Alphonse Mucha: 150 years Anniversary

Alphonse Mucha was born in 1860 in Ivancice, Moravia, which is near the city of Brno in the modern Czech Republic. It was a small town, and for all intents and purposes life was closer to the 18th than the 19th century. Though Mucha is supposed to have started drawing before he was walking, his early years were spent as a choirboy and amateur musician. It wasn’t until he finished high school (needing two extra years to accomplish that onerous task) that he came to realize that living people were responsible for some of the art he admired in the local churches. That epiphany made him determined to become a painter, despite his father’s efforts in securing him “respectable” employment as a clerk in the local court.

Like every aspiring artist of the day, Mucha ended up in Paris in 1887. He was a little older than many of his fellows, but he had come further in both distance and time. A chance encounter in Moravia had provided him with a patron who was willing to fund his studies. After two years in Munich and some time devoted to painting murals for his patron, he was sent off to Paris where he studied at the Academie Julian. After two years the supporting funds were discontinued and Alphonse Mucha was set adrift in a Paris that he would soon transform. At the time, however, he was a 27 year old with no money and no prospects – the proverbial starving artist.

Alphonse Mucha - Meditation
Meditation c.1886

For five years he played the part to perfection. Living above a Cremerie that catered to art students, drawing illustrations for popular (ie. low-paying) magazines, getting deathly ill and living on lentils and borrowed money, Mucha met all the criteria. It was everything an artist’s life was supposed to be. Some success, some failure. Friends abounded and art flourished. It was the height of Impressionism and the beginnings of the Symbolists and Decadents. He shared a studio with Gauguin for a bit after his first trip to the south seas. Mucha gave impromptu art lessons in the Cremerie and helped start a traditional artists ball, Bal des Quat’z Arts. All the while he was formulating his own theories and precepts of what he wanted his art to be.

Alphonse Mucha - Moet & ChandonOn January 1, 1895, he presented his new style to the citizens of Paris. Called upon over the Christmas holidays to created a poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s play, Gismonda, he put his precepts to the test. The poster, at left, was the declaration of his new art. Spurning the bright colors and the more squarish shape of the more popular poster artists, the near life-size design was a sensation.

Art Nouveau (“New Art” in French) can trace its beginnings to about this time. Based on precepts akin to William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement in England, the attempt was to eradicate the dividing line between art and audience. Everything could and should be art. Burne-Jones designed wallpaper, Hector Guimard designed metro stations, and Mucha designed champagne advertising (at right) and stage sets. Each country had its own name for the new approach and artists of incredible skill and vision flocked to the movement. .

Overnight, Mucha’s name became a household word and, though his name is often used synonymously with the new movement in art, he disavowed the connection. Like Sinatra, he merely did it “my way.” His way was based on a strong composition, sensuous curves derived from nature, refined decorative elements and natural colors. The Art Nouveau precepts were used, too, but never at the expense of his vision. Bernhardt signed him to a six year contract to design her posters and sets and costumes for her plays. Mucha was an overnight success at the age of 34, after seven years of hard work in Paris.

Alphonse Mucha - IlseeCommissions poured in. By 1898, he had moved to a new studio, illustrated Ilsee, Princess de Tripoli (see image at left), had his first one-man show and had begun publishing graphics with Champenois, a new printer anxious to promote his work with postcards and panneaux – sets of four large images around a central theme (four seasons, four times of day, four flowers, etc. – see below for Stars). Most of these sets were created for the collector market and printed on silk.

Alphonse Mucha - bustThere was a World’s Fair in Paris in 1900 and Mucha designed the Bosnia-Hercegovina Pavilion. He partnered with goldsmith Georges Fouquet in the creation of jewelry based on his designs. The bronze, Nature (at right) is from this time period. He also published Documents Decoratifs and announced Figures Decoratives. Documents Decoratifs was his attempt to pass his artistic theories on to the next generation. In actuality, it provided a set of blueprints to Mucha’s style and his imitators wasted no time in applying them.

His fame spread around the world and several trips to America and resulted in covers and illustrations in a variety of U.S. magazines. Portraiture was also commissioned from U.S. patrons. At the end of the decade he was prepared to begin what he considered his life’s work.

Alphonse Mucha - Slav Epic photographMucha was always a patriot of his Czech homeland and considered his success a triumph for the Czech people as much as for himself. In 1909 he was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Lord Mayor’s Hall in Prague. He also began to plan out “The Slav Epic” – a series of great paintings chronicling major events in the Slav nation. Financing was provided by Charles Crane, a Chicago millionaire. Mucha had hoped to complete the task in five or six years, but instead it embraced 18 years of his life. Twenty massive (about 24 x 30 feet) canvasses were created and presented to the city of Prague in 1928. Covering the history of the Slavic people from prehistory to the nineteenth century, they represented Mucha’s hopes and dreams for his homeland. In 1919 the first eleven canvases were completed and exhibited in Prague, and America where they received a much warmer welcome.

