Alphonse Mucha and Slav Epic

Last week I discussed Alphonse Mucha’s rise to popularity.  This week we’ll look at what he considered his most important works, as well as the rest of his life and, briefly, his legacy after his death.

Last week I briefly mentioned Mucha’s 1894 meeting of August Strindberg, and his introduction to occultism and mysticism, which he became increasingly interested in.  On December 20, 1899 he printed Le Pater, which he considered to be his printed masterpiece.  Le Pater examined occult themes in the Lord’s Prayer.  Only 510 copies were printed.  Le Pater was one of two pieces Mucha considered his masterpieces.  The other would start taking shape in in 1900.

In 1900 the Exposition Universell took place in Paris (the 1900 World’s Fair).  This fair would celebrate the past century and its accomplishments, as well as the developments for the next century.  In 1899 Mucha was approached by the Austro-Hungarian government to create their decorations for the 1900 Exposition.  In preparation for creating these decorations, Mucha travelled to the Balkans and had the idea for what would become Slav Epic, what he considered his fine art masterpiece (more on it shortly).  Mucha ultimately decorated the Bosnia-Herzegovina Pavilion, and gave input on the Austrian Pavilion as well.

For the Exposition, Mucha was also approached by Georges Fouquet, a jeweler, the son of the jeweler Alphonse Fouquet.  Fouquet wanted “to create a truly innovative collection” for the fair (1).  Fouquet loved the jewelry Mucha put in his artwork, and wanted to create the pieces.  The jewelry that Mucha and Fouquet created redefined jewelry at the time by choosing materials for “their aesthetic, rather than monetary, value” (2).  Mucha and Fouquet worked together for three years.

Mucha’s work for the Exposition was award winning.  His decorations for the Bosnia-Herzegovina Pavilion won the silver prize at the Exposition, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire “made [Mucha] a Knight of the Order of Franz Josef I for his contributions to the empire” (3).  Mucha was also elected as a member to the Czech Academy of Sciences and Art.

FouquetAfter the Exposition, Fouquet moved his shop.  He decided to have Mucha design everything for his new shop, inside and out, as well as all of the contents of the shop (“furniture, light fittings and showcases” (4)).  Mucha conceived of the shop as a “complete work of art” that was inspired by nature, with peacocks throughout.  In 1902, Mucha had work exhibited at the first International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art in Turin.  One of his pieces that was included was a snake bracelet that he had created with Fouquet, and owned by Sarah Bernhardt.

In 1903, Mucha met his future wife Marie (Maruška) Chytilová.  Maruška was 22 years younger than Mucha, and had come to Paris with her relatives.  She was a student at the School of Applied Arts in Prague, and while in Paris wanted lessons with Mucha.  Luckily, her uncle was Dr. Karel Chytil, a Czech art historian; he approached Mucha, and Mucha agreed to teach Maruška, but also suggested she take classes at Académie Colarossi.  Mucha and Maruška would marry in 1906.

In 1904 Mucha took his first trip to the United States with the help of Baroness Rothschild.  His arrival was front page news.  In attempts to raise money to create Slav Epic, Mucha tried to become a society portrait painter.  His first commission was Mrs. Wismann, a friend of Rothschild’s.  In 1905, Mucha returned to the U.S. and taught classes at the New York School of Applied Design for Women.  His classes were available to women and men and were incredibly popular.

In 1906, after Mucha and Maruška married on June 10 in Prague, the couple travelled to Chicago where Mucha taught at the Art Institute of Chicago.  From 1906 to 1910, the Muchas visited to and travelled throughout the United States.  While Mucha was in the U.S., he was, again, trying to earn money for Slav Epic.  He began taking commissions, again, as a sort of society painter.  One of the people who hired him was Charles Richard Crane, the heir to R.T. Crane Brass and Bell Foundry.  In 1908, Crane hired Mucha to paint his two daughters.  The painting of Crane’s daughter, Josephine, depicted her as Slavia, a Slav goddess (the second painting was never finished).  Crane became very interested in Mucha’s Slav Epic idea.

In 1908, Mucha was commissioned to decorate the interior of the newly renovated German Theater in New York.  This project consisted of five large decorative panels, the stage curtain, the foyer, the corridors, the staircase, and the auditorium.  The decorative panels included The Quest for Beauty, flanked by Comedy and Tragedy.  The theater was torn down in 1929, and only the preliminary sketches exist today.

