A partial transcript of Episode 20 of THE ART MOVEMENT. Click here to listen to the full radio show.
So, having introduced art nouveau a little bit, it’s time to take a look at Alfons Mucha himself.
I have already said that he is rightly regarded as one of the most important exponents of the art nouveau. But it is important to note that Mucha himself wasn’t crazy about being regarded as belonging to this style. In fact, he saw art nouveau as contemporary and trendy, thus in stark opposition to his own beliefs that art should be timeless.
Mucha was born in 1890 in Bohemia, in what is known today as the Czech Republic. And he was born at a time when Bohemia’s cultural identity was threatened by Austro-Hungarian rule and the Germanization of Bohemia.
It’s worth mentioning this because his slavic nationalism would play a great role in his artistic endeavors. Mucha was keen on getting a serious education in the arts but was rejected by Arts Academy of Prague, the motivation being there were already too many artists in the city and not enough money.
This was only the beginning of his troublesome relationship with the academic world at large, which would also include a vintage wealthy troll as a benefactor who withdrew his funds for his arts education at a prominent art academy in Munich only a year later to teach young Mucha a lesson about the hardships of real life. Ouch!
In any case, for the vast majority of his formative years, during much of the 1880s and first half of the 1890s, whatever jobs he could find whether with a group of theatrical scenery makers or as a fixer of family portraits, decorating the homes of the wealthy or illustrating less than glamorous magazines and finishing off the assignments of more established artists… all of this replaced an academic education. During this time, he perfected his craft and found his style.
The opportunity of a lifetime occurred at Christmas time in 1894. A prominent Parisian theatre company was seeking out an artist to complete a series of posters for Sarah Berhardt’s theatrical productions. Nobody was willing to give up their rest during the holiday period and so, they were left with no choice but to give Mucha a shot.
Mucha took it and ran with it and when the posters were exhibited in Paris, they became the talk of the town and immediately caused a sensation. They also affirmed the Mucha style of lithography, which can be briefly described as beautiful, seductive women against a botanical backdrop.
The backdrop and patterns usually collaborate with the protagonist to create a concise and complete narrative. Meanwhile, the intricate patterns and flora of his works is a direct reference to his Czech origins, thus promoting that Czech identity and revealing his own Czech nationalism.
After the Bernhardt posters, Mucha could not have been busier, working with Champagne companies, cigarette companies, biscuit companies and even creating a memorable series to promote travel in Monte-Carlo. Book illustrations and series on the seasons of the year, the art muses and so on are just as popular. He was one of the most sought after artists, illustrators and designers of his time.
Once his status was established, he sought to realize his magnum opus, commonly referred to as The Slav Epic, which took him several years to complete and depicts the history of the Slavic people via 20 imposing canvases.
Mucha gifted the city of Prague with the series upon Czechoslovakia’s independence in 1928 but about a decade later, the country was occupied by the Nazis. Mucha died in 1939, shortly before his death he was interrogated by the Gestapo.
It should be mentioned that even while he was essentially creating artworks for brands, he lent his skills and abilities to more notable social causes. A few of his works, for example, champion women’s education.
In fact, the seductive women of his posters, the central figures of the vast majority of his most celebrated works, seem absolutely contemporary, empowered and in charge of their sexuality — which is an absolutely modern representation of femininity at large.
Some of his practices too were quite modern. For example, he painted and drew his works from photographs rather than live modeling. Some of these photographs are displayed in Prague’s central gallery and actually reveal him as quite a skilled photographer.
At the time, however, this technique was heavily criticized by traditionalists and purists who looked at Mucha’s aid from instruments of mechanical reproduction as cheating and even claimed that because of that, he was not a true artist.
Today, his works are rightly celebrated worldwide and continue to influence designs and graphics greatly. Just last night, as I reflected upon one of the women of his seasons series, it occurred to me that it greatly reminded me of Lauren Bacall’s famous look of empowered and sexually charged femininity of classic American cinema. A further evidence, I suppose, that all art is connected.