Sunday, July 28, 2019

Alphonse Mucha

The artist Alfonse Maria Mucha (1860-1939) was born in the town of Ivanicice, in what was then Moravia and now the Czech Republic, and died in Prague. It is however the commercial graphic work he did in Paris at the turn of the century for which he is best known.  His depictions of women with flowing hair and robes have become synonymous with the Art Nouveau style which he is given credit for popularizing.  Curiously, though we collected Art Nouveau and furnished our New York home with it, the only Muchas we had, were reproductions on coasters!

Currently there seems to be another in the series of revivals of interest in the artist, this one promoted by the Mucha Museum and Foundation in Prague. It has organized a new show “Timeless Mucha - Mucha to Manga: The Magic of Line” that began its tour of Japan this month.  It comprises about 250 works, concentrating on his graphic work.  It also explores how Mucha’s work influenced artists in the 1960’s and 1970’s, particularly those interested in psychedelic art.  In addition to his posters, drawings, book illustrations and designs, it includes Japanese prints from Mucha’s personal art collection and interpretations of his work in fin-de-siècle Japan. 

New York’s newest museum,  called the The Poster House opened last month with “Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau / Nouvelle Femme”.  The show  focuses on his portrayal of women as bold and independent, whether rolling a cigarette or riding a bicyle. Another Mucha exhibition called, “Alphonse Mucha - Art Nouveau & Utopia showing 178 important works from the Mucha Trust Collection is at the Pearl Art Museum in Shanghai. The 80th anniversary of the artist’s death, seems as good an excuse as any for arranging an exhibition.

Mucha is the only visual artist I have ever heard of who worked his way through continuing education by his singing.  He was certainly multi-dimensional, a painter, illustrator and graphic artist.  He worked at decorative painting jobs in Moravia, mostly painting theatrical scenery, then in 1879 moved to Vienna to work for a leading Viennese theatrical design company, while informally furthering his artistic education. In 1887 he went to Paris where he produced  magazine and advertising illustrations in order to continue his study of painting  at the Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi.

The Moravian Teacher’s Choir

Serendipitously, around Christmas time in 1894 he stopped by a print shop where they had a sudden need for a poster of Sarah Bernhardt in a new play. Impulsively, he said he could do it within their 2-week window.  The poster created a sensation with the public when it appeared on the streets of Paris on New Year’s Day, 1895. Bernhardt was so impressed that she entered into a 6-year contract with the artist.  Hence the plethora of posters of her that Mucha created.  Here is an image of the original poster and one from 1896.

Before the time of visual broadcasting, i.e. television and the internet, posters were a new way for an artist to get public attention.  But, like so many artists, Mucha did not wish to be pigeonholed so he did not want to be associated with a movement. He denied any French influence and that of colleagues who were adopting the Art Nouveau style.  [This reminds me of Georgia O’Keeffe’s claim  that she was not influenced by photography, though she was married to the foremost photographer of her day, Alfred Stieglitz, for over 20 years!]

Mucha felt he created his art for higher purposes and promoting the art of his country of birth. For the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris he decorated the Bosnia and Herzegovina pavilions and assisted in the Austrian one.  The work consisted of a series of monumental paintings of the history of Slavic people. He titled it “The Slave Epic” and considered it his masterpiece. 

It is, however, Mucha’s graphic style that remains instantly recognizable today and the importance of his role in the history of modern advertising is undeniable.  

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