Monday, 24 November 2008

Mad about Mucha

Bet you've never heard of Alfons Mucha. I never had. Bet you know and like his work. I love it. Sadly, the Mucha Museum doesn't grant photographic permission, not even at a price.

If they did, you'd have every inch of what was on display here on these webpages. (Bad enough that you'll have to suffer through the Museum of Decorative Arts, which does sell permission to photograph!)

Alfons Mucha was a Czech graphic artist, at least that is how he made his living. Born in 1860 in Moravia, he trained in Paris as a painter and did the starving artist thing for a while, hanging out with folks like Gauguin and Rodin. In 1895, he was commissioned to do a poster to advertise Sarah Bernhardt's role as Gismonda and that made his name. He went on to do a series of Bernhardt posters, and then illustrated calendars, magazines, cookie tins, you name it. He did big stuff for the Paris Exhibition and in the early 1900's he lived in New York, where he also made a big splash and had all the work he could manage. Just Google Alfons Mucha images and you'll see what I mean.

I was interested to learn that two important aspects of Art Nouveau were that it represented nature, ie natural shapes and forms, and thus all the use of trees and flowers. Also that it was meant for the designs to be such that they could be transferred to decorate household items; I read elsewhere that it was something to do with 'removing the line between art and audience'. I think it was more of a good marketing ploy. Either way, Mucha published at least one book demonstrating how virtually everything should be decorated. I just wish more people followed his instructions.

Another thing about Art Nouveau was that it was traditional to present the work in a series, such as the Four Seasons, the Four Times of Day or the Four Arts. Bill translated the Four Arts poster for me. Not speaking French, I had to ask what exactly were the Four Arts. He knew: music, dance, literature and painting. I'm continually astounded at what that man knows.

The museum itself (run by Mucha's grandson) calls him a graphic artist, which surprised me. It sounds sort of...plebian. When I think about it, though, decorating posters and tea boxes is what graphic artists do. After he'd made his name and, presumably fortune, however, he returned to the Czech Republic -- now part of the new country called Czechoslovakia -- and set about what he really wanted to do, paint about the history of the Slav people. If his graphic art is so beautiful it melts my heart, his paintings are absolutely awe inspiring. Unfortunately I can't find the one I really want to share. I can only find what looks like it might be the central figure of that painting, available commercially with the name Winter Night.

I was thinking the title of the larger painting was something about The Star, but I can't find it anywhere online. It is a huge picture of a winter night lit only from a single star above. A lone woman in traditional peasant clothing kneels, surrounded by nothing but deep snow, until you look more closely and see some wolves watching her from a hill top not that far away. She is highlighted by starlight and her face is turned upwards to it with such sorrow and resignation that it gave me chills. It's really a disturbing picture. Mucha painted it about 1920, just after the Russian Revolution, which of course is part of the history of the Slavs. Bill and I can't remember whether the it was the notes beside the painting or Bill's interpretation that the wolves represented the Communists. It has to be acknowledged that peasants didn't fair well under the Tzarists either, which is why communism was seen as a viable alternative.

Mucha appeared to have enjoyed a very successful life. He got to spend the last 18 years working on his Slav paintings, but also producing other patriotic works for his country, such as designing their money and all their official documents, like passports, etc. Though over time his work faded in popularity, not being new anymore, he was still a famous and influential enough person that when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, he was amongst the first people they swept up and took in for 'questioning'. He died shortly after that experience, in 1939.

It's all over the internet that his work is still copyrighted, as it has not yet been 70 years since his death. I'm not sure about all the legal stuff, but sounds to me that as of the 15th of July next year, I can change the format of this whole blog to Art Nouveau! Until then, you can feast your eyes here, or here or here.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I have seen his work. Very interesting what we learn as we travel.


Jenni said...

Wow very interesting story! Thanks for sharing this. I am learning my family is from Czechoslovakia on my dads side :)

Shelley said...

Hi Jenni. Took me a while to figure out which story you meant, as I don't usually use Googlemail to deal with comments. So I learned something in figuring out where your comment went.

If you found this post about Mucha, you'll know that I love Prague and there was a ton of stuff to read and see about our last visit there.

Thank you for following my blog!