Alphonse Mucha

Summary

Alfons Maria Mucha (; Ivančice, July 24, 1860 – Prague, July 14, 1939) was a Czech painter, sculptor and publicist.His name is often Frenchified as Alphonse Mucha. He was one of the most important artists of Art Nouveau.

Youth and Adolescence

Alfons Maria Mucha was born on July 24, 1860 in Ivančice, Moravia (a region of the modern Czech Republic, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Son of a court usher, Ondřej Mucha (1825-1891), and his second wife Amálie Malá (1822-1880), a woman of humble origin but of great intelligence, Alfons already revealed his artistic vocation at a very young age, which was manifested in his many drawings of the reality around him: flowers, horses, monkeys were all subjects that captured his fervent attention, becoming in this way recurrent in his very first graphic production.

A decisive impulse, in any case, was provided by the religious training that he received at the initiative of his mother, a devout practicing Catholic. The young Mucha, in fact, spent several years at the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Ivančice, where he was an acolyte and choirboy. It was his talent for singing that allowed him, at the age of eleven, to join the choir of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in the city of Brno, where he also completed his secondary studies at the Slovanské Gymnasium. In Brno the young Alfons grew up in the patriotic environment that was part of the Czech national revival movement, from which he drew his love for the Moravian civilization and its traditions. The ecclesiastical environment also left deep traces on his imagination, animated by the imposing bulk of the cathedrals, the penetrating aroma of incense, the sound of bells and generally by impressions that accompanied him throughout his life and marked his artistic production in a particularly intense way.

In the autumn of 1878, on the advice of Josef Zelený, Mucha presented the application for the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, not being admitted (it was even suggested to choose a “different profession”), just nineteen years he moved to Vienna where he worked for the company Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt as a painter for theatrical sets.

For a young man who had barely ventured beyond Prague, a city that was picturesque but still profoundly provincial, Vienna must have seemed imposing, almost majestic. The city, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had just been revolutionized by a vast urban restructuring plan, culminating in the opening of a monumental artery that demarcated the perimeter of the city center, the Ringstraße, surrounded by elegant buildings in neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and neoclassical styles.

Mucha, in short, landed in a metropolis full of initiatives and ferment, and here he divided his time between the strenuous work and leisure and frequentations granted by a big city; he met Hans Makart, and actively participated in the intense and lively cultural life, animated by museums, concert halls and especially by the shows that were represented in the various theaters, which he visited assiduously having free and unlimited entries provided by the theater company.

Mucha remained in Vienna for two years. A tragic event, however, ended his stay in Vienna: a violent fire broke out in the Ringtheater on December 8, 1881, which killed at least 449 people and totally devastated the structure. Following this tragedy, the company Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt found itself facing a deep crisis, which led Mucha to be fired for reasons of corporate reorganization.

Disillusioned, Mucha, after having remained for a short period in Vienna, decided to rely on fate, taking a train at Franz Josef station and going as far as his savings would allow him. In this way he landed in Mikulov, Moravian town where he established himself as a portrait painter. Here he worked hard and the quality of his works caught the attention of Count Karl Khuen-Belasi, who commissioned him to decorate his castles at Emmahof, in Moravia, and in the Tyrolean town of Gandegg. Enthusiastic about the success of Mucha”s decorative enterprise, Belasi became a munificent patron, playing a decisive role in his fortune. The Count”s library, in fact, was endless, and it was here that Mucha could devour books on Delacroix, Doré, Daubigny and Meissonier; Belasi, moreover, allowed him to develop his artistic inclinations, taking him with him on a training trip to Italy.

Thanks to the authoritative influence of the Count, in September 1885 Mucha was able to enter the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, one of the oldest and most prestigious in Germany. Mucha acquired there a great figurative culture and began to acquire personal taste orientations; equally formative was the company of some university colleagues of Czech nationality who together with him, following the fashion of secret associations, founded the “society Škréta”, with a distinctly patriotic purpose. Among the various works of art created in the period of Monaco, in addition to the drawings published in the Palette (the magazine of the association), we note the altarpiece depicting Saints Cyril and Methodius.

