Art Review Archives:
by Sarah Mucha, Ronald F. Lipp (introduction), et al
Of the three media in which he excelled, only the swirling sensuality of his decorative Art Nouveau panels is commonly known of Alphonse Mucha today. Yet this Czech-born artist, whose international popularity reached its zenith in the poster work he produced for actress Sarah Bernhardt in Paris in the late 1800s, also worked in oil painting, pastels, and in a host of related endeavors including motifs for jewelry and furniture, richly illustrated art books, even interior design. Alphonse Mucha, released in association with The Mucha Foundation in Prague, Czechoslovakia, presents a diverse sampling of Mucha's achievements, not only of the beloved graphics of the 'Mucha Woman' in all her guises, but of the less well-known works that form a glimpse into the well-roundedness of the artist: a different, more serious side, dark at times, and lit with a steady flame of nationalistic fervor.
Sensually posed, provocatively bare, yet graceful and restrained, Mucha's commercial work serves as an excellent introductory section, drawing the reader in with the instantly recognizable and still-appealing style of this quintessential Art Nouveau designer. Mucha based each of his decorative panels on a female figure, seductive and gracile, expressive of a season, jewel, time of day, flower, or the arts. A swirling line of hair, drapery and pose, accented with framing composed of motifs from nature, form the dominant characteristics of color lithographs such as Dance from The Arts (1898: 60x38 cm) (also shown on the book's cover) in which the lithe form is caught buoyantly on tiptoe, the mobile whirlwind of line leading vision up and around the slim column of her body to the still-point of her alluring gaze. Selections from Mucha's Sarah Bernhardt posters, in which he was first to break from the standard poster format to produce innovative, almost life-size representations of the world-famous actress, are also represented, as are works tending toward the more directly commercial, such as the well-known advertisement for Job brand cigarettes, and those where the artist had greater creative freedom, including covers for the art magazine La Plume.
Within the graphic design medium, Alphonse Mucha reveals the artist as a tireless and protean designer, with a capacity almost limitless in scope and application. From the decorative 'Mucha Woman' panels and Bernhardt posters, the survey of Mucha's graphic work goes on to include a widely varied selection -- fantastically ornamented pages from two of his illustrated books, Le Pater (M. Piazza et Cie: Paris: 1899) and Ilsee, Princess of Tripoli (L'Edition de Art, H. Piazza et Cie, Paris: 1897); Belle Epoque jewelry design and a boutique interior done for jeweler Georges Fouquet; and illustrations from Documents decoratifs (1902), Mucha's self-published handbook of designs for artists, itself a compendium of graphic motifs, botanic studies, and designs for articles of jewelry, tableware, and furniture, much of these imbued with a fantastical element of hypnotic line and neo-Egyptian ornament.
The real exploration begins in the latter half of the book, which deals with the more little-known period of Mucha's life: not his fifteen-odd years in Paris as the master of Art Nouveau, but the other twenty-eight years of his life spent in the relative obscurity of Bohemia, his homeland. Mucha returned to his native land in 1910, there to remain until his death in 1938. Though far removed from the cosmopolitan streets of Paris his work as an artist went on tirelessly as ever. Placing his talents in the service of his fledgeling nation, he found a new grounding for depth and seriousness in his works.
In his Czech posters the 'Mucha Woman' achieves her maturity, taking on a more serious role as patroness of the fledgeling nation. In 6th Sokol Festival (color lithograph: 168.5 x 82.3 cm: 1912), gone are the sensuality and sweetness of figures such as The Arts: in their place is a stern, yet feminine puissance, invoked in the upright young princess with crown and cape, and echoed by the larger, more shadowy goddess-figure behind her, who wields both a falcon, and a spiked sun disc, traditional Czech symbol of hope. (Czechoslovakia was, at the time, subject to the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Sokol, or 'Falcon', a gymnastic organization for young men and women, was as well as a secret rallying-point for Czech national unity.) She is there as well in Lottery of National Unity (color lithograph: 128 x 95 cm: 1912), that fierce young woman, here barely a girl. The lottery was intended to raise funding for private schools in which the Czech language, banned in public schools under the Austro-Hungarians, could be taught. Mucha's schoolgirl clutches her pencils and tablet, her gaze stern with a child's imperious demand; behind her a weeping woman leans with head in hands, the folk figure of Cechia, symbolic of the Czech nation. Grief, demand: two emotions alien to the lightness of the Parisian posters.
Mucha's oil paintings from this period show a similar grounding. Although he had been trained in painting as a young artist, and dabbled in it during his Parisian period, not until his return to Bohemia did Mucha work with oils in any comprehensive way. Individual paintings such as Fate (oil on canvas: 51.5 x 53.5 cm: 1920) and Woman with a Burning Candle (oil on canvas: 78 x 79 cm: 1933) stand out as figures of enigma and import, Mucha's young woman here a figure of solemn, sibyllic mystery in her white robes.
