Alphonse Mucha, master of Art Nouveau

Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) was one of the most relevant Art Nouveau artists. He created the “Mucha style” that had a great influence in decorative arts and advertising illustration. Several exhibitions on this artist have taken place recently, both in the UK and other European countries; all have been promoted by the Mucha Foundation. There is also a permanent collection at the Mucha Museum in Prague, opened by the foundation in 1998.

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Self-portrait with Gismonda‘s poster in the background. Ca. 1896. S950.a.201.2411

Mucha was born in Ivančice (near Brno) in 1860, when it was part of the Austrian Empire (now Czech Republic). He lived his youth in Brno in a growing atmosphere of Czech nationalism. Despite having artistic talents from a very young age, he was not able to gain a place at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. Mucha worked for a major theatrical company in Vienna, but the theatre burnt down. Then he ran out of money, but he was lucky enough that his portraits were appreciated by the Count Khuen Belasi in Moravia. Thus, the Count Khuen and his brother, Count Egon, decided to commission him to paint some murals. The latter was so fascinated by his works that decided to become his patron. Thanks to his benefactor Mucha received two years of training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts before moving to Paris in 1887. There he continued his formal art training and worked for a magazine creating advertising illustrations. He met Paul Gauguin in 1891; they become friends and Mucha offered Gauguin his studio, which they shared for some time.

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Summer, 1896 (Wikimedia).

In 1894 he met the stage star Sarah Berhardt, while he was correcting printed proofs for a friend at a printing house. The artist demanded a poster for the play Gismonda as a matter of urgency, but the artists of the printing house were on holiday, so he was the only one available for this commission. This stroke of luck boosted his career because the French stage actress loved the poster and decided to offer him a five year contract. This work was so innovative that it became very popular in Paris. Mucha features beautiful young women in elegant and sensual poses, surrounded by halos or flower decorations, using mainly pastel colours.

The Art Nouveau movement sought the extinction of the distinctions between major and minor arts. Thus, they believed that there was no hierarchy among art creations. Hence, Mucha was a: painter, illustrator, sculptor, designer of: decorative arts, jewellery, theatre costumes… He also worked on packaging design (biscuits boxes, perfumes…), and designed menus and other promotional material for firms like Moët & Chandon. Moreover, he designed the Georges Fouquet’s jewellery shop. In addition, some of his works have a clear mystic character. Mucha published in 1902 Documents décoratifs, an influential catalogue of 72 plates with designs of decorative arts (see gallery below). It was intended to be used by all kind of designers, featuring not only specific objects, but also patterns that could be used in many arts.

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Georges Fouquet’s jewellery shop, 1901. Click here to see enlarged (Wikimedia).

He designed the Pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Exposition Universelle in Paris (1900). On the advice of some American acquaintances in Paris, Mucha moved to the United States. The American press called him the best decorative artist in the world. In 1906 he married Marie Chytilova, twenty years younger than him. The couple spent several years in the US, but eventually a lack of sponsorship frustrated his plans. Luckily, Charles R. Crane, American millionaire with a love for the Slav people, decided to finance Mucha’s Slav Epic cycle. This project was a celebration of Slavic history. It consists of twenty monumental/large-format paintings. Mucha returned to Bohemia in 1910 and spend long years working on the Slav Epic (1912-26), presented in 1928 as a gift to the city of Prague. The cycle was hidden during the 2nd World War and it was not until the early sixties when the Slav Epic was restored and displayed. The cycle will be exhibited this year for the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia.

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In 1939 the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia and Mucha was arrested by the Gestapo. Although he was released, he died of pneumonia that summer. The artist was a multifaceted person: an important Freemason, a Slav nationalist, a mystic artist, and a believer in a fundamental spiritual purpose of art. Mucha made great contributions to Art Nouveau with his fresh and personal style, the so-called Mucha style. He helped the decorative arts to move forward and went beyond the existing hierarchy of the major and minor arts.

Manuel del Campo

 

Further reading

Bridges, Anne (ed.) Alphonse Mucha: the graphic works. London: Academy, 1980. 9400.b.3225

Husslein-Arco, Agnes … [et al.] Alphonse Mucha. Munich: Prestel, 2014. S950.a.201.2411

Johnson, Ian. An introduction to the work of Alfons Mucha and Art Nouveau. 2004. Available online.

Mucha, Alphonse. Documents décoratifs. 1902. (English facsimile ed. 1980. Ua.6.535)

Mucha, Jiří. Alfons Mucha. Praha: Mladá fronta, 1982. 400:4.d.95.112

Ormiston, Rosalind. Alphonse Mucha: masterworks. London: Flame Tree, 2007. S950.a.200.2521

Winter, Annegret. Ein “style Mucha”? : zum Frauenbild in Kunst und Dekoration um 1900. Weimar: Verlag und Datenbank für Geisteswissenschaften, 1995. 400:4.c.95.828

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