Alphonse Mucha: Much More Than You Think

The Festival of Svanlovit:  When the Gods are at War, Salvation is in the Arts by Alphonse Mucha

The Oath of Omladina under the Slavic Linden Tree by Alphonse Mucha

Alphonse Mucha may be an artist you’re familiar with from art cards, featuring beautiful women and flowers, such as the image below, or fin-de-siecle theatre posters from Paris.

As I found out at the Mucha Exhibit at the Czech Museum of Cedar Rapids, IA  (through December 31, 2012), Alphonse Mucha was not only a leading figure of European Art Nouveau style, but an artist with serious philosophic ideals about the power of art in historic terms.

“As the 19th century drew its close, the belief that mankind was on the verge of breaking open a path which would lead to the fulfilment of its highest destiny,…was widely held by philosophers and artists alike….This noble and idealistic theory was in part a positive response to the unprecedented advances in both technology and economics at the time.  It was also, however, an expression of an intention to move beyond the facile materialistic slogans which greeted this progress and to focus on the real human and social dimensions involved.  Art was to become the tool to educate the masses, using for this lofty purpose every gift of sensuality at its command.”  All quotations, unless other wise indicated, are from  “A Complete Vision,” by Petr Wittlich,  from Alphonse Mucha, Sarah Mucha, c. 2005, Francis Lincoln Ltd.

This was a theme already sounded in Britain by John Ruskin and others, spawning the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain.  In terms of Decorative Art, it is most famously expressed by William Morris.  “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” is the theme most often quoted, but the Arts and Crafts philosophy went deeper than that.  Morris also said, “Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers,” and “We are only the trustees for those who come after us.”  Art Nouveau is the last flowering, if you will, of the creative explosion spawned by Arts and Crafts.  The inspiration was to improve he lives of ordinary people by transfiguring their homes and lives through art.

Alphonse Mucha became famous overnight, when he won a design competition to create posters for Sarah Bernhardt, the superstar of the Parisian stage.  He created a poster for her role in Gismonda.

Paris was the capital of Beauty, then as well as now, and though it may be difficult to imagine how a poster could make an artist a celebrity overnight, one must recognize that this was a world without the Internet and television.  There was the theatre; there was the Belle Monde, the world of high society and fashion, and there was art.  While those things were important in all the major cities of the world; they had especial power in Paris.

The thing that set Mucha apart was how positive it was.  Contrast Mucha’s Gismonda with posters by Toulouse-Lautrec.


Toulouse-Lautrec was painting prostitutes and performers at the Moulin Rouge.  The Belle Epoque, or beautiful era, was a period of peace and prosperity following the Franco-Prussian War and another of those reigns of terror that Paris seems to specialize in, this one called the Commune.  There was an explosion of art in the Belle Epoque, but one can see in Toulouse-Lautrec the influence of these scarifying events.  Mucha’s vision in Gismonda is “the antithesis of the morbid, effete and diabolical females, who populate the contemporary works of Toulouse-Lautrec, … Beardsley, Klimt” and others.

“Mucha’s vision is unique among the art of his time.  The Symbolist sensibility that so heavily influenced late 19th century art, including Decorative Art, combined large elements of decadence, pessimism and dislocation.  It was alarmed by the the threat to the individual and to cultural traditions posed by science and technology, even while it adopted the new means that they provided for artistic expression.   By the same token it was deeply uneasy over the materialistic society that technology spawned….It…embodied a puritanical sense, no doubt inflamed by the rapidly changing role of women, that seated evil in women’s irresistible sexual allure, personafied artistically in the misogynistic image of the femme fatale.  Its portrayals of the female were typically highstrung and uneasy, often hysterical, sometimes nightmarish and horrific….There, in contrast, stood Mucha and his irrepressible optimism and vitality and the Mucha Woman who, nearly alone among the representatives of female figures of the period, is neither demonic nor dissipated.  Her glow of happiness and the hint of some hidden message, her suspension between this world and another, the integration in her person of Madonna and Venus, express a unique and joyous intuition.”

