popularized by the Fillmore Posters, the first of which was made for Jefferson Airplane in 1966 for the venue’s first non-benefit concert. Though the aforementioned work is largely devoid of the kaleidoscopic color palette and trippy details that became a staple of concert posters printed just two years later, the bright colors, curvy font, and the Surrealistic graphic, are all part of the art movements that occurred in the not so distant past.
Furthermore, when American troops invaded Vietnam in 1965, artist Wes Wilson (1937 - 2020) created the Are We Next? Be Aware (1967) poster that compared the U.S. government with Nazi Germany. It features the stripes of the American flag, and a superimposed swastika filled with blue and white stars. This work officially marks the beginning of the psychedelic poster movement. But the poster, when examined closely, is actually more inline with the Art Deco movement, characterized by simple, clean shapes, and geometric or stylized ornaments.
It’s true that mind-altering drugs have existed long before the 1960s. But, as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love — otherwise known as the Hippie Mafia — spread its “Orange Sunshine” brand of LSD across California and beyond, starting in 1968, the mind-altering drug did put a “psychedelic” filter to an art movement that formed from a revival of what was largely already there. Or, as Ron Kretsch put it in his article for Dangerous Minds: “It was history repeating itself all over again, but this time in mind-blowing colors.”