Much About Mucha

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Reader Vanessa requested a post on Alphonse Mucha, the Czechoslovakian artist who started the Art Nouveau movement, known at the time as "le style Mucha". Although he is most well-known for his theatrical (Sarah Bernhardt) and commercial (Chambord) posters, Mucha was frustrated with such fame, because he felt that art existed only to communicate a spiritual method; he wanted to concentrate on, and be known for, projects that would ennoble art and his birthplace. His masterpiece, "Slovanská epopej" (The Slav Epic), is such a project.

1. Alphonse Mucha's childhood dream was to create a series of paintings in celebration of Slavic history. The 20 huge paintings that comprise "Slovanská epopej" took Mucha more than 18 years to complete and were made possible through the sponsorship of American millionaire Charles Crane. Mucha bestowed the series, which depicts the history of the Czech people (and Slavic peoples in general) to Prague in 1928. Just ten years later, during the war, the paintings were rolled up and stored away for 25 years before being put on display in 1963 in the castle at Moravsky Krumlov.

2. Although Mucha exhibited artistic interest and skill as a child, his early years were spent singing, as he attended the Church of St. Peter school in Brno (the capital of Moravia) on a choral scholarship. At age 18, he applied to the Prague Academy of Fine Arts, but they rejected his application, advising him: "Find yourself another profession where you'll be more useful."

3. While the Academy didn't recognize Mucha's talent, Count Khuen Belasi did. He hired the teenaged Mucha to decorate Hrušovany Emmahof Castle with murals. The count's brother, an amateur artist, also took note of Mucha's skill, and sponsored his formal studies at the Munich Academy of Art (which apparently didn't have the same opinion as the Prague Academy).

4. Mucha lived in Paris for some time, staying in a studio above a cremerie. There he met Paul Gauguin before Gauguin departed for Tahiti. Upon his return to Paris, Gauguin shared Mucha's studio.

5. During his career, Mucha tried just about every artistic pursuit possible. In addition to producing the paintings, posters, and advertisements for which he's famous, Mucha also illustrated and wrote books; created bronze sculptures; designed jewelry, carpets, wallpaper, and theatre sets; participated in the Lumiere brothers' cinematographic experiments; and took up photography. He even designed the postage stamps, banknotes, and other government documents for Czechoslovakia when it won its independence after World War I.

6. When the German troops marched into Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, Mucha was one of the first people arrested by the Gestapo, as his work and his Slavic nationalism were deemed "reactionary." During the course of his interrogation, he developed pneumonia; although he was later released, he never recovered. He died on July 14 of a lung infection. The Nazis banned the public from his funeral, but more than 100,000 Czechs attended anyway.

For more about Mucha: ARC's Mucha gallery, Ian Johnston lecture on Mucha & Art Nouveau,  and the judgment on a Mucha lawsuit.

A larger version of "Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy," part of the Slav Epic, is available here; a few of the other Slav Epic paintings are available here.

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June 12, 2008 - 11:39am
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