Mucha: The Family Collection Exhibition Diary

I have been a fan of Alphonse Mucha’s Art Nouveau works ever since I came to Prague in the 1990s. While he is best known for his exhilarating posters of actress Sarah Bernhardt, Mucha was a very versatile artist – as is evidenced in this comprehensive exhibition of creations owned by his descendants. The first extensive showing of his works in 30 years is housed at Prague’s Waldstein Palace. The exhibition highlights not only the advertising posters but also his drawings, paintings, sculptures, photos and jewelry, for instance. The family displays some originals to the public for the first time.  

Family portraits evoking Mucha’s childhood add an intimate feel to the exhibition. Born in Ivančice, Moravia, Mucha called home a building that also included the town jail. The Czech lands were under Austrian rule when Mucha grew up. They were part of the Habsburg Empire in which German was the official language. Yet, during that era, the Czech National Revival took place, when Czech nationalists promoted Czech culture and the Czech language.

At the end of 1894, Mucha became a star overnight when he designed a poster for Bernhardt’s production of Gismonda. The following year he created posters that decorated calendars, postcards and menus as well as theatre programs. His work would find enthusiastic audiences in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Munich, London, New York and other cities during subsequent years.

I loved how, in his advertising posters, Mucha utilized folk features not only found in Czech art but also in Byzantine, Islamic, Japanese, Gothic, Judaic, Celtic and Rococo works. Much of this genre focuses on beautiful, young women with an optimistic and cheerful flair. They are wearing flowing robes in pastel colors. I loved the touches of floral and plant ornamentation plus arabesques and naturalistic elements, too.

The exhibition boasted family portraits and photos, such as those of his friends Paul Gaugin and Auguste Rodin. Gaugin even was Mucha’s housemate for a while. During the Paris Exposition Universalle of 1900, Mucha represented Austria-Hungary as the show focused on the accomplishments of the past century. I had not known that in 1899 Mucha had designed a jewelry collection that was featured at this major show. One of the jewelry pieces on display at the exhibition features a snake-shaped broach that Bernhardt wore during her portrayal as Medusa. I also was captivated by Mucha’s decorations for a German theatre in the USA. He would wind up making three trips to the United States, hailed by The New York Daily News as “the world’s greatest decorative artist.”

Works in the exhibition illustrated how mysticism had influenced him. His philosophy is also apparent in his creations. For example, he believed in beauty, truth and love to guide him on the spiritual path. For a monument he created a triptych called The Age of Reason, the Age of Wisdom and the Age of Love, fusing these three characteristics into one piece of art. Unfortunately, Mucha didn’t get the chance to finish it.

Perhaps what always captivates me the most about Mucha’s art is his emphasis on Slav identity. Indeed, his phenomenal Slav Epic paintings feature the heroic tales of the Slavs in 20 historical, symbolic canvases. Several reproductions of these works at the exhibition reinforced Mucha’s identity as a Czech and Slav patriot.

I saw panels devoted to Mucha’s decorations in the Municipal House, for which he designed numerous pieces – three wall panels, a ceiling painting depicting prominent Czech personalities, eight pendentives and furnishings. I remember seeing these for myself on tours of the Art Nouveau Municipal House, something I recommend to every Prague visitor. It is notable that, while Mucha’s works often were rooted in Slav identity in the past, he also looked to the future for a prosperous Czech nation.

I was enamored by the reproductions of his stained-glass window designs. The originals decorate the interior of Saint Vitus’ Cathedral at Prague Castle. In 1931 he portrayed Saint Wenceslas, the nation’s patron saint, as a child with his grandmother Saint Ludmila in a central panel along with other panels featuring the lives and work of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Seeing examples of his colorful and vibrant stained glass renditions close-up was for me one of the highlights of this exhibition.

Mucha’s life was cut short by the arrival of the Nazis in Prague, where they set up the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during March of 1939. The 79-year-old Mucha, riddled with health problems, was targeted by the Gestapo. Mucha was a Freemason, Judeophile and a promoter of democratic Czechoslovakia. He was one of the first to be interrogated by the Nazis. Mucha was stricken with pneumonia due to the strain from grueling interrogations and died in Prague 10 days short of his 79th birthday on July 14th, 1939. He is now buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad Cemetery along with other prominent Czechs.

This exhibition takes museumgoers on a unique and unforgettable journey from his childhood roots in Moravia to his time as an outsider in Paris to his experiences in the democratic Czechoslovakia until his untimely death. It stresses his identity as a Moravian, as a Czech, as a Slav and as a European. It shows his accomplishments in the art scene by displaying an eclectic collection of his creations that profoundly punctuated the artistic world.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.


Buchlovice Chateau Diary


The bus from Brno to Buchlovice left me off on the highway. For a moment I panicked. Where was the underpass? I found it quickly, though, and soon came upon the magical chateau that immediately captured my heart. I loved chateaus most of all. Massive, Gothic castles were impressive but also cold and intimidating while chateaus had an intimate quality and a fragility that spoke to me.

Buchlovice Chateau was composed of separate lower and upper sections shaped as semicircles. The chateau flaunted the Baroque style, resembling an Italian villa from that period. Crowned by a cupola, the lower part incorporated the main building with representative rooms. The upper building hosted temporary exhibitions and was home to offices. I also was eager to explore the beauty of the garden with its stunning statues and flower species I had read about.

