Feb 1, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
As of late my Instagram account has been littered with trip photos. Work took me to the Czech Republic and UK the other week and it was such a great trip – reminding me of my inner explorer. The adventurous gal who back-packed throughout Europe in college, taking in each day as it came. While I’m now a grown-up with grown-up responsibilities (boo!), this trip reminded me that it doesn’t mean you have to give up that side of yourself. It just means that you need to be present and soak up all the good memories you can when you can do so. My time in the Czech Republic didn’t grant me much tourist time as this was “home base” for work, but I did get to experience moments of this country’s beauty. The delicious, traditional wedding dumpling soup – a luxurious cream sauce accented by the bright and cheerful cranberry. Crisp winter air and a city blanketed with snow. And a special artist – Alphonse Mucha. The Art Nouveau period is one of my favorite art eras; join me as we learn more about this Czech master.
Alphonse’s inspiration came from the noble setting of his education: the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul in Brno. Within the light-filled walls of this chapel, a young Alphonse was immersed in architecture, art, and culture. One of his classmates went on to be a great composer and I find it interesting that this one place, in this one moment in time, was home to two key artistic forces of their day. Makes you wonder what was in the Brno drinking water!
Alphonse got to fully express his national pride through art when he was asked to design documents for the new Czechoslovakian government following WWI. That range of documents included postage stamps and currency.
While Alphonse had a pretty good singing voice in his own right, drawing was the skill he gave all his passion and time to. This dedication paid off as he made his way to Vienna to contribute to theatrical sets. Sounds like a very fun way for an artist to carve out a living. Professionally fulfilled, and taking residence in a city on the cusp of the creative revolution, it’s easy to imagine that Alphonse was sitting pretty; content to keep on with his theatrical contributions and allowing the Austrian art scene to influence his aesthetic. But fate intervened and following a destructive fire, he returned home. But there was purpose to his retreat home.
Struggling as a freelance painter, he got his big break when a local Count commissioned him to create murals for his sprawling estate. Alphonse so impressed the Count that his employer also decided to be his sponsor, paying for his way at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. Alphonse leap frogged from student to Parisian resident. (A very natural next step for any young artist of the day – heck any young artist of any day!) Continuing his studies in the city of light, he continued to commission work on the side because hey – everyone’s gotta eat! The medium that proved to be his bread and butter was posters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, poster work was the voice for the up and coming movers and shakers and conducive to Alphonse’s personal style. The immensely popular Parisian actress Sarah Bernhardt used his work exclusively!
Alphonse considered his publications his greatest masterpieces. Le Pater was published in limited edition at the turn of the century. The subject matter focused on themes from The Lord’s Prayer.
This personal style of which we speak became known as Mucha style – later to be renamed, you guessed it: Art Nouveau. His work was defined by beautiful women in flowing gowns, luxurious natural backgrounds, and a pastel color scheme. (You know, basically everything Art Nouveau would go on to be admired for.) This appreciation for his aesthetic vision culminated at the 1900 Universal Exhibition in his adopted city of Paris. In addition to showcasing his work, he also was asked to design a couple of the pavilions. Throughout his life Mucha found the Art Nouveau period to be a burden. In fact, he worked to separate himself from the Art Nouveau association. It’s understandably tough to be the pioneer chased by copy cats. Alphonse continued to insist that his work was directly inspired by his native country and worked to serve a spiritual purpose (quite the opposite from the commercial appeal Art Nouveau focused on).
Later in his career, Alphonse combined his focus on spiritual messages and national pride in the ground-breaking work: The Slav Epic. A series of twenty massive paintings, the subject matter centers around the evolution of his people’s history. Gifting the paintings to the city of Prague in 1928, they are proudly displayed to this day. This deep connection with his people did not always prove to be a golden path of accolades. By the late 1930s his work was considered dangerous and he personally became a target of the Gestapo. Sadly, during his interrogation he was taken ill and his heart and body never fully recovered.
Surprisingly at the time of his death, his work was considered off-trend. Alphonse’s legacy took a few more decades to be restored to its rightful place of honor in the artistic community. What I admire most about Alphonse is that although he defined an era with his aesthetic he didn’t just sit in the realm of commercial acceptance. For some artists finding fame and praise is the ultimate prize. For Alphonse he found a voice and used that to celebrate and unite an entire country. Despite governmental conflict, his epic lives on as a testament to a unique, shared history. I think that’s quite a beautiful legacy, how about you?