A Bohemian in Paris

Feeling mature from the artistic point of view, and thanks to the financial support of Count Belasi, Mucha moved with his friend Karel Vítězslav Mašek in Paris to pursue academic studies at the Académie Julian. Paris, as well as being an artistically cosmopolitan city (in those years was under construction the Eiffel Tower, a symbol of modernity and progress), was home to a close-knit Bohemian community, which Mucha frequented assiduously, among Mucha”s French friends were also Paul Gauguin, Camille Claudel and Louis-Joseph-Raphaël Collin, his teacher at the Académie Colarossi (where he passed in autumn 1888), from which he drew the love for Japanese art.

The artist”s livelihood was still linked to the financial aid of the Count, which, however, ceased unexpectedly at the beginning of 1889. Mucha, then twenty-eight years old, to earn a living found himself working as an illustrator for several advertising magazines, in this way came to gradually acquire fame in the French art world. Among the first to recognize his talent was Henri Boullerier, director of the weekly Le Petit Français Illustré, of which Mucha became the regular illustrator. The collaboration with Boullerier brought him another important commission, this time coming from Charles Seignobos, who gave him the task of depicting the work Scènes et épisodes de l”histoire d”Allemagne. It was a very hot assignment, because the German people had always been very hostile towards the Czech and Slavic civilization, but despite this, Mucha managed to win their jolts of indignation, recognizing in this commission the first priceless recognition of his art.

With the consolidation of his fame, Mucha also reached a considerable economic well-being. His first savings were spent in the purchase of a pump organ and a camera, which he used to photograph himself, friends (Gauguin, who lived in the same building, was portrayed several times) and noteworthy events, such as the funeral of President Marie François Sadi Carnot, assassinated in 1894 by an Italian anarchist.

The star of Art Nouveau

It was one person, in particular, who radically changed Mucha”s life: the actress Sarah Bernhardt, whom he portrayed in 1894 in a publicity poster for Victorien Sardou”s play Gismonda. The finesse of the design convinced the “divine Sarah” to enter into a contract with Mucha lasting six years (from 1895 to 1900), during which he designed posters, theater sets, costumes and jewelry, working occasionally as an artistic consultant. Gismonda was promptly followed by six other theater posters, to be considered part of a complete cycle: La Dame aux Camélias (1896), Lorenzaccio (1896), La Samaritaine (1897), Médée (1898), Hamlet (1899) and Tosca (1899).

The cooperative relationship between Mucha and Bernhardt was mutually beneficial. On the one hand, the “divine Sarah”, thanks to Mucha”s posters, could finally rise to the status of superstar, well before this term was coined by the Hollywood industry; on the other hand, Mucha – in addition to interweaving with Bernhardt a friendship that bound them for life – could accumulate social prestige and grow professionally. The great fame he had acquired in 1896 also brought him a contract with the lithographer Ferdinand Champenois, thanks to which he achieved a certain economic solidity that allowed him to move into an elegant residence in rue du Val-de-Grâce. The far-sighted promotion strategy concerted by Champenois, among other things, did not take long to procure Mucha new and prestigious commissions: industries such as Nestlé, Moët & Chandon, JOB, Ruinart, Perfecta and Waverley used Mucha”s advertising posters.

In 1898, Mucha also joined the Freemasonry, an association that counted among its members the former patron Eduard Khuen-Belasi. Mucha turned out to be very sensitive to the Masonic influence, which is perceived in many of his works, and especially in Pater, an illustrated volume published in Paris on 20 December 1899. Fruit of a need for elevation and spiritual impulse, the Pater depicts the seven stages of prayer, understood as a transition from the darkness of ignorance to an ideal state of spirituality. The work was highly praised both by the creator, who considered it one of his greatest achievements, and by critics:

Meanwhile, while working on the project of the Pater, in the spring of 1899 Mucha received a very complex commission from the Austro-Hungarian government, which commissioned him to decorate the pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the upcoming Exposition universelle. Bosnia, a territory where there was a large Slavic community, although it was part of the Ottoman Empire since 1878 was de facto a colonial territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even on this occasion Mucha had to appease his patriotic spirit and make the frescoes that earned him the silver medal at the Exposition Universelle, where he was also present with drawings, works of ornamental graphics, sketches and jewelry designed for Georges Fouquet. Fouquet was a renowned French goldsmith who also entrusted the artist with the interior and exterior decoration of his jewelry store in rue Royale, Paris; the result was an extravagant jewelry box which, for its fresh, innovative, almost theatrical style, is considered one of the most significant expressions of Art Nouveau furniture.

