Friday 30 August 2013

Alphonse Mucha

This is the text of a brief piece I wrote for Imagine FX on Alphonse Mucha. Mucha was and is one of my art heroes, and hopefully through my bad grammar this is apparent. In the article they asked me to include some of my own images inspired by Mucha. I've not posted those here, as it's more appropriate to give a couple of examples of his work.

Alphonse Mucha

In 2000 I visited Prague, and one of the things I wanted to do whilst in the city was visit Vyšehrad cemetery. A little morbid perhaps, but the final resting place of Alphonse Mucha felt like more of a pilgrimage than something more prurient. Mucha died and was buried here in 1939 from contracting pneumonia after his arrest and interrogation by the Gestapo, he was a man much remembered for his contribution to poster art, and like the Pre-Raphaelites before him, for painting ethereal romanticised girls and women, (often well known actors such as Sarah Bernhadt, or Maude Adams), in environments recalling idealised nature or fantasy. But like the Pre-Raphaelites, there was much more to him than the popular perception. The Nazis despised him as he championed his Czech culture and Slavic heritage, and for much of his later life he created the stunning and enormous ‘Slav Epic’, which resulted in 20 paintings, the smallest being over 4 metres wide, and the largest, twice that.

When people think of Art Nouveau (the phrase meaning ‘New Art’ first used as the name of a shop in 1895 Paris), almost synonymous with that expression, is Mucha, who’s swirling organic shapes and forms seem to almost define the term and the ‘movement’ that has a genealogy traced back to William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite friend, artist and textile designer. Yet, Mucha ultimately attempted to distance himself from Art Nouveau, and the aesthetic movement, as for any artist, definition can limit and constrain; a constraint that it is clear Mucha found increasingly frustrating. He believed art operated on a more spiritual and personal level, and Art Nouveau never really moved beyond the appreciation of form over content. However within the nascent advertising and illustration world that was evolving at the end of the nineteenth century, Mucha found a perfect place as the superb draughtsman and designer he was. Much in demand for posters, illustration, fashion design, murals he could have worked indefinitely within that world, yet as someone who felt art should have deeper metaphor and allegory, he eventually turned his back on it, concentrating on his personal projects, amongst which the previously mentioned ‘Slav Epic’ dominated from 1910 to 1928. But he was part of the ‘spirit of the age’, and the Fin de Siècle, and probably knew that to some extent, and that knowledge led him to write in 1900: “I swore a solemn promise that the remainder of my life would be filled exclusively with work for the (Czech) nation.” 

It is ironic then, that 72 years after his death, Mucha is now best remembered as the superb poster artist he was. Ironic, but not surprising. In all ‘Art’, ‘accessibility’ is often what provides longevity. Aesthetic is universal, whereas ‘message’ is not. Ask many people if they have heard of The Slav Epic and you will probably come up blank, but point to an example of Mucha’s ‘Seasons’, and you will probably be luckier. As a student, next to my Siouxsie poster, I had a print of Mucha’s ‘Moet and Chandon, Crement’ advert on my wall; beautifully decorative, it was a ‘pretty girl’ in pastels and flowing cloth, incorporating some elements in the design that almost predate Art Deco. But there is little depth to it as an image other than the purely aesthetic; the decorative. It was an advert! Need it achieve more? Probably not, but the universality of using a ‘pretty girl’ to sell a drink is still with us today, Mucha just got in at the beginning, and ‘realised’ it better. However, it is also clear that Mucha rooted many of his female characters in-line with his heritage. Unlike Gustav Klimt, with whom Mucha is often compared, Mucha on the whole did not paint ‘High Society’. His women are girls of the field, artisans or ‘the girl next door’. When not painting actors like Sarah Bernhardt, Mucha drew inspiration from everyday folk to act as a vehicle for his imagination, and maybe that is a key to their appeal. They aren’t the rich and famous, but show a much more accessible social and indeed socialist ideology behind the patterns and pastels.

It is said though that every artist has his time. Mucha’s came and went, but now it is arguable he is better known that he was in his lifetime. Considered decadent and bourgeois at the end of the forties by the changing Czech government, his Slav Epic was mothballed as it had been prior to the Nazis invasion to avoid destruction, and didn’t see the light till 1963. But Governments change and art remains. The Slav Epic stands on permanent display in the Czech Republic. And there’s the thing… Mucha’s posters and advertising work, although they fell out of fashion before and after his death, were an example of an aesthetic that couldn’t be suppressed. The very nature of advertising and promotional art is that it disseminates and becomes part of the melting pot of culture. Nowadays the style he became associated with, Art Nouveau, is just part of a great resource of ‘Art’ that advertising and image making use to integrate with a need or agenda, and you will see Mucha and Art Nouveau constantly used in popular culture. When that need arises, reference will ultimately be made to those proponents of a style who ‘did it best’, and Mucha certainly did it best!

On a personal level and aesthetically, Mucha has influenced a number of my pieces; ‘Medusa’, probably being the most obvious. An image I completed for an online character design challenge. And ‘The Absinthe Fairy’, that although recalls Mucha less so, is designed to feel like an old Art Nouveau poster. He inspired me in ‘Sunrise’ as well, probably the most risqué image I’ve ever done. His ability to incorporate superb design and composition, his use of embellishment and organic forms is enormously influential, and he was a superb designer alongside his technical skills as an artist. Although the personal images I mention are little more than pastiches, the mere process of looking at Mucha and how he works adds to our understanding, and the next stage is to move beyond that and use his inspiration to inform our own journey as artists.

When Mucha died in 1939, a public gathering to mark the event was banned by the Nazis. It is a testament to Mucha’s influence on his home country that 100,000 people ignored this to attend his funeral in Vyšehrad.


Ben Newman said...

wow, I didn't realise he was such an amazing painter! Gonna have to go and check out more of his stuff now.

Aly Fell said...

Thanks for commenting Ben. Yes, Mucha's breadth is amazing!

You know I sometimes wonder if the whole 'blog' thing is worth it. Your comment is rare on my blog these days, as I seem to have a lot of traffic but rarely any interaction. Facebook seems to be the norm these days, sadly...

Mizmiffy said...

Mucha is my favourite artist. I think this is the reason i am so drawn to your work too. I think you are both amazing.

World of Peter George said...

Hi Aly. A nice piece. While working in Vienna a few years ago I had the good fortune to have time to attend the Mucha retrospective at the Belvedere where I got to take in the vast pieces in his Slave epic. The Prague museum was tiny compared to the that exquisite exhibition. Like many, my introduction to Mucha was through the advertising and poster imagery, but for those wanting more, there is huge amount of tremendous work waiting for you.

Aly Fell said...

Thank you Mizmiffy and Peter. How lovely to visit a retrospective. I find it rewarding that there is so much more to him than his (lovely) art nouveau paintings.