After presentations at the Belvedere in Vienna and the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung was the final venue to show the unique retrospective of Czech artist Alfons Mucha (1860–1939). This world-renowned Art Nouveau figure head, famous for his poster designs, book illustrations and jewellery creations, were shown in a new light. As hardly any other artist, Mucha was active in a wide range of artistic disciplines. Besides his well-known work, he also created impressive pastels and chalk drawings that have little decorative content, and he devoted himself to ambitious painted programs. Mucha’s true artistic greatness is expressed not only through his curvilinear contours and the subdued palette, but is also shown in how he addressed religious themes or the darker chapters of mankind. The more than 200 paintings, drawings, posters, fabrics, jewellery, sculptures, books and objects in this exhibition covered the impressive range of Mucha’s artistic modes of expression and were witness to his genius.
From a denial to sucess across borders
As Mucha failed to pass the entry exam for the Prague academy in 1878, the young artist moved to Vienna in 1879 where he worked as a stage set painter until 1881. There he was influenced not only by the magic of the theatre, but also by the fashionable art of Vienna’s most famous painter of the day, Hans Makart (1840–1884), as illustrated in this show by a newly discovered large format decorative work by Makart. After a two-year stay in Munich (1885–1887), Mucha moved to Paris in 1889, where he eventually gained world-wide fame with his poster designs, especially those featuring the actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923).
Mucha and the pavilions
Among the show’s highlights was the reconstruction of the Bosnia-Herzegovina pavilion for the Paris World’s Fair (1900), as well as the presentation of two monumental paintings from the multi-part “Slav Epic” (1910-1926). These programmatic works in Mucha’s oeuvre had so far received too little attention. Yet, especially his contributions to various pavilions at the Paris Universal Exhibition are some of his most important achievements. After he failed to execute his own plans for a “Pavilion of Mankind”, Mucha was given the opportunity to contribute monumental wall decorations for the Bosnia-Herzegovina pavilion. On canvases covering more than 250 square meters, he rendered the history of these former Ottoman Empire provinces, which became Austro-Hungarian territory following the 1878 Berlin congress. Most of these mural paintings have survived, and for the first time, they have been reassembled as they were shown in the central hall of the Bosnia-Herzegovina pavilion.
Back to the roots
Even though Paris was still the world’s artistic centre around 1900, Mucha decided to leave France and return to his native country, but not before paying several visits to the United States. Apart from the fact that his fame had somewhat waned in Paris, Mucha’s return home was mostly instigated by a commission from the city of Prague to decorate the Lord Mayor’s Hall in the Municipal House “Obecní Dum” (1912). The exhibition also featured painted designs for this decorative program.
Mucha had long desired creating monumental works that would treat the history of his own country, as well as some larger themes of mankind. The financial support from the American benefactor Charles R. Crane (1858-1939) enabled him to realize a painted cycle consisting of 20 enormous canvasses depicting Slavic history: the so-called “Slav Epic” (1910–1926). Conceived as a gift to the city of Prague, the works are currently still kept in a castle in Moravský Krumlov, not far from Vienna. The Munich exhibition included two of these large canvases, as well as many sketches and preparatory works for the cycle. Not only do these monumental pictures show a new development in Mucha’s artistry, they also form a synthesis of all his previous creations and manifest his ideas of the Slavic peoples’ role in a European context.
We are immensely grateful to our Czech partners for enabling us for the first time to exhibit Mucha’s major works to such an extent. The loans from the pavilion of Bosnia-Herzegovina belong to the collection of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The paintings from the “Slav Epic”, as well as those for the Lord Mayor’s Hall in Prague were lent by the Galerie hlavního Mesta Prahy (Gallery of the City of Prague). Yet, such comprehensive presentation of Mucha’s works would have been inconceivable without the collaboration of the Mucha Trust. We thank them, as well as the many public and private collections in Europe and the United States that had generously agreed to contribute loans. We are pleased that this international collaboration enabled us to shed a new light on this truly European artist.
The Munich presentation of this exhibition was realized by Dr. Roger Diederen, Curator of the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, in collaboration with Dr. Jean-Louis Gaillemin, the general curator of the project.