Mucha-Maud_Adams_as_Joan_of_Arc-1909While the Mucha’s were in New York, their daughter, Jaroslava, was born on March 15, 1909.  Their son Jiří was born in Prague on March 12, 1915 (Jiří would become a future novelist, as well as his father’s biographer.)  That same year, Mucha worked with the actress Maude Adams.  Adams was playing Joan of Arc in Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans in a one night gala event at Harvard.  Mucha did the poster for the event, featuring Adams, and also designed the costumes and the set.  In 1909, the Muchas also vacationed in Rosice, South Moravia.  Mucha began sketching for Slav Epic while on this vacation.  Crane had decided to fund Mucha’s work for Slav Epic because he was so interested in the project.

In late 1909, Mucha was asked by the city of Prague to do the decorations for their new municipal building.  So in 1910, Mucha returned to Prague.  The work he did at the municipal building included small panels, murals, and even the ceilings.  While in Prague, Mucha also worked on the decorations at the Theater of Fine Arts and the murals in the Mayor’s office, as well as other landmarks in the city.  The work at the Mayor’s Hall “celebrate[d] the heroic past of the Czech people and the unity of the Slav nations” (5)

800px-Slovane_v_pravlasti_81x61mWhile in Prague, Mucha started working on Slav Epic.  He was meeting with specialists, and reading everything he could about Slavic history and people.  By 1912, the first three panels – The Slavs in Their Original Homeland, The Celebration of Svantovít Festival, The Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy – were completed and presented to the city of Prague at the end of the year.  The first panel, The Slavs in Their Original Homeland, shows the persecution of the Slavic tribes by the Germanic peoples, and a promise of peace and freedom (6).

(Mucha was immensely patriotic.  He wanted to help preserve the Czech language and culture against Germanic influences from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in any way he could.  He even helped design posters for a lottery that would raise money for Czech schools.  In 1922, Mucha would also do a poster asking “Western countries to send shipments of food and grain” to Russia after its collapse after the Revolution (7).)

Slav Epic is a huge piece, and each panel itself is enormous.  In 1913, Mucha travelled to Paris to learn how to properly hang and light such large paintings.  In 1913 he also travelled to Russia to do research for the fourth panel, The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia.  In 1914, he presented this panel, as well as The Defence of Sziget, and The Printing of the Bible of Kralice, to Prague.  In 1916, three more canvases were presented to Prague: Milič of Kroměříž, Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel, and The Meeting at Křížky which created the triptych, Magic of the Word.

At the end of World War One, Czechoslovakia was founded as an independent nation, and was officially recognized in 1919.  Mucha was such a big part of Czechoslovakia and such an advocate for the Czech peoples, he was commissioned to design the new stamps, money, and other governmental documents.  In 1919, he designed the 100 crown note, followed by the 1,000, 500, 50, 20, 10, and 5, all between 1919 and 1931.

Mucha continued working on Slav Epic, and two more panels were completed in 1918 and presented to the city: Petr Chelčický at Vodńany and Jan Amos Komenský.  In 1919, the first exhibition of Slav Epic took place in the Klementinum in Prague.  Five of the completed canvases were shown: the Magic of the Word triptych, Celebration of Svantovít Festival, and The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia.  These five went on tour to the United States.  In one week in 1920 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 53,000 visitors went to see the paintings.  In 1921, the Brooklyn Museum exhibited the five canvases, as well as fifteen oil paintings, one hundred-thirty drawings, and some of Mucha’s best known posters; 600,000 visitors came to see this exhibit.

Alfons_Mucha_at_work_on_Slav_EpicIn 1923, Mucha gave three more canvases to Prague: Tsar Simeon of Bulgaria, After the Battle of Vítkor, and The Hussite King Jiří of Poděbrady.  The following year Mucha took trips to the Balkans and to Greece to do research for the remaining pieces for Slav Epic.  Three more canvases were completed that year: The Bohemian King Přemysl Otakar II, The Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Štěpán Dušan as East Roman Emperor, and After the Battle of Grünwald.  The last three pieces of Slav Epic were painted in a school auditorium in Prague: The Holy Mount, The Oath of Omladina under the Slavonic Linden Tree, and The Apotheosis of the Slavs.  The Apotheosis of the Slavs combines the themes of the other nineteen canvases; it has four sections, each a different color, each showing a different period in Slav history.

