Alphonse Mucha - Biography and Legacy
Ivančice, Moravia (Czech Republic)
Prague, Czech Republic
Biography of Alphonse Mucha
Childhood and Education
Mucha was raised in the shadow of two powerful cultural forces: The Catholic Church and the Slav's desire for independence from the Austrian Empire. Excited by light and color, Mucha's earliest memory was of Christmas tree lights. A baroque fresco in his local church piqued his interest in art, and he moved to Vienna, where he took an apprenticeship as a stage set painter. Surrounded by the explosion of art in the Austrian capital, he learned of and greatly admired the work of Hans Makart, among others.
To make a living he executed portrait commissions. This led him to an important mentor, Count Khuen-Belasi, who hired him to paint murals in Emmahof Castle. Mucha's own poverty and popularity was brought into sharper clarity while he worked in the castle. His poverty was such that his one and only pair of trousers grew so shabby that a group of society girls bought him a new pair. Count Khuen-Belasi paid for Mucha's training in fine art in Munich, where he continued to work as an illustrator, most notably for Krokodil magazine, where he developed his distinctive calligraphic style.
By 1887 he was in Paris studying at the Academie Julian and Academie Colarossi. Here, artists such as Vuillard and Bonnard were becoming prominent. Along with these artists came new ideas about what art could do. Art came to be seen as a pursuit that could reveal greater mysteries, and as something to incorporate into everyday life and objects. These ideas began to develop into what would become the Art Nouveau conception of art in daily life.
Mucha scraped together a living illustrating magazines and advertisements. He and Paul Gauguin shared a studio on the Rue Grande Chaumiere. Mucha rigged the studio so that when the door opened beautiful music played. An interviewer in 1900 called the studio, "simply marvelous." It was full of exotic objects and bohemian writers, artists, and musicians who came to work and play. An infamous photograph of Gauguin playing the Harmonium with no trousers on captures the playful and free-spirited mood of their studio. It was here that Mucha first explored his interest in the occult with August Strindberg, and engaged in hypnotic and psychic experiments with Albert de Rochas and the astronomer Camille Flammarion.
Mucha shot to fame in 1894 with his theatre poster for Gismonda. The leading actress, Sarah Bernhardt was an internationally famous, and by association with her, Mucha quickly became famous as well. Bernhardt put him under contract, and Mucha created many promotional posters for her, as well as costumes and stage sets.
Amid the Belle Epoque posters Mucha's style was a hit. Collectors stole his posters from billboards, dubbing his style "Le Style Mucha." But he felt art must do more than be visually pleasing; it must communicate a spiritual message and uplift its viewers. Mass-produced art appealed to him, since it could reach and inspire more people. In posters for perfume, beer, biscuits, bicycles, and Job Cigarettes (1896) he blurred the barrier between fine art and commercial art, between commerce and philosophy.
Drawing from the influences of the Pre-Raphelites, Hans Makart, and Japanese wood cuts Mucha developed his unique style. His style was organic and ornate, graceful and dynamic, with curving, swooping lines and Byzantine borders, lettering, and frames. His iconic 'Mucha woman' had curves, flowing hair, pastel robes, and often a halo of light or flowers, which recall the haloes from the religious icons he saw throughout his boyhood. Mucha's women burst with life; in stark contrast to the Symbolist femme fatales, (such as Edvard Munch's Madonna) Mucha's women are not a dangerous temptation to be resisted.
His innovative decorative panels, The Seasons (1896), further pushed art into private homes. Inspired by friends such as Auguste Rodin, Mucha experimented with sculpture and partnered with the goldsmith Fouquet to produce fantastic jewels from gold, ivory, and precious stones. He even created a radiant "Mucha world" in Fouquet's Rue Royale boutique where his statues, stained glass, fountains, mosaics, sculpture, and lighting turned shopping into a theatrical experience.
After exhibitions in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Munich, Brussels, and London, he was hailed as the world's greatest decorative artist. To spread his ideas he issued two template books Documents Decoratifs (1902) and Figures Decoratifs (1905). These books were filled with designs for jewelry, wallpaper, stained glass, furniture, and figures, and together they became the Art Nouveau bible. In spite of his association with Art Nouveau, Mucha rejected the label, insisting that art was eternal.
At the turn of the century Mucha explored his spiritual beliefs in his illustrated book Le Pater (1899), which was a reinterpretation of the Lord's Prayer decorated with Byzantine, Catholic, and Masonic symbols. The book reflects Mucha's belief that art had moral and political purpose. It was meaningless if, as he put it, "my homeland was left to quench its thirst on ditch water." He felt crushed by fame, which he described as "robbing me of my time and forcing me to do things that are so alien to those I dream about." His artistic dream was to create an epic painting cycle that would serve as a beautiful illustration of Slav history and that would inspire the Slavic quest for freedom.
To fund his monumental painting epic, Mucha made multiple trips to the USA to find a patron. By executing society portraits in 1909 Mucha finally found his man, the philanthropist Charles Crane, who would finance him for the next twenty years. Mucha returned to Prague in 1910 and dedicated himself to his Slav Epic, while simultaneously executing projects such as the Lord Mayor's Hall ceiling which bore the inscription: "Though humiliated and tortured you will live again, my country!" In 1918 Mucha's dream was realized when Czechoslovakia was recognized as an independent nation. Delighted, he set about designing the new nation's postage stamps, banknotes, and coat of arms. In a studio in Zbiroh Castle he toiled at his giant canvases, some of which measured 6x8 meters, and were rigged like ship's sails to haul them up and down. His work required research, and he made regular field trips throughout the Balkans and to consult with historians to ensure that every battle and costume was depicted accurately. His works began to give the Pan-Slavic vision international attention. In 1919 the first phase of his epic work was on tour in the USA, attracting 50,000 visitors per week.
In 1926 Mucha completed his final canvas, No.20, The Apotheosis of the Slavs, showing the new republic protected by Christ, under a rainbow of peace. In 1928 at the nation's 10th anniversary celebrations he donated the Slav Epic to the City of Prague and proceeded to execute a stunning stained glass window in St. Vitus Cathedral (1931). As the decade progressed his hope of security was threatened by the Nazis but, still a believer in the power or art, he began a triptych The Three Ages (1936-38) to argue for reason, wisdom, and love as the paths to peace. The Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 put an end to Mucha's hopes, work, and ultimately his life. Classed as a 'reactionary' he was interrogated by the Gestapo, and, already weak with a lung infection he died in 1939.
The Legacy of Alphonse Mucha
Under Nazi occupation the Slav Epic was hidden underground, and under Communism his art continued to be viewed as decadent and bourgeois and did not receive public display. His son Jiri Mucha, devoted much of his life to reviving his father's reputation. The 1960s Art Nouveau revival saw Mucha's style much-copied on British posters for Pink Floyd and The Incredible String Band. And in the USA, one poster for a 1966 San Francisco 'happening' was a direct copy of Mucha's Job Cigarette Paper (1896). Mucha has also been acknowledged as an influence by the Stuckist painter Paul Harvey and also on cartoon and fantasy art, as that of Japanese Manga artists like Naoko Takeuchi.