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.