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 mastery evident in creating two archetypes of the female form against a decorative background confirms Mucha’s artistic maturity. Both women, portrayed in profile, have their heads decorated with beautiful jewelry, the richness and oriental nature of which suggested the name Byzantine Heads for the series. The subtle differences in details between the paintings are worth noticing. For the first time, there appears the perfect form of Mucha’s often-used motif, circle framing each head interrupted by a strand of hair. With this device, it is as if Mucha’s unreachable beauties have broken the magic border between themselves and their admirers and suggest the possibility that they might, perhaps, meet” (Mucha/Art Nouveau, p. 192).
“Alexander Dumas Jr.’s drama… had been very popular since its premier in 1852. Sarah Bernhardt considered it to be the key drama in her repertoire. This is perhaps Mucha’s most beautiful poster. The story of the tragic love of the great courtesan is portrayed in the poster with shocking impact. The figure of the heroine in a white robe leans against a balustrade with a background of silver stars. Her rich swept-back hair is adorned with her favorite flower, the camellia. This heraldic flower is repeated at the bottom of the poster, held by a mysterious hand… The tragedy is also symbolized by the hearts twined by thorny branches in the corners above the figure’s head… Mucha’s ability to characterize the substance of the play for which he created this poster, as well as his ability to express the most beautiful features of Sarah’s personality, was brought to perfection in this poster” (Mucha/Art Nouveau, p. 146).
Mucha. Sarah Bernhardt. Hamlet. What more needs to be said? Bernhardt gazes out hauntingly as the Prince of Denmark; behind her, the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father; below her feet, the drowned Ophelia. “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties…” After performing in Britain, the Birmingham Gazette wrote, “[Bernhardt’s] Hamlet is a man in constant frenzy, possessed with the one thought of avenging his father’s death. He is not mad, but maddened.” The rest is silence. This is a two-sheet poster.
Mucha’s imaginative decorative panels representing the Four Seasons were so successful that he made at least three different sets—in 1896, 1897, and this one in 1900. This set, created at the same time as some of his most celebrated works for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, is arguably the most emotive and artistically imaginative of the three. Winter is secluded, hidden, in tones of white and brown; Spring steps forward with erotic directness of intent; Summer is warm, languid, and indolent; while Autumn, regal Autumn, sets her bounty out with Byzantine splendor. It is exceptionally rare to have all four of these panels together in a single lot; it is even rarer to find this full 1900 set printed on silk, which gives an added luster to the presentation.
“One of the fundamental premises of Art Nouveau was to look for inspiration in nature, and in ‘The Flowers’ set Mucha produced one of the best arguments for it. The four ethereal sprites represent [from left to right, respectively] the Rose, the Iris, the Carnation, and the Lily, and it is a clear case of Beauty celebrating beauty in each instance” (Lendl/Prague, p. 201). Originally, these images each occupied a separate panel, and were sold in a set; here, they’re placed side-by-side on a single sheet, which enabled Mucha to create a particularly Belle-Époque border for it, with ivy leaves, vines, and blossoms bursting out from the margins.
Heather from Brittany; Holly from Normandy. Both the flora and the costumes of the two women symbolize these seaside provinces of northwestern France, which look across to one another, both in these pictures and on the map. “Mucha himself, according to his son Jiri, always referred to the pictures as ‘La Bretonne’ and ‘La Normande.’ Their official names are Chardon de Grèves (Thistle of the Beach) and Bruyère de Falaise (Heather of the Cliffs). The thistle depicted here, however, is a common European plant of the eryngo family named Sea Holly—the real thistle would be too prickly [for the pose]” (Rennert/Weill, p. 290). Note the superb decoration at the bottom margin, which appears to anticipate the most elaborate interior design flourishes of the Art Deco period.
“For the firm of Moët & Chandon… Mucha executed a number of designs which were used on menus, postcards and other publicity. Two of his assignments were for posters; one of them was used to advertise their White Champagne… while the other served to publicize the… Crémant Imperial. [White Star’s] seductive being tempts us with choice grapes in a lovely outdoor setting, with flowers at her feet and vine tendrils and leaves all about her head… [While Crémant Impérial is a] grand design for a grand wine—the serene repose of the classically beautiful face, the gentle flowing garment, the delicate hues, the rich ornamental pattern, and the precise handling of spaces and shapes” (Rennert/Weill, p. 244).
“Vin des Incas was… a coca-based potion sold in pharmacies with the vague medicinal claim that it helps ‘convalescents.’ Mucha shows an ancient Indian paying obeisance to a luscious goddess. Both are wearing feathered headdresses, and the atmosphere is one of languorous tropical idyll” (Rennert/Weill, p. 176). This is the smaller format version.
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