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Issue #1774      April 26, 2017

Book Review by Rob Gowland

Alphonse Mucha

Alphonse Mucha will forever be associated with Art Nouveau, and anyone who watches Antiques Roadshow knows that that encompasses flowing lines, floral motifs and the idealisation of the female form. Mucha developed his distinctive style of decorative and commercial art while scratching a living as a penniless artist in Paris.

1897 poster for “Chocolat Ideal”.

He was born in Moravia in 1860 and he began his career painting theatrical scenery in Brno and then in Vienna. The Austrian capital at this time was undergoing an explosion of art which greatly excited the young Mucha. He lived in abject poverty, however. His only pair of trousers became so threadbare that a group of society women were moved to chip in and buy him a new pair.

In 1881 he returned to Moravia, and was hired by Count Karl Khuen to decorate Hrušovany Emmahof Castle with murals. The Count was impressed enough that he agreed to sponsor Mucha’s formal training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.

Six years later Mucha moved to Paris to continue his studies, and joined other struggling artists. Mucha and Paul Gauguin shared a studio that was full of exotic objects and frequented by bohemian writers, artists, and musicians who came there to work and play. An infamous photograph of Gauguin playing the Harmonium with no trousers on captures the mood of their studio.

Mucha scraped together a living illustrating magazines and advertisements, surviving mainly thanks to new age printing technology, which enabled the mass circulation of higher quality prints. “The Parisian publishing industry was growing and new publishing houses were appearing; this led to increased job opportunities for young artists like Mucha” – Tomoko Sato, Alphonse Mucha.

His big break came in 1896: the leading actress, Sarah Bernhardt, needed a new poster in a hurry for her role in Dismonda at the Renaissance Theatre. Mucha undertook to produce it.

The poster he designed featured Byzantine motifs: Bernhardt in a richly embroidered costume, stands in an arched alcove like a saint, before a mosaic-tiled wall with the Orthodox cross in the background, the whole design marked by flowing lines, floral motifs, curlicues, and – unlike the designers of other posters of the time, who favoured strong bold colours – Mucha used delicate, pastel colours. Bernhardt was enchanted and gave Mucha a six-year contract.

Soon Mucha’s distinctive posters were appearing all over the French capital, advertising everything from wine to biscuits to cigarette papers. Other artists soon began imitating what at first was called “the style Mucha” but became known as “the new art” (art nouveau). “Unlike many other art movements ... Art Nouveau was not a movement to promote a specific system of artistic principles invented by an individual or group of artists and theorists under the name of Art Nouveau. Its name derived from a commercial gallery in Paris, the Maison de l’art nouveau, opened in 1895 by German art dealer Siegfried Bing.

Like many of his contemporaries, Bing believed that European civilisation was in great turmoil, faced with unprecedented political, social and technological changes, and that the world of art and design should respond to the requirements of these developments” – Sato, op cit.

The style Mucha launched ceased to be new before the First World War but it is still called art nouveau today, as again any regular viewer of Antiques Roadshow could testify. “In this process, Mucha was benefited by two factors: the improved colour printing technology, and the growing Slavophilism in France. Mucha’s posters were all printed in colour lithography, the newest colour printing process at the time. Mucha’s exceptional draftsmanship and his profound understanding of the printing process from his long-standing experience with publishers were a great advantage. He took account of the technicality of the lithographic process in his work to enable lithographers to reproduce his designs as faithfully as possible” – Sato, op cit.

Since the late 1880s, France and Russia had been drawing closer to each other in a balancing act against the growing power and imperial ambitions of Germany. French society reflected this rapprochement. Mucha’s Slavic nationalism and his growing mysticism eagerly embraced it: In his words, “The public ... needed to breathe fresh air and to find peace and harmony. The existing harmonies were exhausted, empty ... and people were glad to quench their thirst for beauty with a new draught. It was the refreshing new Slav element they were looking for.”

