A major new exhibition exploring Alphonse Mucha (1860–1939) opens this week in Rome at the Vittoriano – Ala Brasini. Mucha was one of Europe’s most renowned artists in the late 19th and early 20th century. Combining images of seductive women with innovative typographical compositions and layouts, he created highly original posters and gave birth to the new genre of visual art that blossomed in the Paris of the Belle Époque. The Mucha style soon came to indicate a whole range of graphic works and decorative objects that furnished the homes of art lovers in Paris and other countries, becoming an icon of Art Nouveau. He was hailed by the press as the world’s greatest decorative artist during a visit to the United States in 1904.
The growth of Mucha’s renown in the world of international art was paralleled by his growing desire to contribute to the political independence of the Czech lands and the neighbouring Slav regions, divided for centuries by the colonial powers. Despite the superficial opulence and modernist vision of the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, political tension was mounting in East and Central Europe. A believer in the universality of art and its powers of inspiration and communication, Mucha advocated the creation of a spiritual union of the Slav peoples and ultimately of all mankind. The artist dreamed of a better world where ethnic minorities of all cultural backgrounds could live in harmony without being threatened by the more powerful nations. Mucha’s love of his homeland and utopian ideals are manifested in his masterpiece the Slav Epic (1911–28).
Under the auspices of the Istituto per la storia del Risorgimento italiano and the patronage of Regione Lazio and Roma Capitale, the first major retrospective dedicated to the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha is organized and produced by Arthemisia Group in collaboration with the Mucha Foundation.
Curated by Tomoko Sato, curator of the Mucha Foundation (which has produced many exhibitions of Alphonse Mucha) since 2007, the exhibition that opens at the Vittoriano – Ala Brasini from 15 April to 11 September 2016 consists of over 200 works including paintings, posters, drawings, decorative works, jewelry and preparatory drawings of the vessels of the Fouquet Boutique to retrace the inner creative process of the greatest representative of Art Nouveau.
One of the most celebrated artists in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, Alphonse Mucha is known all over the world as one of the fathers of Art Nouveau, the artistic movement characterized by the use of soft lines, floral forms and plant motifs that blossomed in the Paris of the Belle Époque and then spread throughout Europe. He was in reality a multi-faceted and versatile artist as well as a great experimenter with different styles and approaches, firmly convinced that the value of art derives from reflection that does not refer exclusively to the aesthetic sphere but rather finds completion there.
Born in 1860 in Ivančice, a town in southern Moravia then under Austrian rule, Mucha grew up as a fervent patriot and firm believer in the political freedom of his land and the spiritual unity of the Slav peoples. His convictions were so deeply rooted that he devoted a great deal of his time, energy and work to celebrating these values of unity, freedom and fraternity.
After training as a painter in his native land and then in Munich, Mucha moved in 1887 to Paris, the very heart of European art and culture, where he met Gauguin and came into contact with Paul Sérusier and the Nabis, group of Symbolist “prophets” gathered around him. Paris also saw a crucial encounter that was to change his life and artistic career.
It was Christmas 1894 and Sarah Bernhardt was about to open in a new play entitled Gismonda. None of the various posters designed for her by different commercial artists had met with her approval and there was now no one left in the city apart from Alphonse Mucha, who produced one in great haste. The printer was bewildered. He had never seen anything like it. In its original fusion of Byzantine influences and Art Nouveau stylistic devices, the poster looked frighteningly modern and he was sure that the actress would reject it. Bernhardt instead immediately asked to meet Alphonse in her boudoir. No sooner had he entered than she sprang to her feet, embraced him and told him that her had made her immortal. From then on she would allow no one else to portray her.
This work made Alphonse Mucha the greatest poster designer of his time and people in France began to use the term “Mucha style” for his unmistakable images. The same period saw the creation of the “Mucha woman”.
When he was invited to take part in the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, he was at the peak of his fame. His creations were plastered across all the walls and the Mucha style was chosen for all the major advertising campaigns. Despite the apparently modernist vision expressed by the Expo, however, political tension was mounting in East and Central Europe, and the Czech lands and neighbouring Slav regions yearned for independence. Mucha also longed to contribute to the liberation of his people.
The artist designed the Pavilion of Mankind, one of the event’s main attractions, but attached more importance to his commission to decorate the Pavilion of Bosnia-Herzegovina. As the stated later, “I would never have expected to find among the Balkan Slavs what I was seeking so desperately. I poured the joys and sorrows of my country and all the Slav peoples into the representation of their history.” The idea for the Slav Epic was thus officially born and never to be abandoned by Mucha.
In 1904, during the first of the numerous trips to the United States that continued until 1910, he was hailed by the press as the greatest decorative artist in the world.
While he mixed there with the upper echelons of politics and society, but his interest in fame, splendour, wealth and important contacts was geared solely to finding financial support for the celebratory series of works devoted to his homeland and the Slav peoples that he had been planning for some time.
His paramount interest was in devoting his energies to his country. In 1910, on his return to Prague, he undertook decorative works for key buildings in the city and worked with patriotic, political and social commitment until 1928 on what he saw as the greatest undertaking of his life and his art, namely the Slav Epic, a colossal series of twenty canvases measuring six metres by eight and recounting the major events in Slav history. Ten preparatory studies are on show here.
When Czechoslovakia became an independent country in 1918, he espoused the causes of the newly born nation, designing postage stamps, bank notes and other official documents. Presented in Prague on 14 July 1928 and hidden by Czechoslovakian patriots during the German occupation, the Slav Epic hung in the castle of Moravsky Krumlov until 2012, when it was moved to the Veletržní Palác in Prague.
During work on his best-loved creation, Much also produced other works that are less known but very interesting, characterized by deep philosophical reflection on the world, history and human beings. Such reflections had indeed also informed his years of greatest glory, when the works best known to the general public, the advertising posters and decorations were accompanied with imperturbable faith by deeply spiritual compositions of mystical sentiment, works of a less harmonious and linear nature than those in his Art Nouveau style but born out of a profound and painful vision of the world and mankind.
The universality of art and its powers of inspiration and communication at the service of humanity are the cornerstones of the artist’s vision, his hopes for the creation of a spiritual union, of the Slav peoples but also of mankind as a whole, and his dream of a better world where ethnic minorities would be able to live without being threatened by more powerful nations.
Never as in this historical moment and social context have his art and philosophy been so in tune with developments throughout the world.
The Exhibition features over 200 paintings, posters, drawings, decorative works and items of jewellery, the exhibition traces the artist’s entire creative trajectory with an abundance of detail and works through six thematic sections that present the different stylistic nuances and spheres of action: The Bohemian in Paris, The Creator of Images for the General Public, The Cosmopolitan, The Mystic, The Patriot and The Artist-Philosopher.
Alphonse Mucha : CURATA DA TOMOKO SATO @ Vittoriano – Ala Brasini 15 APRILE -11 SETTEMBRE 2016 ROMA, COMPLESSO DEL VITTORIANO – ALA BRASINI