The American interlude

In the spring of 1904 Mucha embarked on the liner La Lorraine, bound for New York. It was his desire, in fact, away from France and fame to try to pursue his ideals:

When he landed in New York, Mucha was welcomed as a world celebrity by the American people, who had already had the opportunity to know and appreciate his posters during Bernhardt”s tours in the United States. There he remained only three months, but Mucha between 1905 and 1910 returned to America four times, including in the company of his wife, Maria Chytilova, married February 10, 1906 in Prague. The first daughter of the couple, Jaroslava, was born in New York three years after the wedding, in 1909.

The fruits of his American stay were not long in coming: thanks to his work as a portrait painter, Mucha accumulated a considerable amount of money, enough to finance the execution of a cycle of patriotic paintings, the so-called Slavic Epic, a project that he had been considering for some time. In the meantime, he taught in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, and decorated the interior of the new German Theater with a series of allegorical paintings, an idea that received much acclaim from the public and critics. The theater, unfortunately, remained open for only one symphony season, then was converted into a movie theater and finally demolished in 1929.

The Slavic Epic

In the meantime, the project of the Slavic Epic was gradually beginning to take shape, also thanks to the financial aid of the wealthy American entrepreneur Charles Richard Crane, who shared Mucha”s patriotic impetus and his intentions of “making something really beautiful, not for criticism, but for the improvement of the Slavic soul”.

Mucha devoted himself with total dedication to the Slavic Epic from 1911. The cycle included twenty paintings of very large dimensions to cover the entire panorama of the historical events of the Slavic peoples, to perform these giant canvases the artist rented a studio and an apartment in the castle Zbiroh, in West Bohemia. To give the works the greatest possible historical accuracy, Mucha devoured several books on the subject, did not hesitate to consult with several scholars of Slavic history (including Ernest Denis and Nikodim Kondakov) and visited himself the places depicted, traveling assiduously in Croatia, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Poland and Russia, so as to study the customs and traditions of local peoples.

The twenty canvases of the Slavic Epic were finally ready in 1928 and in the same year were donated to the city of Prague, so as to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the proclamation of the Czechoslovak Republic. The cycle aroused bitter controversy from critics, who – in addition to despise the style of the works, considered simple academicism out of fashion – accused Mucha to be the bearer of a nationalism that no longer made sense after the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918.

These were very dark years. A sense of deep unease swirled in Czechoslovakia, threatened by the rise of Adolf Hitler to power in 1933, and the spread of a growing pro-Nazi sentiment in the Sudetenland. Fearing the outbreak of a new war, Mucha – now seventy-six years old – launched into a new project: the creation of a triptych depicting The Age of Reason, The Age of Love, The Age of Wisdom, so as to celebrate the sense of unity and peace in mankind. This work, however, never saw the light of day, due to his ever-advancing physical decline.

Mucha”s greatest fear, however, came true: on March 15, 1939 he witnessed the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi troops. Because of his roaring patriotic spirit, Mucha was promptly arrested by the Gestapo and subjected to interrogation: he was not imprisoned, but both his health and his spirit were now broken.

Alfons Mucha, finally, died in Prague on July 14, 1939, crushed by a lung infection, great the crowd at the funeral, which ended with the deposition of the body in the cemetery Vyšehrad, where he is still buried.

Poster

Mucha”s name is inextricably linked to his posters, a symbol of the presence of art in the streets. Being affixed to city notice boards, in fact, the posters made massive use of bright colors and bold characters, so as to combat the grayness of the industrial suburbs: Mucha also adhered to this artistic trend, designing posters for beer, bicycles, soap, chocolate, cigarette papers, laundry powder.

