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.
Zodiac “turned out to be one of [Mucha’s] most successful designs… The editor of La Plume liked it so much that he bought it for his magazine almost immediately and started giving it wide publicity… Mucha’s customary circular background here serves the functional role of carrying the symbols of the zodiac. The ornamental shapes and patterns around the perimeter are worked out with a precision and attention to detail unusual even for a meticulous artist like Mucha” (Rennert/Weill, p. 100). This is the fourth iteration of the design, without text or calendarium; instead, Mucha has drawn two cherubs in the bottom panel.
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’s leading lady, “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.
This is the only known variant of the poster with text at bottom for her performance at the Villa des Fleurs in Aix-Les-Bains.
Mucha and Paul Gauguin were close friends and artistic colleagues. “In matters of technique they agreed—they both believed in composition, the symbolic importance of colours, and a firm line… Whether [Mucha] was directly influenced by Gaguin’s cloisonisme is difficult to assess. It may well have provided the unconscious impulse which helped him to clarify his own thoughts. Mucha probably valued Gauguin far more as a thinker than as a painter… he was aware of his genius and was distressed by the lack of understanding shown by the public” (Jiri Mucha, p. 52). In this intimate drawing, Mucha captures Gauguin with a quizzical look on his face. On the verso is a signed dedication from Mucha to Louis Aragon with a stamp from the Mucha estate.
Although we don’t often see jewelry at our poster auctions, this piece is a wonderful exception. Mucha himself was a fan of designing wearable accessories. So when Georges Favre-Jacot, the founder of Zenith watches, asked Mucha to contribute a design, the answer was a resounding yes. Mucha adapted his 1896 Seasons imagery for the four designs; this one presents his Spring panel, which was engraved in niello silver by Huguenin Frères. The details of the watch are as follows: round silver case, oval bail, fluted crown, officer back, white enamel dial, Arabic and Roman numerals painted black, “English Pear” hands in blued steel, and signed dial and movement; the watch comes with a silver and bronze presentation holder. The watches were so distinguished that they were award the Grand Prix (or Grand Prize) at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. There are six known sets of watches, four of which are in the Zenith Foundation Museum, one given to the city of Paris, and the single image offered here. Rare!
“It is clear that Mucha understood well the principles of selling not the object itself, but the feeling that is associated with it. Here, he is barely showing a piece of the bicycle… but as to the pleasure of riding, this sylph has it all over any dreary mechanical details. Airily she caresses the machine, her windblown hair embodying motion and a restless spirit, a vision of idle loveliness and a perfect Mucha maiden. Her gaze at us is straight and direct, not flirtatious but inviting and challenging, daring us to take her on in a race… Mucha finally had a perfect subject that justified hair in motion, and he took full advantage of it, giving her the most dizzying configurations of his famous ‘macaroni’ [hair]. The Perfecta was an English brand bicycle, which makes this one of the very few Mucha posters for an English client. It was also sold in France” (Rennert/Weill, p. 294). This is the larger format.
“In this series, Mucha began to see the decorative panel as painting with a meaning deeper than mere ornament. He connected his attraction to higher ideals, expressed through the stars, with his recurring theme of beautiful women personifying the stars as floating female figures… The dramatic quality of the movement of the individual figures is also remarkable, resembling the great baroque artistic heritage of Mucha’s country” (Mucha/Art Nouveau, p. 206). “Mucha’s last and perhaps most unusual series of panels achieves an eerie effect of moonlight and starry wonder in four scenes with nocturnal nymphs… A few swirls of cloth and several hues of colour suggest a windswept eve; a modest hand gesture hints at the silent serenity of a lunar nightscape; a luminous band creates the impression of the Northern Lights; and the act of shedding the night wrap symbolises the advent of dawn. But although these are celestial allegories, the sturdy frames with a floral pattern anchor them firmly on Earth” (Lendl/Prague, p. 234). Seen left to right in the illustration are the moon, the Evening Star, the North Star, and the Morning Star. This is the larger format. (4)
“The falcon (in Czech, ‘Sokol’) is the largest bird of prey to be found in the Czech woods… Its name was used by a seemingly innocuous athletic organization that was founded during the dark era when the Slav nations of Central Europe were the unwilling subjects of Austrian rule. The purpose of Sokol was to train young people in athletics and organize, every four years, a countrywide gymnastics competition along the lines of the Olympic games. But the real purpose was much deeper: the Sokol was a fervently patriotic political society which worked tirelessly to arouse the nationalistic spirit and throw off the Austrian yoke… The quadrennial Sokol Festival held in 1912, the sixth since the practice was put into effect in 1892, was the last one in which the patriotic message still had to be concealed from authorities; two years later, World War I broke out, and the older order was on its way to perdition. Mucha’s poster for the event is a happy combination of the realistic with the symbolic: the girl with the garlands and the staff with Prague’s emblem on it is real, while the dimly adumbrated young woman in the background holding a spiked ring and a falcon is a symbolic figure” (Rennert/Weill, p. 338). This is the only known version of the poster with the bottom text panel in English.
This exceptionally rare work by Mucha celebrates the 10th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s independence. The central figure is the female embodiment of the Czech Republic; she is blessing the vow of two brothers, one Slovak and one Czech, to live harmoniously together in the new state. The image is hand-signed by Mucha and includes a dedication to his friend, Frank Sprague, who Mucha often visited in New York.
In-gallery viewing February 24-March 25 (11am-6pm daily)