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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Alphonse Mucha

The Four Seasons, 1895, Alphonse Mucha
There may well be no greater blessing for an artist than the opportunity to retire at a reasonably early point in his or her life. I was so blessed. I had just turned fifty-three when I retired from school teaching in October, 1998. What followed was a burst of creative endeavors encompassing major works I'd long wished to do but in years before simply hadn't the time. It was the most productive painting period in my whole life. To some extent, it continues today, some sixteen years later, though my writing and travel schedule have caused my painting production to taper off somewhat. Today I paint totally for my own pleasure and only that which I wish to add to my painting legacy. In that sense I'm very much like the Czech painter Alphonse Mucha.

Four Seasons, 1900, Alphonse Mucha
Alphonse Mucha Self-portrait, 1899. 
If you know anything at all about art styles, you'll recognize from Mucha's 1895 The Four Seasons (top) and his later encore Four Seasons (just above) from 1900, that Mucha was an Art Nouveau painter. Although hyperbole is not unknown in among artists' biographies, many of Alphonse Mucha's biographers barely stop short of insisting he invented the style. Be that as it may, he was certainly one of its greatest European proponents and among the earliest artists to popularize through his own work this fin de siècle style of painting. And while Art Nouveau is usually characterized as being floral, or more broadly, organic; insofar as Mucha contribution to this largely German decorative motive is concerned, Art Nouveau might best be defined as seductively feminine. His "seasonal" work above, as well as his Times of the Day (below), not only went far in defining the Art Nouveau style, but also the turn of the century ideal of feminine beauty.

The Times of the Day, 1900, Alphonse Mucha
Sarah Bernhardt poster, 1894, Alphonse Mucha
Though born in Ivančice, Moravia (the present Czech Republic) in 1860, and obtaining his early training in the decorative arts at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, from around 1887 on, Mucha rounded out his studies in Paris at the Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi. He remained in Paris as he began his career not as a painter so much as in advertising, which of course, at that time meant posters. His "big break" came by accident in 1894 when he happened to be in a print shop and overheard frantic owner in desperate need for a poster advertising an appearance by the famed actress, Sarah Bernhardt. Mucha came to the rescue, guaranteeing to fulfill the printer's need within two weeks (less than half the usual time for such work). Mucha delivered. Bernhardt loved what was then a truly "new" style of art matching the name, Art Nouveau; and rewarded the artist with a generous six-year contract to produce all her posters.

Alphonse Mucha in his rented studio amid his "Slavic Epic."
The Head of a Girl, 1900, Alphonse Mucha,
one of his few sculptural pieces.
In 1906 Alphonse Mucha married Maruška Chytilová, whereupon the couple took an extended honeymoon to the United States for the next four years (that's really extended). In fact their daughter was born in New York while her father was trying to line up financial support for a large scale project he wanted to do in painting the history of the Czech and Slavic peoples. Although his commercial work had made him a relatively wealthy man, Mucha was tormented by the feeling that he'd "sold out" his more important calling in becoming a great Czech painter. At this time, he would have been in his mid-forties, too young to retire, but too old start over. He found the backing he needed in the person of the American millionaire businessman, Charles R. Crane, a promoter of Slavic nationalism.

Slavs in their Original Homeland, 1911, Alphonse, Mucha
Mucha and his family returned to Prague where he began planning his "Slavic Epic" while also doing decorative work in a theater and other public buildings. He visited many of the locations he was later to depict while doing other historic research to guarantee his works' authenticity. Then, in 1910, he rented part of the castle in Zbiroh where he began work. He produced the first in what was to become a series of twenty giant canvases a year later. The painting titled, Slavs in their Original Homeland (above) was followed intermittently over a period of some eighteen years by nineteen more, four of which are displayed below.

Tsar Simeon Bulharsky, 1922, Alphonse Mucha
After the Battle of Grunwald, 1923, Alphonse Mucha
The Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dušan as East Roman Emperor,
 1925, Alphonse Mucha
Holy Mount Athos, 1926, Alphonse Mucha
The completed series was first displayed in 1928 at a trade fair in Prague. With the advent of Nazism in nearby Germany, the group of giant canvases (some nearly twenty feet tall) were rolled up and hidden away to keep them from falling into German hands. When Prague was invaded by the Nazis in 1939, as a Czech nationalist, Mucha was one of the first to be interrogated by the Gestapo. He was seventy-nine at the time. Though eventually released, following the ordeal Mucha succumbed to pneumonia. He died a short time later. The "Czech Epic" remained hidden away after the war (this time from the Communists) for almost twenty-five years, until 1963 when the paintings were once more put on display at the chateau at Moravský Krumlov, where they remained for the next fifty years. More recently, and after considerable protest, the paintings were moved temporarily to Prague's National Gallery's Veletržní Palace. Even though Prague has a Mucha Museum displaying the artist's Art Nouveau work, it is not large enough for such a gigantic group of paintings. Plans are being made to eventually build a special museum for them in Prague.

The Alphonse Mucha Museum in Prague.

Mucha's Art Nouveau paintings have inspired
many artists then and now, as seen by the
adaptation of his The Dance to become a tattoo.

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