In 1928, Mucha and Crane officially give Slav Epic to Prague in celebration of Czechoslovakia’s tenth anniversary.  The completed pieces were shown during Prague’s tenth anniversary celebrations (Omladina was not yet complete).

After the completion of Slav Epic, Mucha continued taking commissions for work.  He did a stained glass in the newly restored north nave in St. Vitus’s Cathedral in Prague, and a mural for the Nymburk City Savings Bank.  In 1932, Mucha and his family moved to Nice for two years.  In 1934, France made Mucha an Officier de la Légion d’Honneur on the recommendation of President Poincaré.  In 1936, back in Czechoslovakia, Mucha began a new triptych – The Age of Love, The Age of Wisdom, The Age of Reason – which was to be for all mankind, not just Slavs.  Mucha’s health was beginning to fail and he was worried about the possibility of war, and the piece was never finished.

With the rise of fascism in the 1930s, some began to view Mucha’s works and his nationalism as “reactionary”.  Mucha was one of the first people arrested by the Gestapo when they invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939.  Mucha caught pneumonia during his interrogation and, while he was released, he was weakened.  His health continued to deteriorate and on July 14, 1939, Mucha died, just shy of his 79th birthday.  He was buried in Slavín Cemetery in Vyšehrad, Prague.  The Germans had banned gatherings and speeches, but the Czech art scholar Max Svabinský “deliver[ed] a funeral speech to a large crowd of mourners” (8).

This is already longer than I’d intended so I’m going to go through his legacy pretty quickly.

When Mucha died, his style was beginning to be seen as outdated.  Because of this and the war, Slav Epic was put into storage for twenty-five years, becoming water damaged as a result.  In 1961, Jiří Mucha’s biography of his father was published and interest in Mucha began anew.  In 1962, Prague commissioned the first nine panels of Slav Epic to be restored at their new location in Moravský Krumlov’s castle (where they were stored during the war), and by 1963 those panels were displayed.  Moravský Krumlov funded the restoration of the remaining canvases.

In the twenty-one years from 1963 to 1984, worldwide exhibitions of Mucha’s art took place, starting in London and continuing in Paris, Los Angeles, Baltimore, New York, Brussels, Tokyo, and Uppsala.  These exhibits include illustrations, posters, and photography.  In 1968, Moravský Krumlov exhibited all twenty pieces of the Slav Epic at the castle, where they would be on continuous display until 2011.

In 1991, Jiří Mucha died, and the following year, his wife Geraldine and their son John set up the Mucha Trust and the Mucha Foundation.  The Trust and Foundation help to control copyright issues, as well as setting up exhibits and tours.  Beginning in 1993, the Foundation worked on exhibits in London, Prague, Tokyo, Lisbon, Hamburg, and Brussels.  In 1998 the Foundation opened the Mucha Museum in Prague.  Exhibitions and retrospectives continued.  There were exhibits in London and Washington, D.C., Edinburgh, China, Taiwan, Japan, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Poland, Spain, Austria.

In 2010, Prague requested the return of Slav Epic from Moravský Krumlov.  When the move was proposed, there was a protest in Moravský Krumlov against it with more than one thousand people showing up.  In 2011, the City of Prague Gallery forcefully removed Slav Epic for return to Prague.

So that’s Mucha.  There was a lot more to talk about than I would have guessed.  I never knew he was so politically involved or that he had created something like Slav Epic.  I only knew of Mucha from his Art Nouveau works, all pastels, pretty women, and swirling designs; that’s not bad, but there’s so much more!  I wasn’t sure where to put it in above, but Mucha was also responsible for the bringing freemasonry back to Czechoslovakia.  Mucha’s artistic influence is still seen today.  In the 1980s he influenced artists and musicians, the band Soilent Green even using one of his pieces as an album cover.  One of my favorite internet-y, pop culture-y artists, Megan Lara, does gorgeous Art Nouveau works in the style of Mucha (the tall, narrow forms).  He’s so influential and so much more interesting than I ever knew.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 – Mucha Foundation Timeline

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