Alphonse Mucha, a new book and a rare exhibition pay tribute to an unmistakable artist – Coffee Table Book Review n° 1
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
This book, simply called “Alphonse Mucha” certainly is not the first one to depict the work of this innovating Czech artist who became famous in Paris in the late 1890’s. But this book written by Mrs Tomoko Sato, who is an undisputable expert of Mucha’s work and the present curator of the Mucha Foundation is to become a reference book for all Mucha’s lovers.
Mucha was born in 1860 in Moravia that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father wanted him to be a clerk of the court in his small hometown. As you can well imagine this was not to fulfil young Alphonse’s ambitions and he applied to the Academy of Arts in Prague. His request was rejected and he was told to “choose another job where he would be more useful”. But he was undeterred and became stage designer in different theatres in Moravia, Vienna and Munich.
In 1887 he decided to continue his art studies in Paris and enrolled in local art academies while making a living designing advertising posters, book illustrations, catalogues or calendars. On Christmas’ eve 1894 Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous French actress of the time, asked for an advertising poster for her new show, Gismonda. Being the only artist available at the printer’s office on this special night, Mucha took up the challenge and was able to achieve the poster in just a few days. When hundreds of them were posted on the walls of Paris on January 1st, they got so successful that people cut them off the walls to have one at home! Sarah Bernhardt was so pleased with it that she demanded that Mucha was to be the artist to create the posters for her next shows such as Lorenzaccio, Camille, Medea or Hamlet. This was the beginning of a success that never was to be denied.
“Alphonse Mucha”, the book by Mrs Tomoko Sato, recounts us the birth of this new artistic movement that was to be known as Art Nouveau, but that was called in the late 19th century Paris, the “Style Mucha”. But the book tells us much more about this extraordinarily prolific and versatile artist whose genius was able to create posters, jewellery, interior decoration, theatre sets, paintings, book illustrations, sculptures or photographs… Featuring graceful women, Mucha created a distinctive style characterised by colourful compositions mixing sinuous human and vegetable lines. A style to be recognized at once!
Turning the book’s pages you will familiarize yourself with this unique style. 256 colour illustrations and black and white pictures take us to a better understanding of his Parisian period, then his American creations (a time when the New-York Daily News called him “the greatest decorative artist of the world”). Next we discover his mystical side and Mucha’s spiritualism and Masonic philosophy and its influence over his work. Although Mucha became famous and lived many years far from his homeland, he never forgot his Slavic origins and always was a strong patriot. The “Slav Epic Cycle” is a collection of huge paintings depicting prominent historic events of his people. They were given to his country and were meant to be shown to a wide audience.
As Mucha said: “The mission of art is to express each nation’s aesthetic values in accordance with the beauty of its soul. The mission of the artist is to teach people to love that beauty”. No need to said that Mucha went far beyond these words by making people able to enjoy this beauty in many countries.
You can also discover or rediscover Mucha’s work at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow where an extensive exhibition, “Alphonse Mucha: in quest of beauty”, is organized by the Mucha Foundation. Mucha’s artwork alongside artists’ works of the time such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Duncan and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, demonstrate the fruitful interchanges of artistic movements between Scotland, the rest of the UK and Continental Europe.
“Alphonse Mucha” by Tomoko Sato
Skira Editions Hard Cover – retail price £28
The book will be released on 23 February 2017 and you can already pre-order it on Amazon.
Text © Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
All Photos: Courtesy of Skira Editions