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.
In 1896, Mucha was flush with success after his work for Sarah Bernhardt. But he was about to be exhibited alongside the stars of French fin-de-siècle lithography—Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Steinlen, Grasset—in the Salon des Cent (the Salon of the One Hundred), a new series of exhibitions hosted by the literary magazine La Plume, which championed the art of lithography. “Mucha’s ambition was to become a member of this group,” wrote Victor Arwas. The artist succeeded by attracting the attention of the gallery’s owner, Deschamps. “Deschamps visited Mucha in his studio while he was designing the poster. Fascinated by what he saw, he persuaded Mucha to print it… Mucha agreed, and the publisher’s feeling, that this lightly outlined, impressive poster would make Mucha famous, proved to be correct” (Mucha/Art Nouveau, p. 156).
This is Mucha’s single most famous work, though 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 is the poster that launched Mucha’s career and introduced a new artistic style into commercial lithography. Prepared by Mucha as a rush order for Sarah Bernhardt’s theatre during the Christmas period of 1894, when the printer could not find any other artist available, it is a sensitive portrayal of the actress in an ornate costume for a deeply religious play that has her, in the third act, carry a frond in a Palm Sunday procession. The full size of the poster gives the viewer an opportunity to get the full effect of the lengthy robe; the Byzantine mosaic decoration emphasizes the biblical background; Sarah’s pious expression of faith; and the gentle pastel hues whisper the commercial message instead of shouting it. It was a radical departure from prevalent poster styles, and Paris took notice of the fact. Sarah Bernhardt was so grateful she made Mucha one of her protégés, and for the next few years he was the darling of Parisian high society. During this period, Art Nouveau and le style Mucha were synonymous, and his ideas on composition and decoration were taught in every art school. It is doubtful that any other single poster has ever had such far-reaching consequences for its creator and his whole epoch” (Lendl/Prague, p. 41). This is a two-sheet poster.
“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).
“The idea of personifying the four seasons was nothing new—the printer Champenois had done it before with other artists—but Mucha breathed so much more life into it that this became one of the best-selling sets of decorative panels, and he was asked to repeat this theme at least twice more, in 1897 and 1900. Winter, her brown hair barely visible as she is huddled in a long green cloak, snuggles by a snow-covered tree trying to warm a shivering bird with her breath” (Rennert/Weill, p. 90).
“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). In this version, Mucha added corners filigreed with curves to the original circular designs in order to create the standard rectangular shape of decorative panels. This is the rarest of all variants.
“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.
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). This is the only known variant of the decorative set, here used to advertise the Dewez printing firm as a promotional calendar with a 1905 calendarium.
This is a signed drawing for plate 14 of Mucha’s seminal “Figures Décoratives,” the 1905 book that encapsulated his vision and artistic ethos, and became a road map for pupils and aspiring artists. “His marvelous instinct for composition and a gift for decoration were based on a profound knowledge of his craft… The ideal proportion of the bodies, the harmony between the movement of the head, limbs, and drapery, the sense of balance inherent in each pose reveal the essential laws that govern nature. [The process] of simplifying and at the same time exaggerating the sinuous pose, and suffusing it with charm can be detected when we compare the reclining female figure in Plate 14 with the panneau Rêverie de soir (Evening Reverie) of 1899” (Figures Décoratives, introduction). Today, the plates have become highly sought collector’s items; the original drawings, immediate products of Mucha’s deft hands, are the quintessence of the Master of Art Nouveau—rare, revered, and revelatory. Provenance: Grosvenor Gallery, London.
Slavia, the heritage symbol of the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe, occupies the same function as Uncle Sam does for Americans—but we can all agree she’s much younger, prettier, and more elegant than old Sam. “Mucha’s model for the ‘typical Slav’ is, strangely enough, an American girl. He was asked to do this poster while living in the United States, and he chose for it a variant of his portrait of Josephine Crane Bradshaw, daughter of his millionaire friend Charles R. Crane who eventually became his patron and the sponsor of the monumental Slav Epic project. Slavia holds a ring in her hand which symbolizes unity… and there are two stylized peace doves on the arm rests of the hidden throne she is sitting on; but just in case, she also has a sword in her lap, the message being that the Slav is peaceful by nature but will fight when attacked.” Here, Slavia is merely encouraging you to buy insurance from the Mutual Insurance Bank of Prague. But she has a bright future in store. “This was one of Mucha’s favorite designs, and was used again on a Czech 100-korun note issued in 1920, and finally on a stained glass window for St. Vitus Cathedral” (Rennert/Weill, p. 322). This version, with Czech text, has not been seen before. Provenance: The Albertina Museum, Vienna.
Similar in design to other posters he made for this annual fair in Moravia, located in what today is the eastern part of the Czech Republic, we see a traditionally dressed peasant girl with flowers at her head and feet. Within the roundel behind her head, the heraldic crest of the country—a lion—can almost be seen. This is one of the more tellingly Slavic designs by Mucha, all the more important as it reflects his actual heritage mixed with his signature Art Nouveau flourishes. An interesting side note: Mucha sent the design for this poster from Paris before boarding a ship to America. Provenance: The Albertina Museum, Vienna.
In-gallery viewing Oct. 30 – Nov. 14 (daily 11am-6pm)