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.
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).
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.
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 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.