◎Alfons Mucha’s Art Nouveau
There are few names as synonymous with the Art Nouveau era as Alfonse Mucha. Born in 1860 in Moravia (part of the modern-day Czech Republic), Mucha would go on to revolutionize artistic creation by fully embracing the age of Art Nouveau design through the myriad of projects he undertook.
Like every aspiring artist of the day, Mucha ended up in Paris in 1887 where he studied at the Academie Julian. He fed off of the enthusiasm for artistic innovation alongside the rich colors and modern forms of the late 19th-cenutry world, as arts were embracing the “new art” of Art Nouveau, one that blended ideas of art and design and emphasized the importance of the creative process.
Mucha was catapulted into artistic stardom following the release of his promotional poster design for famed French actress Sarah Bernhardt’s lead role in Gismonda in 1894. The incredible success of that innovative poster transformed Mucha into an artistic icon overnight. Bernhardt was so pleased that she began a six-year contract with Mucha and soon his work became known as the epitome of Art Nouveau. Part of Mucha’s appeal was his adaptability across artistic mediums. He produced a flurry of paintings, posters, advertisements, and book illustrations, as well as designs for jewelry, carpets, wallpaper, and theatre sets in what was termed initially “The Mucha Style”, but became known as “Art Nouveau”.
Throughout his life Mucha was unhappy with his style being labeled as “Art Nouveau” and tirelessly tried to disassociate himself from the movement. He always insisted that rather than maintaining any fashionable stylistic form, his paintings were entirely a product of his personal artistic spirit and Czech heritage.
◎Celebration of the Fin de Siècle
The turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe was the time of the Industrial Revolution with many epoch-making inventions, the use of electricity, the boom of mechanical engineering and the first automobiles. In those days World Expositions were the platforms where state-of-the-art science and technology from around the world was brought together. The “Exposition Universelle” of 1900 was a world's fair held in Paris, France to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate development into the next. The style that was universally present in the exposition was Art Nouveau.
Alfons Mucha was at the top of his fame at the time. His gripping and energizing art earned even more international praise when he created the décor for the Bosnia and Herzegovina Pavilion at the “Exposition Universelle”. Mucha said, "I think the “Exposition Universelle” made some contribution toward bringing aesthetic values into arts and crafts.”
With the industrial revolution and the increased development of consumerism in the late 19th century, printing techniques became increasingly sophisticated. By the early 20th century, the streets of Paris were decorated with all kind of posters. Alfons Mucha, following his success with Bernhardt, emerged as its shining star. With his new status came a multitude of commissions, especially from the luxury industry. Capturing the essence of the fin-de-siècle spirit, Mucha soon became an internationally recognized designer and artist, expanding his unique style to paintings, jewelry and interior design. He became a very influential designer of the Art Nouveau movement, although Mucha didn’t identify with the term.
◎The Fight for National Independence
The turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries was characterized by a fight for national independence of small nations. In the Czech lands, resistance against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the germanization of their homeland was growing stronger.
Alfons Mucha was a great patriot, and while in Paris he was continually disappointed that nobody knew anything about his homeland. Ironically, it was a commission from the Austrian government, the very power from which the Czechs wanted to liberate themselves, that provided the initial impetus for Mucha’s move to Bohemia in 1910. In 1899, he was charged with designing various displays for Austria’s presence at the 1900 Paris Exposition, specifically inside the pavilion for the newly annexed territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This commission reawakened Mucha’s interest in the Pan-Slavism of his youth, and in the culture and history of other Slavic countries.
Mucha’s main priority after returning to Prague was the patriotic Slav Epic a series of large-scale canvases, heavily influenced by the Pan-Slavic history. He intended this series to educate the Slavic people in the hopes of inspiring them in the common cause of independence. After Czechoslovakia was established in 1918, Mucha became a fervent supporter of the newly-founded democracy and designed the country’s first postage stamps and banknotes.
◎The Slav Epic
A monumental series to which it would be hard to find a parallel elsewhere in the world, The Slav Epic is a series of twenty large-format canvases (the largest measuring over 6 by 8 meters) depicting the history of the Slav people and civilization. Mucha was convinced that the future of any nation depends on the knowledge of its past.
The concept of the series was steeped in Pan-Slavism with its notions of shared Slavic history, a sense of unity among Slavic people, and hopes of creating an independent Slavic nation. Mucha regarded it as a monument for all the Slavonic peoples and he devoted the latter half of his career to the realization of this work.
Mucha visited the United States in the hope of finding a benefactor who would support his ambitious project and in 1909, he secured sponsorship from Charles R. Crane, a wealthy Chicago businessman and philanthropist. Crane was intensely interested in the development of political affairs in Eastern Europe and Slavonic culture and he was to provide financial to Mucha for almost twenty years.
Between 1912 and 1926 Mucha’s energy was taken up with the creation of The Slav Epic. In the series, he depicted twenty key episodes from the Slavic past, ancient to modern, ten of which depict episodes from Czech history and ten on historical episodes from other Slavonic regions. Mucha and Crane officially presented the complete series of The Slav Epic to the City of Prague as a gift to the nation, coinciding with the 10th Anniversary of its independence.