The Prison of Style

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Few artists possess a style as instantly recognisable as that of Alphonse Mucha. Indeed, so unmistakable was the Czech artist’s work that it shot him from obscurity to fame in an instant, giving rise to the phrase ‘le style Mucha’ and helping to define the Art Nouveau movement which took Paris by storm in the 1890s.

Mucha became more than a well-known artist: he became a category in his own right.

The story of his rise to fame is the stuff of legend. Working in the Paris of the belle époche as an unknown young artist with high hopes and dreams, he was doing a favour for a friend on the Boxing Day of 1894 – correcting proofs at Lemercier’s printing works while the rest of the staff were on holiday. The actress Sarah Bernhardt – ‘la divine Sarah’, as she was known – called the printer’s agent with a demand for a new poster to advertise her production of Gismonda, a Greek melodrama in four acts by Victorien Sardou that was premiering at the Renaissance Theatre, in which she was performing the title role. The divine Sarah could not be gainsaid, even at Christmas, but all the regular Lemercier artists were on holiday. In desperation, Mucha was called on to produce the new poster. It was the chance he had been dreaming of.

So original was Mucha’s poster for Gismonda that some Parisians would bribe bill stickers to give them a copy, taking them out of circulation before they even went up. Others simply cut them off the hoardings with razors at night and took them home. As for the divine Sarah, she offered Mucha a five-year contract on the spot to create stage and costume designs for her, as well as posters, while the printer Champenois signed him up to an exclusive contract to produce commercial and decorative posters. The young Czech artist was made.

So familiar is the Gismonda poster from numberless reproductions that it is difficult now to appreciate its intense originality in 1894. Its elongated shape, presenting an almost life-size figure at eye level, was revolutionary. Its use of pastel tones rather than ‘poster paints’ was unprecedented. And its identification of Sarah Bernhardt with the Greek heroine was absolute: the eye takes in immediately the words GISMONDA, BERNHARDT and THEATRE DE LA RENAISSSANCE, while the mind absorbs more slowly the dignified poise of the actress’s stance, the delicacy of her face and hands, and the searching expression in her eyes. It is an astonishingly effective piece of advertising – even down to the detail that Sarah Bernhardt’s first name is obscured by the frond she is holding in her right hand. No other Bernhardt was imaginable.

Recognition is the profound theme of Alphonse Mucha’s life and work. As is always the case with talent, it cut both ways for its possessor.

Mucha recognized himself as a potentially great artist even as a young boy. He recognized the opportunity presented by the Gismonda commission – understanding the needs not only of Sarah Bernhardt, but also of the wider public who were so enthralled by her. He seized that opportunity – and became immediately acclaimed as an artist who portrayed beautiful women in beautiful posters. That is how we still think of Alphonse Mucha – as the genius of the biscuit-tin, creator of a style so eminently reproducible that it appears everywhere ad nauseam and becomes unbearable to look at.

That is certainly how many of his Czech contemporaries saw him at the time, distrusting his search for recognition in a foreign capital and resenting the stellar success that Mucha enjoyed. Commissions poured in from every quarter, and Mucha worked in many media, designing jewellery, furniture, rooms, stained glass and entire buildings as well as working in print, panels, pastels, oils, photography and sculpture. His output was Olympian, his daring boundless: for the Paris International Exhibition of 1900, he proposed dismantling the Eiffel Tower down to its first level and positioning a huge new building on top of it – a construction which in its turn would have huge statues hanging from its roof.

The idea is as far from a biscuit tin as it is possible to imagine. That it never came to fruition is perhaps not surprising. But Mucha’s entire oeuvre is in fact all about reworking conventions, redefining boundaries and redeploying ideas.

He takes the iconography of the Roman Catholic faith, in which he grew up, and uses it to create sensual Madonnas of a new religion of art.

He takes images from the natural world – flowers and fruits, branches and leaves – and turns them into geometrical patterns and great swooshes of asymmetrical design. He takes the values of pictorial images and turns them into printing fonts; he takes the colours of the natural world and turns them into tonal palettes.

Amazingly – when viewed from the perspective of the biscuit tin – Mucha also took his entire oeuvre, reputation and energy and dedicated them to the service of his native Czechoslovakia in the second half of his life. In 1910, following many years spent first in Paris and then in America – he returned to Prague to work on the Obecní dům, the Municipal House, which is a monument to the values both of Czechoslovakia and of Art Nouveau.

Work followed whose nature became ever more patriotic and, indeed, political, ranging from posters in support of nationalist associations through the design of a new Czech currency after the Great War to the creation of his massive Slav Epic – a series of twenty monumental murals depicting the origins, achievements and aspirations of the Slavs. Not for no reason was Mucha one of the first Czechs to be arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939.

They fully recognized his potential not just as a figurehead but also as a visionary in any struggle to throw off their stranglehold on the country.

Ironically – and even after a further period of intense distrust, this time by the Soviets in the wake of the Second World War – Mucha’s work still attracts some hostility in his native land. A stained-glass window by Mucha graces Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral, but the Slav Epic is not on permanent exhibition in the capital of the Czech Republic, and it was not until 1998 that a museum dedicated to his work opened in that city. Perhaps he will always be a victim of his own success, both revered and distrusted for his ability to create images of fascinating beauty in any medium, and for any purpose.

Mucha was indeed the creator of an entire style – and nothing is as eternally imprisoning for an artist as the style that he or she has created.

find more about Alphonse Mucha here The Mucha Museum Prague

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