ImageAfter I bought my ticket, I took a few snapshots of the lower chateau and the fountain with an obelisk in the middle, situated in the courtyard. Then I joined the group of about 15 people on this sunny day in early July.

Buchlovice was built in the first half of the 18th century by Jan Dětřich of Petřvald for his wife Anežka Eleanora of Colonna-Fels. The Petřvalds owned nearby Buchlov Castle, too. Even in those days the lower chateau had been the most important structure, and back then the upper chateau had served as a farmstead.

After the Petřvalds, the Bertcholds gained the property, along with Buchlov Castle. The chateau was renovated in the 1920s. The Bertcholds held on to it until 1945, when the estate was nationalized under the so-called Beneš decrees that made it state property. The decrees stated that Germans, Nazi collaborators, traitors and others living in Czechoslovakia had to relinquish their Czechoslovak citizenship and property without compensation. The guide did not specify the reason why the Berchtolds had to give up Buchlovice, but I assumed it was because they had had German citizenship.

ImageBuchlovice was the seat of a significant meeting in European history at the beginning of the 20th century when the Czech lands belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Alois Lexa of Aehrenthal, the Austrian-Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, met with Alexander Petrovich Izvolskii, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Russia. Leopold II Berchtold, as Austrian-Hungarian envoy in St. Petersburg, persuaded them to hold the talk there.

The two discussed the political turmoil in the Balkans, especially the push for independence of non-Turkish nationalities under Turkish rule. Neither politician wanted war. The Austro-Hungarian Empire aimed to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina while the Russians wanted their ships to be able to travel freely through the Dardanelles. However, Aehrenthal did not confer with the Council of the Empire in Vienna on the annexation issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina along with the Russian considerations. Emperor Franz Joseph I announced the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina during October of 1908.

ImageAs I entered the first room on the tour, I was dazzled by the delicate color scheme, exquisite furnishings and sense of intimacy. I felt as if I were stepping into the distant past, into someone’s home. I almost expected a member of the Petřvalds or Bertcholds to enter the space. The canopy bed captured my attention. The canopy was decorated in a pleasing pink, brown and white floral design. The wallpaper was stunning and cheerful, too, featuring pink flowers. A 17th century jewelry box from Spain had a special compartment for love letters. I wondered who had written to whom, and what exactly had been discussed in that correspondence. Did the recipient wind up marrying the writer? Or were the letters full of passionate goodbyes or passionate dreams that would never be realized?

Left with those thoughts, I continued to the Small Dining Room which featured Rococo furnishings. Even though it was lavish, I liked the flamboyancy and playfulness of the Rococo style. Yet I also appreciated Gothic and Renaissance styles, so strikingly different from Rococo. There was one unique object in the room. It was a small car that looked like a wheelchair with a steering wheel and headlights. I wondered if children played in it or if adults used it to get from room to room.

In one bedroom a painting of Madonna and Child proved a copy of a work by Raphael. The furniture was Baroque. I loved the pink and white theme in the children’s bedroom. The wallpaper featuring pink ribbons on a white background was exquisite. The Silver Salon featured silver on the wood paneling. Bright yellow furnishings brought cheer to the room. In a side room the motif of a peacock decorated the furniture.

ImageThe oval Music Hall was stunning with its frescoes. The room had two storeys divided by a gallery with gold-plated metal railings. The walls and cupola featured stucco decoration. The elliptical ceiling fresco showed the genius of the arts presenting the completed castle to Anežka, Jan Dětřich’s wife. Fortune showers her with flowers. At the top of the cupola were allegories of the personality characteristics of Anežka – justice, innocence, fortitude and love of the arts.  The frescoes of the four seasons were breathtaking, too. Then there were the four allegories of the elements. I was drawn to the angry, tall waves in the fresco depicting the allegory of water. I also noticed polychrome coats-of-arms and Corinthian columns in the majestic space.

In the library that housed Frantisek Palacký’s The History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia as well as English, German and French books, I noticed a painting of Buchlov Castle above elaborate gold frames of portraits. I would visit Gothic Buchlov after wandering through the garden here. I knew it would be a totally different experience than the tour of this Baroque chateau.

ImageThe Big Dining Room featured red chairs with Hungarian porcelain. Two large, colorful Asian vases caught my eye. The chapel housed the oldest paintings in the chateau, dating from around 1600, and white stucco on the walls and ceiling. On the second floor I was enthralled by the bedroom of Leopold II Berchtold as the space was decorated in Napoleon style with the bed covered by what looked like a military tent.

The guide mentioned that Buchlovice was also home to an impressive collection of graphic art of the 16th to 19th centuries with 6,378 artworks. These renditions were situated in the depository, which was not part of the tour.

ImageNow it was time to explore the English style garden, created at the beginning of the 18th century. Sloping from west to east, the garden was divided into terraces. A bridge over a stream led to a large stairway with a vase-bearing balustrade. On the lower terrace I saw four statues of musicians and vases with masks of satyrs. Four statues featuring allegories of the continents also called the garden home. More than 800 species and varieties of fuchsias and numerous rhododendrons were also grown in the garden that contained exotic and rare woody species.

After a walk through the impressive garden terraces, I was eager to make my way to Buchlov. Peering at my watch, I wondered if I had enough time to walk through the forest paths to the Gothic gem and make the tour in time to return to Buchlovice for the bus back to Brno.

I would soon find out.


Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.