Mucha. Mention of the name immediately evokes familiar images of willowy, exotic women, framed by lush floral motifs, adorning biscuit tins and calendars. Indeed, that close connection between art and popular culture is a vital part of the story. But it is far from the full story.
The lesser-known reality is that Alphonse Mucha was a master draughtsman, painter, sculptor, teacher, theosophist, occulist, free mason, patriot and social activist, widely regarded as one of the most influential creative forces of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A major exhibition of his work in the Musée du Luxembourg leaves one in no doubt about the scope of his artistic genius, his ability to connect with mainstream society and his revered place in a circle which included Gauguin, Strindberg, Rodin and the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt, affectionately known to the public as La Divine, who became one of his staunchest supporters and friends.
Indeed, it was his iconic poster for Bernhardt’s play Gismonda, which catapulted him to fame only a few short years after his arrival in Paris in 1887 from the little town of Ivančice in Czechoslovakia.
Mucha was born in 1860 in the midst of his homeland’s national renaissance, As a talented teenager, he played his part in the cause by illustrating satirical magazines and decorating auditoriums with patriotic murals. He remained a passionate supporter of Czech independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire and dedicated eighteen years of his latter part of his career to the controversial Slav Epic (L’Épopée Slave) project, comprising twenty monumental canvases illustrating major episodes in Slavic history.
Through a series of six spaces, this exhibition traces the life and career of Mucha, from bohemian artist to celebrated illustrator, from mystic to world traveller and social and philosophical visionary.
The exhibition curator is Tomoko Sato, keeper of the Mucha Foundation in Prague.
“The aim of this exhibition is to bring into the light key elements of the work and personality of Mucha and to examine the career of the artist beyond his celebrity as the master of Art Nouveau”, she says.
“There is a paradox in that he is both famous and yet relatively unknown. He considered his Slav Epic to be his greatest accomplishment yet it was a source of disagreement among art specialists and critics. Some of them judged it a masterpiece, others an artistic error, its contents outdated. I wanted this exhibition to reflect the ideas and vision, which led Mucha to create this epic work.
“The Mucha Foundation was set up by his family in 1992 with the intention of communicating a better understanding of his artistic legacy. In turn, I hope that our exhibition will build a bridge between the ‘famous’ Mucha of the Art Nouveau posters and the unknown, underestimated artist that he also was.”
On entering the space, it is logical to begin at the beginning, with those much loved posters, the works of art that established the reputation of the aspiring but impecunious bohemian artist, newly arrived in the City of Light.
It is thrilling to look upon the original, familiar two-metre high image of Bernhardt’s Gismonda in all its haughty, brocaded, byzantine beauty, crowned with flowers, her name like a halo around her chestnut hair, a fantastical Madonna. No wonder La Divine fell for it and its creator in a big way.
More pleasures lie in store as the story unfolds of Mucha’s burgeoning success as a poster-maker for the masses and his employment with the famous Parisian printer Champenois. Before too long his posters, packaging designs, advertisements and illustrated panels were circulating all over Europe as his style became increasingly synonymous with the emergence of the Art Noveau movement.
There is the celebrated Four Seasons quartet. Summer (L’Été) is a portrait of a curvaceous, russet haired young woman; it brims with sultry heat, sunshine and nature in full bloom and was chosen as the exhibition’s promotional image.
There is the delightful quartet of stamp designs, featuring symbols of moonlight, the morning and evening stars and the pole star, all personified in sinuous female forms, redolent of the photographic portraits on show in the earlier spaces. And there are the originals of well-known advertising posters for, among others, Sarah Bernhardt as the Lady of the Camellias (La Dame aux Camélias), Job cigarette paper, Ruinart champagne, Lefèvre-Utile biscuits, Rodo perfume.
We are offered a glimpse into the Bosnia-Herzogovina Pavilion at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 (known as the Paris Expo), a world’s fair celebrating the achievements of the past century. Mucha was commissioned to decorate the pavilion. His paintings caused considerable controversy and were widely judged to be too overtly political in their inclusion of symbols of Austrian tyranny. Political views aside, their scale, scope and artistic achievement are breathtaking.
We also get to view at close quarters fine examples of Mucha’s genius as a designer of precious jewellery and personal items, a sculptor and even a shop designer. His conception of the stunning interior of Georges Fouquet’s magnificent jewellery boutique in Rue Royal was described as l’art total and the appearance in the exhibition of a sinister, mouth-like hearth and ornamental mirror centrepiece is living proof of that description.
The exhibition’s pièce de résistance has an entire room to itself. Don’t be tempted to take a sneaky peek in passing the entrance for fear of spoiling the spine-tingling surprise that awaits. Onto an immense, curved wall are projected the twenty towering canvases of L’Épopée Slave, with the camera focusing closely onto the myriad tiny dramas that contribute to the central epic episode. They have always been crowd pullers. After its first showing in Prague, the work was presented in its entirety in the United States in 1920, attracting 53,000 visitors in a single week to the Chicago Art Institute.
Now many more 21st century visitors from all over the world are flocking to the Musée du Luxembourg. They are leaving filled with awe, wonder and an entirely new perception of an artist who is an integral part of our own popular cultural landscape but whose life and influence amounted to so much more than, until now, one could ever have imagined.
Exhibition runs until 27 January 2019 at Musée du Luxembourg, 19 Rue de Vaugirard, 75006 Paris. http://www.museeduluxembourg.fr