Prophetess by Alphonse Mucha

Woman with a Burning Candle by Alphonse Mucha

Madonna of the Lilies by Alphonse Mucha

Spirit of Spring by Alphonse Mucha

Biscuit Tin by Alphonse Mucha

Design for Documents Decoratifs

from Documents Decoratifs

“Mucha’s highly spiritual and moral purpose during his Art Nouveau period is further shown in a small number of works on specifically spiritual topics,” among them his limited edition book, illustrating his interpretation of the the Lord’s Prayer, named Le Pater (see below).  “The artistry represents Mucha at his best — finely wrought, detailed images and complex, sometimes hidden, geometric systems of symbolism.  What is especially striking is how far his commentary and illustrations deviate from (recognizable) Christianity in favour of a neo-platonic spiritualism.  The illustrations on the text clearly depict the striving of man toward the inspiration of divine light and the presence of idealised intermediating forms that are surely nothing less than the ‘great soul of the world,'” the underlying vision of Mucha’s creative output.

A commission to design the interior of the Pavilion  of Bosnia-Herzegovina for the Paris International Exhibition of 1900, led to an inspiration that dominated Mucha’s labor for the rest of his life.  Slavic submission to Germanic rule, a fact that Mucha found difficult to celebrate in itself, was resolved “by transforming the interior into a celebration of southern Slav aspirations and folk traditions.”  Mucha “traveled widely through the Balkans researching their history and customs.  From this experience sprang the inspiration for a new project,…the creation of a series of vast canvases that would portray the epic of the Slav peoples,…a mythic and idealised history that would emphasise their common bonds, their mutual reverence for peace and learning and their struggle against oppression.”

Generous to a fault towards the friends, artists, writers, musicians, and countrymen who crowded his weekly salon, Mucha had to find a patron for  the Slav Epic venture, because he was in no financial state to undertake it on his own,  It took him some time, but eventually an American millionaire named Charles Crane, not only funded him, but provided emotional sustenance, due to his shared interest in Slavic culture, for the next twenty years.  Mucha returned to Prague, leaving the prosperity, renown and glamour of his life in Paris, to dedicate himself to the creation of the mammoth series of canvases known as the Slav Epic.

The Slavs in Their Original Homeland, “Between the Turanian Whip and the Sword of the Goths” by Alphonse Mucha

Svanlovit Festival on the Island of Rugin by Alphonse Mucha

The Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Stepan Susan as East Roman Emperor by Alphonse Mucha

After the Battle of Grunwald, the Soldiarity of the Northern Slavs by Alphonse Mucha

The Printing of the Bible of Kralice in Ivancice by Alphonse Mucha

“The Kralice Bible was translated and printed at the end of the 16th Century by the Unity of Brethren, who had established a school in Ivancice, Mucha’s hometown.  This painting is a homage  both to Ivancice and to the work of the Brethren.”

The Abolition of Serfdom by Alphonse Mucha

The Apotheosis of the Slavs by Alphonse Mucha

The Slav Epic and other patriotic creations of Mucha have been misunderstood.  “His evident intent is to inspire his countrymen with a symbolistic evocation of their past and invocation of their highest values.”  However, “just as his Decorative creations have been miscast as merely commercial, his patriotic efforts have been abjured as jingoistic.  Mucha was a patriot, but he was no chauvinist….Mucha believed in the destiny of nations and sought to spur his nation to fulfil its destiny by appealing to what he conceived as its best and highest innate virtues….He persevered for nearly thirty years after his return to Prague, pouring himself into innumerable public and humanitarian causes, labouring over the massive canvases of the Slav Epic and persisting in the face of unceasing disdain for his art and criticism of his values.  At the end of the 1930s, as he looked back upon a life span of nearly 80 years, the Decorative art that had been the fount of his fame and glory had all but disappeared from the public scene, the patriotic values that he held so passionately had become an anachronism and the great Epic that had been the capstone of his life lay rolled up in a dank museum basement, homeless and largely forgotten.”

Even though one cannot travel to Prague, or any major city in Czechslovakia, to view Mucha’s Slav Epic, but would have to journey to the small town of Moravsky Krumlov, where Mucha livedl.  Alphonse Mucha is an artist that deserves much more publicity.  The Alphonse Mucha Exhibit at the Czech Museum in Cedar Rapids, IA is a great opportunity to see his wonderful paintings.  It is WELL WORTH IT!  There’s only about a week left, but go!

1 thought on “Alphonse Mucha: Much More Than You Think

  1. Dave

    All the pictures of the Slavic Epos are on display until 31 Dec 2014 in the Veletržní palác in Prague. I have spent 3 hours there in total awe.

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