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Hypnotic and erotic--Alphonse Mucha's work, reassessed in Apollo in 1963, took on the swinging decade's spirit.

Half a century ago, no student bed-sit was thought decently decorated without at least one Athena poster tacked on to the wall. Athena, seemingly with a shop on every high street, sold inexpensive art reproductions perfect not just for hiding the damp then prevalent in rental accommodation but also for indicating the occupant's hip credentials. And in the 1960s and '70s, a revival of interest in the art nouveau movement meant that some of the company's bestsellers were copies of Alphonse Mucha posters.

Currently the subject of an exhibition at the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris ('Alphonse Mucha', until 27 January 2019), the Czech painter and designer enjoyed global success at the start of the last century. When he moved to the United States in 1904 he was described as 'the greatest decorative artist in the world'. Only 10 years before he had come up with a poster advertising Gismonda (Fig. 1), a play making its debut in Paris with Sarah Bernhardt in the title role. Mucha's work proved to have more staying power than the drama, and led to his becoming as famous as Bernhardt, who thereafter employed him to design publicity material for subsequent shows.

Mucha was the subject of a perceptive essay by Mario Amaya in the June 1963 issue of Apollo. This was the moment when a revival of interest in fin de siecle culture was just beginning: Athena was founded the following year. Amaya, who would go on to write extensively about both art nouveau and Pop art (recognising the links between the two), was among the first critics to reassert its merits. He also understood the context from which Mucha's work sprung, and the reasons for its success. As he noted, the Gismonda poster was representative of a new trend in outdoor advertising initiated in Paris but soon emulated elsewhere, eventually leading to the creation of billboards.

Mucha developed a distinctive style, wrote Amaya, his pictures 'invested in a wealth of decorative detail and iridescent colour that had the brilliance of medieval stained glass or Byzantine mosaic'. His sinuous shapes and sumptuous tones were 'a highly personalised evocation of a fantasy world, peopled with remote women who looked like idealised Bernhardts, in bejewelled gowns, wearing exotic headdresses, existing in an imaginary setting that owed its probability to the sheer force of the artist's decorative ingenuity'.

Other artists had created similar imaginary worlds--think of the paintings of Alma-Tadema or Leighton--but these were accessible only to a select social caste, members of which frequented galleries and purchased paintings. Mucha, on the other hand, brought his sensibility to the general populace and for free: by the late 1890s it was impossible to escape his work on the poster kiosks of Paris and elsewhere. Part of their appeal was unquestionably due to a barely covert eroticism. 'Long tresses undulated as though floating in water,' wrote Amaya, 'and these uncontrolled undulations possess the fascination of a sexual fetish. The trains of gorgeous gowns twisted into sweeping S-shape curves left nothing free of entanglement and the entire composition took on the appearance of never-ending rhythmic movement, restless, impatient and searching: the effect is often hypnotic.'

Among the more surprising information provided by Amaya is that Mucha was on close terms with Gauguin, with whom at one point he shared an address. When Gauguin returned from his first trip to Tahiti in 1893, he briefly worked in Mucha's studio, the Czech describing him as 'restless, talkative and not over industrious, until he returned from his first island sojourn burning with enthusiasm for the primitive solitude and wondrous Venus noires he had left behind'. Equally unexpected, the two men were friendly with Swedish playwright August Strindberg, who was then also in Paris.

Amaya was keen to make apparent that Mucha was an artist more deserving of consideration than posters for popular entertainment would suggest. Furthermore he emphasised how Mucha came to regret his own commercial success: in an interview in 1901 he announced he would undertake no more poster commissions. Around this time he was invited by jeweller Georges Fouquet to design a new retail premises, now installed in the Musee Carnavalet in Paris. Once the job was finished, he went to the United States, evidently in the hope of embarking on a new artistic career. But his reputation crossed the Atlantic with him, and he was soon employed as an illustrator for Hearst publications. Meanwhile for almost two decades he worked on The Slav Epic, a series of 20 monumental paintings depicting the history of the Czech people that he intended to be his masterpiece. Today this rather overblown work receives scant notice, whereas, thanks to praise from the likes of Amaya, Mucha's posters continue to be prised.

Caption: Fig. Gismonda. 1894, Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), colour lithograph, 216 x 74.2cm. Mucha Foundation, Prague
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Title Annotation:FROM THE ARCHIVES
Author:O'Byrne, Robert
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Nov 1, 2018
Words:803
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