PARIS — Through his early and spectacular success as the preeminent Art Nouveau graphic artist, a psychic burden was foisted upon the Bohemian artist Alphonse Mucha. The tragic double-edged sword of celebrity engendered this encumbrance when Mucha, rather new to Paris, created “Gismonda” (1894), a distinctly decorative theatrical poster of Sarah Bernhardt promoting her 1895 appearance in Victorien Sardou’s play Gismonda at the Théâtre de la Renaissance. This marvelous work kicks off an erratic but terrific exhibition, bringing to light his artistic, political, and spiritual complexity — the first to be dedicated to the prolific artist since his retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1980.
Mucha produced this lavish, tall, upright, complex image of the famous actress in a commanding pose, depicting Bernhardt’s richly brocaded robes and her quasi-Byzantine decorative mosaic background in subtle colors. Word is that Paris woke up on 1895’s New Year’s Day to find the city plastered with this beautiful and hypnotic illustration, but by lunch, all had been removed and taken home by poster aficionados and fanatic Bernhardt fans. Art Nouveau had until then been the province of a small avant-garde coterie, but now fallaciously dubbed “le Style Mucha” it suddenly had a vast new audience, and Mucha, via Bernhardt, became a celebrity in his own right, overnight. This success was soon repeated by other Bernhardt graphic art projects, like “Médée” (1898), in a long series of decorative advertising posters, usually using variations on the theme of a towering female figure interlaced within a splay of flowers and graphic scrolls.
As recent elections around the world have focused peoples’ attention on the intersection of art and politics with acuity, it is rewarding to encounter Mucha’s fuller social-political-commercial-artistic spectrum here and place it under scrutiny. Born in 1860 in Moravia, he arrived in Paris via Munich at age 27 under the artistic influence of Pre-Raphaelitism, Symbolism, and Aestheticism. Perhaps due to his rather early Bernhardt success with the swirling floral images, it is curious to note that although he was surrounded by the ferment of a budding Post-Impressionist Modernism, and was a close friend and studio partner of Paul Gauguin, Mucha remained indifferent to the avant-garde developments and debates of the time, instead retrenched in his Japan-influenced hieratic designs and quasi-Byzantine decorative backgrounds.
Art Nouveau is the French name of an art movement (called Stile Liberty, Jugendstil, Modernisme, Nieuwe Kunst, or Sezessionstil respectively in Italy, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and Austria), which basically took its impulse from the blend of flowing natural forms and nymph-like women. Setting aside a benign sexism shaping depictions of woman-as-nature, this interest in sensual bio-structure was expressed in sinuous fashion, touching everything from cutlery to lamps to furniture to walls to entire building façades to metro-stations. Architects and designers who contributed to the development of this style included Victor Horta, Henry Van de Velde, Antoni Gaudí, Hector Guimard, Otto Wagner, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Undoubtedly, because Mucha is one of the most popular fin-de-siècle Art Nouveau illustrators, his less-stylized, but still sumptuously beguiling spiritualist work — inspired by his friendship with Swedish theosophist, painter, alchemist, novelist and playwright August Strindberg — such as Mucha’s phantom-like “Holy Night” (c.1900), “The Moon and the Stars (Study for “The Morning Star”)” (1902), and even the earlier “Zodiac” (1896) have been largely overlooked. Not so much anymore. The curator of the show, Tomoko Sato, of the Mucha Foundation in Prague, gives that spectral spiritual aspect of his oeuvre (a mystical sensibility that Mucha shared with fellow Bohemian in Paris František Kupka) equal weight, while happily underemphasizing his later work — notable for being bombastic and kitschy and nationalistic — as these paintings, The Slav Epic series, are not in the show.
Mucha’s poster-based fame led to some actual success in the art world at the time: he was invited to show his work in the Salon des Cent exhibition in 1896, and then, in 1897, to have a major retrospective in the same gallery. The magazine La Plume made a special edition devoted to his work, and his retrospective exhibition traveled to Vienna, Prague, Munich, Brussels, London, and New York, lending him an international reputation. This kind of amazes me, because the prior obscurantist mystification first sensed in circuitous Art Nouveau (when it really was new) finally springs into a widespread cultural movement, not through one of its initial theorists-practitioners, like Hortsa, but by this newbie. But Mucha’s designs apparently hit a nerve: expressing a growing reaction against the new social divisions brought about by the power of the Industrial Revolution and lifting up out of obscurity the intractable powers of nymphs and fairies at free and flippant play in nature. As such, Mucha’s version of Art Nouveau is a pre-modern graphic art that looks post-modern as it bends the mind towards the incomprehensible: a vantage point, at the time, from which to start to breakout of a Renaissance perspective position towards a more supple non-Euclidean modern awareness. This heightening of perceptual sensitivity allowed for and encouraged a heightened sense of consciousness of one’s surroundings in general, as the churned-line of Art Nouveau is found on floors and then picked up in shapes of furniture and on into doors and door frames until it reaches the structural arches which support ceilings and into lighting fixtures. As a result, a really good Art Nouveau space, like Horta’s Hôtel Tassel in Brussels, is always swaying, bending, floating, arching, smoking, curling, throbbing, dripping, melting, aching, writhing.
