While a choirboy at the Cathedral of St. Peter & Paul in Brno, the capital of Moravia, Alphonse Mucha had a divine revelation about the nature of the Baroque aesthetic. It took him to Vienna, Munich, and finally to Paris, where the 1900 Universal Exhibition brought him international renown. The spiritual and the commercial appear perfectly wedded in his work, but he was conflicted about this his entire life.
Laurel: one half of Mucha’s Ivy and Laurel set of decorative panels, produced at the same time as the artist was designing the interior of George Fouqet’s jewelry shop, utilizing a similar design of female heads placed within circular borders adorning the windowpanes. The embodiment of laurel is framed by a decorative area of rich foliage and encircled by a mosaic pattern with “ the repetitive motif of a stylized letter M as we know it from Mucha’s alphabet.” (Mucha/Art Nouveau, p. 203). Note the full borders here, including an advertisement for the Muller stationers of Bordeaux at top and the calendarium at bottom.
This is Mucha’s single most famous work. It seems impossible that such flamboyant effort would be devoted to selling cigarette papers. But: the exotic tendrils of her hair conjure up the fractal whorls of smoke from an idle cigarette. The image is breathtaking; the beauty intoxicating. Photographs are seldom able to capture the metallic gold paint used for the hair, which gleams and radiates in the light, delivering an experience not unlike a religious icon.
“This pair of ladies represents the two transitory stages between night and day. Dawn throws off her cover as the morning sun chases away the night’s shadows; Dusk settles comfortably under the blanket as the sun sinks toward a crimson horizon. Only a barely perceptible difference in the delicate pastels distinguishes the two” (Lendl/Prague, p. 216).
Not Yanny, but Ivy: created to correspond with Laurel (see above). “Reminiscent in concept to the Byzantine Heads, this is a coupling of two girls’ profiles in cameos. Since they both represent leafy garden plants they are framed in pale green … rich foliage. The backgrounds behind the girls in their respective cameos features mosaic patterns. The decorative use of foliage of this sort was characteristic of many of the designs which appeared in Mucha’s Documents décoratifs portfolio” (Rennert/Weill, p. 280). “It is possible that Mucha was inspired by the dancer Lygie for the panel Ivy. This is indicated in the similarity … with the poster, also produced in 1901, advertising her performance in Tableaux Vivants (Living Pictures), which was based on the themes of Mucha’s decorative works” (Mucha/Art Nouveau, p. 203, also see PAI-LXXIII, 390).
Champenois had such success with Mucha’s 1896 suite of decorative panels that he asked the artist to execute the theme again in 1897 and 1900. This panel is from that latter set. A brief descriptive poem for each season is included in this particular version of the panels, and the text here reads, “Autumn, symbolizing the year’s coming of age and bearing the vineyard harvest bounty, presents fruit that the summer sun has turned to gold.” This is the finest, most richly colored version of this image we have seen.
“Plume et Primevere” – or, Quill and Primrose. “This series of decorative panels originally sold for 12 francs on paper, or 40 francs on satin. It depicts two rather pensive maidens, one blonde and one brunette, one holding a primrose, the other a goose quill and a leafy branch. Typical Art Nouveau ornamentation prevails in the background patterns and in the jewelry worn by the girls” (Lendl/Prague, p. 218). A recent exhibition catalogue rightly calls this a “masterful” work: “The beauty of this pair of panels lies in the contrast between the geometric mosaic behind the head of Quill and the floral ornamental circle inspired by nature behind the head of Primrose” (Mucha/Art Nouveau, p. 198).
This “was a play with a Biblical theme [in which Bernhardt] played Photina, a girl from the Samaria district of Ancient Palestine, who becomes a supporter of Jesus and leads her whole tribe in converting to Christianity” (Rennert/Weill, p. 118). “Bernhardt’s mother was Jewish. For the actress, this was both a blessing and a curse. In Biblical roles such as Photine … she turned her Semitic exoticism into an alluring attribute. In the poster by Alphonse Mucha for the play, the Hebrew inscription ‘JAHWEH’ appears behind Bernhardt’s head, while ‘SHADDAI,’ another Hebrew word for God, accompanies the inset picture. Playing to the public’s appetite for beautiful Jewish women redeemed by their conversion to Christianity, Bernhardt in the role of the Samaritan woman adheres to a faith resembling pre-rabbinical Judaism. Almost Jewish, but not quite, Photine is a sort of surrogate for Bernhardt and her equivocal religious identity” (Bernhardt/Drama, p. 2).
A liqueur made by Parisian Trappist monks requires a bit of reverence: an ideal commission for Mucha, whose first artistic epiphany arrived while he was a young chorister at a Czech cathedral, and had a revelation while gazing at the baroque embellishments. This time, our maiden’s divine halo is a labyrinth of concentric circles enclosing Celtic-style crosses. Rather than the wild, sensuous tangles of JOB, “the hair is entirely orderly and hangs down in a single thick strand, but that is because it has the function to lead our eyes to the tabouret in the foreground which holds the bottle” (Rennert/Weill, p. 134). This is a two-sheet poster.
One of Mucha’s most classic and recognizable images. We far more frequently acquire it on biscuit tins, with inferior coloration to this superb example of Belle Époque naturalism on the model’s face. Her hair is adorned similarly to the brew-maiden of Bières de la Meuse (No. 383); “the design of the girl’s dress incorporates sickle and wheat emblems appropriate to the subject” (Rennert/Weill, p. 113). This is the original version of the poster with the 1897 calendarium.