Arts / Culture

The largest-ever Alphonse Mucha exhibition has just opened at the AGNSW

When the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha first arrived in New York he was greeted by a life-size cut out of his own image praising the arrival of “the greatest decorative artist in the world.” Mucha’s distinct decorative style captured the essence of fin-de-siecle Paris — think of the Paris Metro sign, or the iconic ‘Mucha Woman’ for JOB cigarette papers — and signalled the birth of the art nouveau movement. Known primarily for his illustrated poster art, Mucha was also a photographer, sculptor, and designer. As an activist he was a fierce advocate of Slav culture, evidenced in his late, great masterpiece Slav Epic, comprising over 20 paintings. Alphonse Mucha: Spirit of Art Nouveau, the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ winter blockbuster exhibition, is the largest exhibition of Mucha’s work ever shown in Australia, with over 200 works, including an immersive digital interpretation of Slav epic. RUSSH caught up with Marcus Mucha, executive director of the Mucha Foundation and great-grandson of the legendary Czech artist.

As the great grandson of Alphonse Mucha, did you grow up with many of his paintings or artefacts in your home?

My father and grandmother started the Mucha Foundation in the early 1990s soon after my grandfather Jiří passed away. Until then, my grandmother didn't realise the incredible value and important cultural assets they were. My grandmother had this tin on a little table in her room and we would pick in there for cookies when we would come and visit. There's also a statue by Rodin in the exhibition and it is the only Rodin work that has a personal inscription on it. It is inscribed from Rodin to Mucha. And my grandmother used to use it as a paperweight.

A Rodin sculpture as a paperweight?

Yes. It is two figures that were a bit too racy for the final version of [Rodin sculpture] The Gates of Hell. She was quite a proper lady, my grandmother, and as you can see, it's quite a racy sculpture. She used to say it was “two girls having a nice time…”

Tell me about the women in Mucha’s work?

The women in his world are strong women, and that's partly why the work resonates today. The women in his life were all strong women. All of his success was because of his friendship with Sarah Bernhardt. And you see throughout his work, all the women are strong, independent women. They're not women who are there for the male gaze. They're women who have their own independence, their own personality and this kind of glow and strength that comes from within. And I think that's something that we're really proud of. There are generations of women in my family who've protected the work from both the Nazis and the communists. We are really happy that that resonates with women and with audiences in general today.–

Can you tell me a little more about how the women in your family protected your great grandfather’s work from the Nazis and the Communists?

Alphonse’s work was not acceptable to the Communists. The first communist Minister of Culture wanted his Slav Epic — his late great masterpiece — to be destroyed. And it's only because of the efforts of my great grandmother who literally rolled it up and hid it under piles of coal, and buried it in the woods that we were able to preserve this treasure.

His work was considered decadent, it was considered bourgeois. And our family's profile was seen in that light. Also, my grandfather, Jiří Mucha, was a dissident writer, he was considered as the kind of Czech Solzhenitsyn and so again, the Communists were not a big fan of writers who wanted to advocate individual freedom.

You mentioned Mucha’s work resonating with audience’s today. You can see his influence is very much evident if you peek under the surface of popular culture. Florence Welch, for example, is like a walking Mucha illustration. And some of the pieces in this exhibition are modern interpretations of Alphonse Mucha’s work.

Yes we have one by Stanley Mouse. He's a psychedelic artist who lives in the Bay Area. When I asked him why he came up with this colour scheme he said, “well, that's what it looks like when you're an acid.” You see it in the work of the comic book artists of South American extraction — they found something in Mucha’s style not just visually, but also ethically.

We also have an illustration by a man called Joe Casada. And Joe was, until quite recently, the Chief Creative Officer of Marvel Entertainment. He was responsible for the whole direction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And before he was doing that, he was a comic book artist, and a total Mucha freak. The whole moral complexity that comes with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the reasons it's been such a huge success around the world, has its heritage and its genealogy going back to Mucha and how he was trying to create this kind of broader ethical world. That was something that spoke to Joe.


One of the most recognisable works in the exhibition is the poster of Sarah Bernhardt for the play Gismondo. The posters were a cause célèbre in Paris and were ripped down by fans eager to take them home almost as soon as they went up. What made it so groundbreaking?

There are two real innovations. If you look closely there is a line. And that's because he cut the canvas in half and put the two together. Posters at the time were mainly landscape. But they printed it in two parts, cut the sheet in half and put the two together. And it made it as though the most famous woman in the world was standing here on the streets of Paris among us. The second innovation is that Alphonse benefited from industrialization by being able to use the lithograph. But at the same time as industrialisation provided this great opportunity for him there was also a backlash against industrialisation within the culture. And so while other poster artists we're using very bright chemical reds and blues. He instead made a return to nature. The colours are much softer, much more pastoral. You've got floral motifs and the palm fronds and that really resonated with people in Paris at the time. The more honest Parisians bribed people to let them take the posters home. The others went out at night with razor blades and cut them down.

How did he meet Sarah Bernhardt and come to illustrate her poster for the play Gismondo?

I will give you the family version which is not necessarily historically accurate! Sarah Bernhard was the most famous actress in the world at the time. Like, I guess Nicole Kidman today. And she had a new play and it wasn't doing well at the box office. She thought the problem was the marketing and she asked the printer to come up with a new poster for it. But it was just before Christmas in 1894 and all the artists that the printer would have usually used were away for the holidays. It just so happened that Alphonse was there correcting the proofs of a book at the studio. So Alphonse whipped something up, and the printer hated it. He said it was awful and told Alphonse to go home and never darken his door again. In the meantime, because the printer didn't have any other options, he sent it to Sarah Bernhard thinking that she would hate it. When Alphonse got home there was a note on his door saying, ‘Come to the Théâtre de la Renaissance immediately on the orders of Madame Sarah.’

As he tells the story in his memoirs, he walked very slowly through the snow and knocked very shyly on the stage door of the theatre, expecting that he was going to get her legendary diva explosion. And instead of the theatre staff opening the door, the most famous woman in the world opened it, threw her arms around him and said, “Mr Mucha you have made me immortal.”
On the spot he signed a six year contract to be her artistic director. All of her stage sets, costumes and jewellery, but also all these posters that we were showing here [in the exhibition].

What she saw that the printer didn't see was that this was the moment where Art Nouveau was born, and the birth moment of perhaps the first truly global artistic movement.

Alphonse Mucha: Spirit of Art Nouveau is on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Naala Badu, north building, from 15 June to 22 September 2024

For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit the Art Gallery website.


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