Exploring the Work of Czech Visionary Alphonse Mucha

By Faith Duval –

Alphonse Mucha was an artist whose work in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century defined the style that came to be known as Art Nouveau. Yet Mucha rejected the label, insisting that he followed no artistic fashions and was inspired by his native country’s folk art and his own aesthetic preferences alone. A Czech nationalist, Mucha eventually saw his political desires come to fruition in the formation of an independent Czechoslovakian nation-state after the First World War.

Having been born in a backwater village in Moravia when it the country was still in the clutches of the Habsburg empire, Mucha helped to usher in the national dawn by designing iconography for the Czechoslovak Republic, including its postage stamps.

He came to Paris in 1887, at the height of the Belle Epoque, after stints in Vienna and Munich. There he toiled as a lowly illustrator, living in poverty. Nonetheless, he had a spring in his step – for fin de siècle Paris was a world epicentre of cutting-edge art.

Though Mucha disliked advertising, commercial work gave his career its first lease on life: in late 1894 he produced an illustration for the play Gismonda, starring and directed by Sarah Bernhardt, then Paris’s most famous actress. In that moment, ‘Le Style Mucha’ was born. First displayed on the Paris hoardings on New Year’s Day, 1895, his poster, which depicted a life-size version of Bernhardt at eye-level with the viewer, appeared strikingly different from the work of those poster artists who had defined the form in the 1880s, such as Jules Chéret and Toulouse-Lautrec.

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So at thirty-five Mucha became an overnight success. Bernardt signed him to a five-year contract. He was sought after not only in France, but in the States too – “When my grandfather went to America,” reported his son John Mucha, “it was like the Beatles. He made the front pages of the newspapers and was feted wherever he went.”

A flood of commissions for art posters came his way, with clients enamoured by the so-called Mucha Woman.

The trademarks of his work include his sinuous lines, the voluptuous female figure, the tendrils of long, flowing hair that often form a halo behind the subject’s head and the use of strong, bold outlines. Like many artists creating Art Nouveau he was fascinated by organic motifs – botanic and floral elements are common throughout his decorative work.

Yet something was amiss in Paris. Mucha needed to be true to his values, and his national loyalties tugged him back to Czechoslovakia. He lived and worked in Bohemia for the following twenty-nine years. There he produced the Slav Epic, a series of paintings depicting the heroic past of the Slavic peoples.

At the root of his work was a spiritual ideal not dissimilar from poet John Keats’ contention that “‘beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’”. No matter how commercial his work, this message was always central. One of Mucha’s most beautiful works of vintage art is this advertisement for Lefèvre-Utile, from 1897. One can see many of the motifs later used in Sixties psychedelia (on which Mucha was a great influence) on display here.

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It is at first strange to think of a figure with such a grand historical and spiritual vision producing ads for a biscuit company. Yet this is only so to our diminished standards, in an age in which photography and film have replaced the illustrations and art posters of the past. With its collection of 1940s and 1940s advertisements, Vintage Advertising Art is committed to preserving the unique cultural contribution of advertising art.

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