I greatly admire the work of the late-19th-century / early-20th-century Czech painter, illustrator and designer Alphonse Mucha. Happily, a visit I made a few weeks ago to Glasgow coincided with an exhibition held at the city’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum that was dedicated to him and entitled Alponse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen Mucha’s paintings displayed en masse. Back in 1990, I was wandering about the southern Japanese city of Hiroshima when I stumbled across a gallery that was hosting a major exhibition of his work. This was my first exposure to his oeuvre and I fell in love with it immediately. I even spent a small fortune on the lavish artbook on sale as an accompaniment to the exhibition. Its text was entirely in Japanese, which I couldn’t read, but I just wanted to drool over its many colour reproductions of Mucha’s pictures.
At the time I was working in a high school in Hokkaido at the other end of the Japanese archipelago and when I returned to my workplace one of the first things I did was lend the book to a colleague there, the school’s art teacher, Artist Hirosawa. (As a teacher, his title was Hirosawa Sensei, which translates as plain old ‘Mr Hirosawa’; but the first thing he’d ever said to me was, in English, “Hello, I am Artist Hirosawa.” So ‘Artist Hirosawa’ was how I always thought of him.) The sight of Artist Hirosawa sitting with the book open on his staffroom desk for days afterwards, drooling over those colour reproductions too, suggested that they liked Mucha an awful lot in Japan.
A decade later, I had a chance to spend a short holiday in Prague and a place I immediately made a beeline for was the Kaunický Palác, which contains the Mucha Museum – dedicated, as its name indicates, to Prague’s most famous artistic son. (Mucha actually spent much of his life in the Moravian towns of Ivančice and Brno, and in Vienna, Paris and the United States. But Prague was his home during his last three decades.) Predictably, I went away laden with more Mucha memorabilia courtesy of the museum’s giftshop: postcards, prints, bookmarks, calendars.
What is it about Mucha’s artwork that so appeals to me? Well, everything, I guess: the nymph-like, neo-classical figures, the flowing gowns, the cascades of pre-Raphaelite hair; the curves, haloes and patterns; the flowers; the exquisite use of pastel colours (even though pastel colours are usually something I don’t much like). I love that whole, languid Art Noveau dreaminess that suffuses his work, even if it suggests an era desperate for escapism – because while Mucha was putting together his gorgeous compositions, life for much of the urban population of industrialised 19th-century Europe was anything but gorgeous. Against a backdrop of William Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ belching out smoke and clanging with thunderous noise, it was frequently filthy, muddy, crowded, brutal and squalid.
One aspect of Mucha that I particularly like – though I’ve read this was something he himself was unhappy about – was the fact that he was a commercial artist. He made his name in Paris designing lithographed posters for plays featuring the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt. He produced posters, advertisements, book illustrations and designs for wallpaper, carpets and jewellery. Mucha seemed to win fame and acclaim because of, rather than in spite of, his willingness (if not his desire) to work in everyday media and have his art mass-produced for mass consumption.
Mind you, with his advertising work, you wonder if people admiring its aesthetics ever managed to notice its products as well. One advert on display at the Glasgow exhibition, for bicycles (‘Cycles Perfecta’), does indeed feature a bicycle. But inevitably it also features a nymph, who all but hides the bicycle – it nearly disappears amid her tresses of hair, her ribbons and the folds of her dress.
I find it interesting too that Mucha was a committed Freemason. In 1898 he joined a Masonic lodge in Paris and after he’d settled in Prague he established the first-ever Czech-speaking lodge. He gained the titles of Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Czechoslovakia and later Sovereign Grand Master of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite in Czechoslovakia. I’m not a fan of Freemasonry itself but its symbolism fascinates me and I appreciate much of the craftsmanship and architecture it’s produced. (If you’ve ever explored, say, the Freemasons’ Hall on Great Queen Street in London, you’ll agree that Masonic art is impressive.)
It’s always good to see a collection of his work together, but Kelvingrove’s Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty suffers slightly from lack of context. I’d have liked more information about the items on display, explaining how and when they fitted into Mucha’s development and preoccupations as an artist. Sneakily, the exhibition also incorporates ‘British influences and Scottish contemporaries’ – the latter consisting of “the radical, highly symbolic work of ‘The Four’: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, James Herbert McNair and Margaret and Frances Macdonald. Exhibited and published internationally, their early work was distinctly bold compared to Mucha’s curvaceous designs.” This allows the exhibition-organisers to slip in a couple of non-Mucha works as well, including Rennie Mackintosh’s famous Scottish Musical Review. Again, I’d have liked a little more context for their insertion.
The Mucha biography displayed at the exhibition reminds you that he came to a sad end. After the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Gestapo hauled him in for questioning. His Slav nationalism, epitomised in his 20-painting masterpiece The Slav Epic (1910-1928), didn’t endear him to the Nazis. Neither did his local prominence in the Freemasons, whom the Nazis regarded as part of the great Jewish conspiracy and had banned in Germany in 1934. During his interrogation, Mucha developed pneumonia and, shortly after his release, died of a lung infection. Yes, his work was gloriously escapist; but he came off worst when he encountered the reality of the 20th century, reality in its cruellest and most pitiless form.