At the start of his career, Mucha created and exploited this complimentary, mind-bending, complex cloisonnist graphic style based on gravity-defying whorls. Yet, after making a considerable income from his theatrical and advertising work in this style, Mucha wished even more to be recognized as a serious artist and philosopher. In 1900 he wrote in his memoirs that “I saw that my way was to be found elsewhere, a little bit higher.” To achieve that, Mucha, a Catholic also interested in mysticism and a member of the Paris masonic lodge of the Grand Orient de France, created and printed 510 copies of what for him was his works-on-paper masterpiece: Le Pater, an opulently illustrated book based on The Lord’s Prayer. The book, as displayed in the show, is heavy with symbolist ornament and features a mystical protecting goddess among other esoteric occult themes.
That ‘future is female’ theme — here again styled as ornamental integration as first addressed in the Bernhardt work — now reads like a message-in-a-bottle lobbed into the future. For me, and anyone who grew up on the Beatles in real time, mystic Mucha, creator of the much beloved “Job (rolling papers)” (1896) image, is hard not to see through the lens of the potted Sixties: dime bags of pot, hookahs, candle lit rooms, bare floors and mattress, curling incense smoke, Eastern ornamental fabric curtains, jamming guitars. Because he is so closely associated with that hippy style, subsequent generations may have found him difficult to take entirely seriously. But believe me that his smoky stylishness slotted in perfectly around 1967 to the political-cultural shifts in a counter-cultural mood that combined feminism, passivism, racial idealism, hedonism, and economic optimism. This stylish hippy temperament — laden with spirituality, hidden meanings and symbolism — was exhibited in the period’s flamboyant clothing fabrics, in rock concert posters, and album music covers; all basically inspired by the exquisitely flowing lines of Egon Schiele, the art of Aubrey Beardsley and Georges de Feure, William Morris’s wallpaper designs, William Blake’s visionary drawings, and Mucha’s whirling shapes expressing ersatz reveries of quixotic females. “Seasons: Summer” (1896) and “Rêverie” (1897) offer two perfect examples. This kind of high daydream art (whimsical lines, fluid shapes amalgamating one into another, female figures with flowers and different ornamental detailing on their hair and bodies, the whole mood playful and yet aesthetically beautiful) accompanied hip folk, fueled by trippy LSD, hashish and especially marijuana, as they dipped into buddhism, paganism, mysticism, tarot cards, meditation, vegetarianism, the I Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, and The Golden Bough. Which is weird, as Mucha’s version of Art Nouveau — an inimitable mixture of sumptuous pattern and voluptuous female goddess form — was synonymous with the champagne gaiety and decadence of Belle Époque Paris during a period where technological and aesthetic innovation was only first meeting exotic eclecticism at various World Fairs.
During the Belle Époque, with an infectious zeal for art hinged on exoticism, romanticism, and nostalgia, Mucha churned out everything from posters, decorative panels, and fabulous fabric designs — such as the velvet “Woman with Daisy” (1900), to calendars, table settings, menu cards, and wine labels. He even sold the proverbial soap: “Packing for Mucha Violet Soap” (1906). Not to mention his jewelry — like “Ornamental Chain and Pendants: designed by Mucha and made by Georges Fouquet” (1900) — sculpture, theatre, and shop designs, such as “Interior of Georges Fouquet’s Shop: Drawing for the Fireplace with Statuette, Mirror and Ornamental Details on the Wall” (c.1900). By most always depicting serene women at one with their surroundings, he helped sell almost everything there was to sell, all the while lamenting that his ‘real artistic-spiritual work’ went unseen (boo hoo).
In March 1904, Mucha sailed for New York City, the start of his first visit to the United States where he would live on and off for years. There, he began painting in an ever more conservative illustrator style, as seen in the most unmodern “Christmas in America” (1919). His original intention for going to the States was to find funding for his previously mentioned grand project, The Slav Epic, which he achieved: from the anti-Semitic, Hitler sympathizer, Chicago connoisseur of Arab culture and noted Arabist Charles Richard Crane. Mucha also took in some income from teaching illustration and design at the New York School of Applied Design for Women, at the Philadelphia School of Art, and at the Art Institute of Chicago, while conceptualizing this nationalistic project to depict the history and civilization of the Czech and Slavic peoples. In 1910, imbued with masonic philosophy, Mucha moved back to the land of his birth (that would become Czechoslovakia eight years hence) to execute The Slav Epic project. It would occupy the last thirty years of his career and lead him to produce the bevy of bad behemoths that were mercifully excluded from the current show. He was arrested for being an occultist Freemason by Hitler’s Gestapo soon after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939 and died the same year of pneumonia.
The main difficulty in assessing this exhibition is that it seems more impressive as a giant system of motifs than individual works may merit. Yet, by focusing on what highlights there are to be gleaned from the full-spectrum aberration that was mucho Mucha, one thing is absolutely clear: when eyeing him through the opposite end of the Ornament and Crime Modern telescope that rejected his fabulous excessiveness, much of Mucha’s work reinforces complex, postmodern, digital reactions against a simple American modernism that favored clean lines and unadorned geometry that in his post-Paris memoir Henry Miller has called The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.