In this sense, Mucha”s advertising posters follow a common configuration. The name of the product is announced discreetly, through the use of a single piece of writing, accompanied by an adjective: the rest of the poster, in an unprecedented vertical format, is instead filled with a system of floral and ornamental motifs composed of buds, tendrils, symbols and arabesques, at the center of which stands a charming, bewitching, graceful female figure. The observer”s gaze, being captured by the beauty of the woman, would then inevitably fall also on the product she carried, which further underlines the existence of the advertised good.

The entire composition, in short, revolves around the female figure depicted, who generally wears an elegant draped dress and has a very thick hair: Mucha often played on the hair of young goddesses, who were depicted with free hair, tousled by the wind, or stylized to become arabesque friezes. Sometimes, to give further prominence to his figures muliebri, Mucha adorned them with the sumptuous jewels.

The preciousness of the whole, finally, is emphasized by the polychromy of the ornaments of the girls and the background full of warmth and golden tones, suggesting a luxurious and decadent atmosphere, in perfect harmony with the canons of Art Nouveau and the spirit fin de siècle.

Photography

Mucha, in addition to being a skilled graphic artist, also tried his hand at photography. In fact, his career coincides perfectly with the rapid development of cameras that – following the introduction of gelatin-silver bromide prints – became accessible to an increasing number of people.

His first photos date back to the period he spent in Munich and Vienna, during which, presumably using his grandfather”s camera, he often found himself photographing the urban scenery visible from his apartment, or alternately portraying his friends. He acquired a personal camera only in the 1890s, while working as an illustrator: over the years, however, he seems to have worked with as many as six different cameras.

Mucha”s photographic activity in Paris can be divided into two periods. The photos of the first period (1890-1896), during which Mucha lived in rue de la Grande-Chaumière, portray mainly the interior of his studio, or occasional models, including his friend Paul Gauguin. Conspicuous is the amount of self-portraits dating back to these years, which performed numerous, even with the help of a remote control system he designed, in these photos Mucha is often portrayed with the rubashka, a traditional Russian dress, so as to reaffirm its Slavic patriotism.

The second period began with Mucha”s move to rue du Val de Grâce: in these years he found himself taking photographs almost every day, spontaneously shooting his models, so as to obtain sketches to be used eventually in paintings or posters. His interest in photography even led him to meet in 1895 the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, who in that year had invented the cinematograph.

Although Mucha nurtured a fervent interest in photography for a great many years, he never joined any photographic group; he was, however, an enthusiastic self-taught photographer, and it was independently that he learned how best to handle light conditions, capture time, and several other fundamental components of the photographic art.

The redemption of the female figure

In Western culture, the conception of women and the related concept of ideal femininity began to undergo a transformation during the Belle Époque, in the decades between the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In this sense, it is indicative to consider the changing representations of women in the artistic field within Western society during that period, considering that art is often a good indicator of the social norms of a certain era: in general, artistic depictions of perfect femininity have to a large extent contributed to describing common expectations regarding women. For example, much of nineteenth-century art reflected notions of idealized, subservient femininity: at that time there was a kind of “cult of domesticity” associated with the female role. The subordinate role imposed on wives and daughters by Western society depended on and was also a consequence of the relationship between femininity and purity as perceived by common thinking. The “modest maiden,” a common theme depicted by nineteenth-century artists, reflected these social notions: an elegant, submissive, and sexually repressed woman was shown; she was usually fully clothed and often depicted lying down or passively positioned.

However, between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century there is a first but fundamental reversal of trend, both in the social field and, consequently, in the world of art, always careful to perceive these changes. Art begins to provide a more progressive concept of ideal femininity, describing a process that will see women approach a better condition from the social point of view.

Undoubtedly, Alphonse Mucha”s work captures the essence of this early evolution and can be seen as a social commentary on that era, indicative of the transition to modernity: his work accompanies the transition from the image of the “modest maiden” to that of the “new woman.” The painter”s stylistic portraits of female subjects embody the symbolic birth of the “femme nouvelle,” the woman of the new century, progressive, elitist and modern, less and less a passive subject of obedience and docility. The representation of the female subject “according to Mucha”s style” assumes, in any case, different or even contrasting nuances from the point of view of communicative intentions: the stylistic and representational exaltation assumes different characterizations and meanings, that is, to a relatively unitary plan of the signifier does not correspond a single and concordant plan of meaning. To describe this concept, it is very useful to consider some particular artifacts of the Czech artist, circumscribed to the last six years of 1800.