History hasn’t been kind to either Mucha or to the Czechs – as the current unrest in the area at the turn of this century shows. Mucha’s bequest to his country was received with unkindly cold shoulders. The geopolitical world ten years after World War I was very different from the one in which Mucha had begun his project. Moravia was now a part of a new nation, Czechoslovakia (Mucha offered to help the new country by designing its postage stamps and bank notes). The art world was just as changed. And just as the proponents of “Modern Art” cast their slings and arrows at the oh-so 19th century style, varying political groups brought out their personal arsenals of vitriolic prejudice in damning one aspect or other of Mucha’s work. The public seemed to appreciate them, but political agendas seldom give much weight to public opinion. Only recently have they been made available again. They are on permanent display in the castle at Morovsky Krumlov. Brian Yoder of the Art Renewal Center saw them when he visited the Czech Republic in 2001 (he says they are quite remarkable!). He says “the castle has certainly seen better days and the location is not ideal (for example it is unheated in the winter and is closed to the public during those months).” But at least the public, the appreciative and constant public, can view these masterpieces again.

Alphonse Mucha - The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia
The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia (1861) 1914

The rest of Mucha’s life was spent almost as an anachronism. His work was still beautiful and popular, it just was no longer “new” – a heinous crime in the eyes of the critics. When the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, he was still influential enough to be one of the first people they arrested. He returned home after a Gestapo questioning session and died shortly thereafter on July 14, 1939.

above – Stars: The Moon, The Evening Star, The Polestar, The Morning Star -1902

Obecni Dum


Colours of Ostrava

An appropriately named festival in The Czech Republic.  Lots of concerts, workshops for dancing, painting, theater and so on.

Gustav Klimt: Beethoven Frieze

Klimt was one of the artists responsible for the Secession movement in Vienna, Austria. He had previously been a major part of the Austrian symbolist movement but turned away from them after deaths in his family influenced his inspirational  output. He was at the forefront of promoting the Secession movement and was widely respected and his works highly coveted. His main source of inspiration was the female body, which he liked to ornament with bright colors, gold leaf and incredible patterns. The Secession movement did not have a manifesto but its goal’s were clear from the outset: the promotion of younger painters who were working outside the academy in new and interesting ways as well as publishing a periodical showcasing the movement’s work. It is hard to define the Secession because there was no set style and different artistic modes working alongside each other within the Secessionist community. Painting was by no means the only medium of the movement. Other figures included clothing designers, furniture designers, and architects. Other important Secession figures include but are not limited to: Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Koloman Moser, Emile Floge, and to a certain extent (though not a formal member of the group) the architect Otto Wagner.

The Beethoven Frieze was executed before most of Klimt’s most famous works but it shows a delicacy and interest in large design that is not apparent in The Kiss (1907, Galerie Belvedere, Vienna) or in his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907, Neue Galerie in New York).

“In 1902, Klimt created one of his most famous works, the Beethoven Frieze, for an exhibition of the Secession movement. The entire show was an homage to Ludwig van Beethoven. Klimt’s monumental frieze greeted visitors in the entrance hall. Thirty-four meters wide and two meters high is this opulent, ornamental “symphony”; in which Klimt sought to immortalize Beethoven’s “Ninth” and its interpretation by Richard Wagner.

Not only contemporaries were deeply impressed by this work – the world at large is still showing its appreciation. Originally, the cycle was intended to be dismantled once the exhibition had ended. A collector bought the frieze in 1903 and removed it from the wall, separating it into seven pieces. In 1973, the Republic of Austria bought the valuable work and made it accessible to the public in 1986 in a room specially created for it in the Secession.” – from the Vienna Tourist website*.

Klimt’s Frieze was based on Wagner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, celebrating humankind’s ‘struggle on the most magnificent level by the soul striving for joy’, reached in the unification of all arts. The fresco, beginning at the left, forms a cohesive narrative.

On the first wall we encounter the Floating Genii, gliding female figures that symbolize a ‘Yearning for Happiness’. They are followed by Suffering Humanity, a naked kneeling couple and a standing girl. Suffering Humanity offer their pleas to the Knight in Shining Armour, who stands for the external driving forces. The female figures behind him, Compassion and Ambition, represent internal motivation moving him to take up the fight for happiness.
The short end wall is devoted to the Hostile Forces, the giant Typhoeus and his daughters, the three gorgons. Above them are Sickness, Madness and Death (three women with black hair). To Typhoeus'(the bear-like creature) right are Lasciviousness, Wantonness and Intemperance (the woman with an engorged stomach seen above and the two behind her) with the cowering Nagging Care beyond. The yearnings and desires of humankind fly past them.
On the final wall the yearning for happiness finds appeasement in Poetry (the figure with lyre). An empty segment in the frieze, where a wall opening revealed a view of Klinger’s statue in the 1902 exhibition, is followed by The Arts: five female figures representing the ‘ideal realm’, a place of ‘pure joy, pure happiness, pure love’. The frieze concludes with a choir of angels ‘singing in paradise’ and the powerful image of a kissing couple.

This incredible series of works is a brilliant evocation of Beethoven’s work and Klimt shows his aptitude for visually representing the emotion one feels while listening to the Ninth.

Link to website for dates and times the Secession Building is open to see it:

Article taken and edited from the art daily