Art Nouveau was also interested in (almost obsessed with) the femme nouvelle or “new woman”. No matter what the product or event, Mucha’s posters featured as their centrepiece an idealised portrait of a woman. Mucha and his peers celebrated femininity as the antidote to an overly-industrialised, impersonal, “masculine” world. Women thus served both allegorical and decorative purposes and it is hardly surprising therefore that they are such a common theme in Mucha’s work.

His famous poster for Job cigarette papers not only showed a woman luxuriating in the act of smoking (at a time when respectable women never smoked in public) but he painted her with her hair falling free around her shoulders, when respectable women always wore their hair up in public!

Mucha’s career (and his reputation) received a boost with the Paris Exposition of 1900. He was involved in the decoration of two of the national pavilions: that of Austria itself and also that of the province of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Art Nouveau had gone international.

Mucha felt that everything could be a work of art, encompassing a person’s daily experience, from wallpaper to furniture to clothing to promotional posters around the city. He not only applied his distinctive style of commercial art to a wide range of posters and advertisements, but also to paintings, book illustrations, designs for jewellery, carpets, wallpaper, and – where he had started – theatre sets.

However, Mucha saw himself as so much more than just a commercial artist and Alphonse Mucha by Tomoko Sato, written as the lavishly illustrated catalogue for the Mucha exhibition in Rome in 2016, demonstrates that he certainly was. Like an actor trying to break free from being typecast in a certain role, Mucha attempted for the rest of his life to disassociate himself from the Art Nouveau style, insisting that rather than being the product of particular style or movement, his paintings were entirely a product of himself and Czech art.

He had always been partisan in his support for Czech nationalism. His murals for the Lord Mayor’s House in Prague, done in 1910 (before independence), are dripping with longing, sorrow and defiance. When Czechoslovakia gained its independence with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of WW1, Mucha was given the honour of designing the new State’s stamps and banknotes. Typically, the 100 crown note he designed features two ordinary peasant girls (one in Czech and one in Slovak national dress) instead of a famous person.

Mucha had a strong mystical bent, which showed itself even when he was a student in Paris. He was a passionate adherent of the Freemasons, and their beliefs can clearly be seen to have influenced Mucha’s most important work of fine art, his masterwork on which he spent many years, The Slav Epic (Slovanská epopej), a series of 20 huge paintings, half depicting the history of the Slavs in general and half the history of the Czech people in particular. He believed that art existed only to communicate a spiritual message, and this series is replete with representations of spiritual moments in Czech or Slavic history: Bohemian nationalist leader Jan Huss preaching, the abolition of serfdom in Russia, a depiction of the Holy Mount Athos with angels and saints floating in the air above the congregation, etc. Mucha bestowed this huge series on the city of Prague in 1928.

He was particularly peeved that his fame rested on his commercial art when he wanted to be known for his more “artistic” projects. However, although his Slav Epic is unquestionably impressive in its size and scope, it is his more commercial projects that display verve and life, despite their similarity of design one to another.

The posters, for example, are densely patterned but they display to perfection the Art Nouveau interest in natural forms and decoration. Ironically, mechanical printing had allowed “art” to be reproduced in quantity, but the artists of Art Nouveau rejected the anonymity of mechanical production.

Whether your interest in Mucha stems from history or graphic art, or some other aspect of the subject, Sato’s book is a beautiful, fascinating read. And it truly is lavishly illustrated. Apart from beautiful reproductions of Mucha’s posters, the book features photographs of models (and sometimes Mucha himself) posing for studies in preparation for subsequent works, photos taken by Mucha on research trips to pre-Revolutionary Russia and the Balkans, in readiness for his great series of works The Slav Epic, and reproductions many of his actual paintings, not merely his posters (splendid designs though they are).

Just don’t look for realism: that wasn’t Mucha’s forte at all.

Alphonse Mucha by Tomoko Sato

Published by Skira 2016

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