But it is the cycle of history paintings known as The Slav Epic that qualifies as the artist's single most dramatic achievement. The canvases are huge, twenty feet tall, and as if their daunting size is not enough, the medium is equally unexpected: egg tempera, the quick-drying, impeccably precise medium generally associated with icons and devotional panels. It is rarely applied on canvas, certainly not on canvases as large as these. Tempera is unforgiving, permits of no retouching once painted, and dries so quickly that any work must be completed with meticulous swiftness, a small section at a time. Mucha could not have chosen a more demanding medium for large-scale work. In twenty monumental canvases (ten are included in the book) he illustrated episodes of Slavic history: grand vistas, teeming with characters, in which he melded actual historic events with elements of symbolism, mysticism, and allegory. Nowhere was Mucha's ideal of the "World Soul" fused so perfectly with his national fervor. Employing a strong-colored yet ethereal palette, he created depth without massivity, a luminous appearance whose lightness captures the sense of a glimpse into a spirit-infused history even as its magnificent rainbow hues imbue it with trembling life.
With nearly the entire body of Mucha's work, graphics, pastels, oils too, intimate in both scale and subject, one would hardly expect the artist to conceive of, much less execute, work of such grandeur. The mighty paintings of The Slav Epic are among the strongest evidence that Mucha's creative impulse compassed more than mere decorative lightness, and as such, they deserve more attention. Equally, one ends up wanting to know more about them; the brief annotations which serve well for his decorative panels and graphic works here do not do justice to these massive works. Subjects such as the ambassadorship of Cyril and Methodius, the heresy of Jan Hus, and the complexity of history surrounding the monastery on Mount Athos all require more detailed explanation than what is given, not only because they will be unfamiliar to most readers, but because to understand the subjects intensifies one's appreciation of what Mucha is intending to illustrate.
Other chapters include one devoted to Mucha's drawings and pastels, and another featuring his self-taken photographs of models in his Parisian studio, the imaginative environment in which he staged his poster designs. To add to the melange, further little additions are tucked in throughout the book, some seemingly intended to show just how protean the artist was in his output, others to give a hint of biographic flavor. They include everything from family portraits, to stained glass windows, to currency designed for the Czech nation, the odd bits of juvenilia in drawing, and a photograph of the artist in his Masonic accouterments.
Therein lies the two tensions of Alphonse Mucha. On the one hand, it seeks to invite a reassessment of Mucha's lifetime achievement, primarily in defense of the most dismissive criticism that is leveled at him, that his work is 'merely decorative.' The two opening essays by Peter Wittlich and Ronald Lipp -- the main text in a book primarily devoted to the lyrical visuals -- each touch on such a defense in their own way. Wittlich, Professor of Art History at Charles University, Prague, and an authority on Art Nouveau, describes the sincerity that infuses Mucha's work, even his panels and posters, to be rooted in deeply-felt dedications to religion and theatre, with later motifs inspired by the artist's interest in Masonry, the mysticism of the Victorian era, and the predominance of Symbolism as a movement in art and literature. Wittlich highlights Mucha's decorative panels as attempts to ennoble through art: the embodiment of the artist's intent to illustrate the ideal of the "World Soul," a new thought on the eve of the 20th century, the century which was to cure all man's ills with its science and knowledge. Where Wittlich touches on the spiritual origins of Mucha's inspiration, the longer text by art writer Ronald F. Lipp (portions based on previously published material) treats the biographical and factual: Mucha's childhood, his professional career in both Paris and Bohemia, and, illuminating in the degree to which an artist's work may suffer from neglect, and then resurrection, a study of the fate of Mucha's artworks and reputation in the years following his death.
But straining at the focus of this intent is a second impulse, the impulse to show as many examples of the artist's varied bodies of work and bits of personal biographical additions as possible. It is this which renders Alphonse Mucha a kaleidoscope of samples, bright with color, marvelous in their variety, yet seeming to shift restlessly from one topic to another. The sections melt into one another somewhat confusingly, despite their opening annotations by Wittlich, et al., and with a little bite here, a little bite there, one is left wanting a bit more of everything. And, with a focus on the Parisian period for nearly half the book, Alphonse Mucha ends up including much that, though it may be evidence of the artist's talent, is 'merely decorative.' Mucha was a working professional, and though much of the Parisian material evokes that mystical combination of "beauty and goodness" described by Wittlich, a good deal of it is simply competent graphic design.
Still, despite the magpie impulse, this is a curiously pleasing book. Wittlich's essay draws out much to see, even in Mucha's familiar popular works; Lipp's texts encourage a renaissance of reputation for this undeniably hard-working artist of kaleidoscopic talents. The Parisian graphic works are an enduring pleasure, the Czech-era works an illuminating surprise. Alphonse Mucha illustrates the diverse and productive output of the artist's lifetime: panels, oils, posters, studio photographs and tidbits of his personal life, all in a glorious jumble. The sum total is a glimpse into an artist far more complex than expected, driven by deeper intentions than simply the necessities of professional graphic design.
--Katherine R. Lieber
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