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.
The finest specimen we’ve ever seen – not linenbacked.
“Mucha went all out with a most opulent design. The shy maiden, kneeling, enraptured with the tranquility of the bay of Monte Carlo, is completely encircled by the curving stalks of lilacs and hydrangeas, featuring some of the most intricate conflorescences ever painted by Mucha. Since the client was a railroad – Chemin de Fer P.L.M. – it is probable that the design is meant to suggest the tracks and wheels that convey the public to Monte Carlo. The maiden is probably Spring herself, enraptured with the beauty of the seascape” (Rennert/Weill, p. 136). This is the variant with the railroad information printed in the lower right.
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 series of decorative panels sold for 12 francs in the paper version, and on satin, for 40 francs” (Lendl/Paris, p. 93). 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). These are rare examples of the two designs, both on silk.
This “comedy by Maurice Donnay, starred Maurice Granier and Lucien Guitry, and premiered on November 5, 1895. There is very rich ornamentation ..which adroitly divides it into three scenes and thereby harmonizes elements which might otherwise appear quite busy: there is a Punch-and-Judy show in the upper left, a tragic commentary in the upper right, and the entire bottom section is given to the play’s party scene, replete with fashionable guests, strolling violinists, dancers, flowers, champagne, and other indications of a good time had by all” (Rennert/Weill. p. 62).
In subdued pastels, this “quartet of barefoot young ladies represents the different times of the day. The borders are decorated in identical patterns. . . and the crisscross areas at the top have different floral panels. Each girl appears in an outdoor setting, with slender trees or tall flowers emphasizing her slim figure . . . The borders are worked out in such an exquisite pattern that each picture appears to be mounted in an elaborate frame of its own, or else seen through a decorated window. Quite possibly Mucha’s whole concept for the series was that of gothic stained-glass windows” (Rennert/Weill, p. 232).
Sarah Bernhardt adopts the pose of a pensive Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), the most powerful of the Medicis, in this play by Alfred de Musset. In the drama, Lorenzaccio struggles to save Florence, which had grown rich during his reign, from the grip of a power-hungry conqueror. Mucha represents this tyranny by a dragon menacing the city coat of arms (top left); Lorenzo has closed the book he was reading to ponder his course of action. Bernhardt adapted this 1863 play for herself, and the new version, represented by this poster, opened December 3, 1896. “Never afraid to tackle a male role, Bernhardt made Lorenzaccio one of the regular parts of her repertoire” (Lendl/Prague, p. 47). This is the two-sheet larger format, and has superb coloration and a crispness of line compared to other copies we have seen.
“With the decorative panel set of The Seasons of 1896 a proven success, Champenois had Mucha repeat the idea in a new design in 1897″ (Rennert/Weill, p. 151). This set, with the 1898 calendarium, turned out to be an even more sensuous triumph – Winter, wrapped in a snowbound blanket; Spring, with breezes gusting about long tresses; Summer, recumbent, in diaphanous gauze beneath the sunflowers; and Autumn, jolly with fruits of the harvest. This particularly unusual rendition of the 1897 set is a smaller version of regular formats, and designed as a promotional calendar for L. Brancher, the manufacturer of inks used by printer F. Champenois. The Brancher imprint is above; a trio of months is perched below each model’s feet; and a grommet is at top center for a nail to hang it. As you might imagine, as a promotional tool for printer’s ink, the colors here are spectacular – particularly in the auburn tresses of Autumn.
Mucha and Moët were always meant to be together – he created menus, postcards and other publicity for the Champagne house founded in 1743 – but this is a pure transubstantiation of Moët & Chandon Champagne into artistic form. The Grand Crémant Impérial becomes a Byzantine empress, with a seriousness matched only by her sumptuousness. A masterpiece by any measure.
In-gallery viewing October 12 to 27 (daily 11am-6pm)