First, Mucha depicts women as socially empowered, participants in masculine activities, and very present in the public sphere. In this sense, it is useful to say that women”s emancipation in his art comes through the inclusion of women in advertisements for commercial products that once typically represented masculinity, as if to symbolize the female irruption into male activities. Some ads show women drinking alcohol, for example Lefèvre-Utile Champagne Biscuits (the poster depicts, in the corner of an elegant salon, two young ladies as they flirt with a real gentleman: flower in his buttonhole, white gloves and top hat, ready to go to the opera. One of the two ladies stares fixedly at the young man without giving a glance at the large box of champagne cookies and several bottles arranged on a side table. The word “flirt,” in fact, an expression in vogue recently imported from France, had been used by the owner of the cookie factory as a name for one of his types of cookies. In Waverley Cycles (1898), a poster commissioned by the American industry of the same name, a woman is depicted riding a bicycle. The drawing, with very fine strokes, barely shows us the handlebars but features an authentic Mucha-style maiden portrayed in an athletic stance holding a laurel wreath, symbolizing the victories of Waverley products, very solid bicycles, while the anvil represents manufacturing strength, quality craftsmanship. The artifact is very different from any other bicycle advertisement of the period, often corresponding to the cliché of the cyclist depicted in the midst of nature, and can rely heavily on the immediate impact of its symbolism. JOB (1896) – ”JOB” is a trademark of the Joseph Bardou Company, manufacturers of cigarette papers – is perhaps one of Mucha”s best-known advertising posters, with numerous editions subsequently published in a variety of formats for international markets. Mucha drew the female figure in a prominent position against a background on which several monograms of “JOB” can be seen. Holding a lit cigarette in her hand, the woman tilts her head sensually backward and the rising smoke forms an arabesque, intertwined with her hair and the company logo. The action of smoking was an unusual thing for the female sex, something considered almost “deviant” during much of the 19th century. Yet, in the work, a lady openly enjoys a cigarette, expressing an emotion similar to sexual pleasure, arising from an activity previously associated with male virility: the modern woman seems to convey a sense of obtained social authority, master of her own destiny, far from accepting a grim future imposed upon her.

In the artifacts in which the advertising function is diminished, Mucha”s lush art more markedly operates a celebration of the feminine as a sumptuous, flamboyant spectacle of exuberant beauty. It becomes emblematic to cite Mucha”s first decorative panel, namely that of “The Seasons” (1896), a series of four rectangular format panels that depicted the four seasons personified through female figures. As in the previous posters – Gismonda, JOB – does not lack the background as a decorative element dominated by a female figure characterized by a suggestive gesture, but unlike these, in the definition of the seasons, the expressive-communicative function “of the woman element” changes: in the first, seductive women advertise consumer goods, while in the decorative panel the female figure personifies a natural element with a decorative purpose. Mucha paints the four seasons as ethereal nymphs and, depending on the seasonal atmosphere, he varies their features and attitudes. For example, spring is a blonde girl playing a spring melody with a lyre made from a branch and her own hair. Winter is a woman with more mature features wrapped in a dress, warming up a cold bird. Even the surrounding nature changes: summer is sitting on the bank of a river, with her feet immersed in the water, indicating heat, and on her head she carries poppies that evoke summer scents. Autumn, with her hair decorated with a crown of chrysanthemums celebrates the tale of the year against a backdrop similar to a tapestry woven of trees in autumn colors.

The artist aspired to express the passage of time and the richness of nature. The message, therefore, no longer has a utilitarian value, but becomes purely scenic, spectacular representation of women: in Mucha coexist an art intended as an advertising tool, linked to the product, and an art as aesthetic expression, lush ornament, freer, untied from materialistic purposes. These two aspects, with their ambiguities and differences, meant that Mucha”s paintings were able to effectively illuminate the first steps towards female equality in Western society, so his work transcends beyond the world of art: his works are a testimony to the cultural change of the early twentieth century and can be seen as a challenge to traditional notions of subordinate women and promotion of their inclusion in modern society.

Sources

  1. Alfons Mucha
  2. Alphonse Mucha
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