ALPHONSE MUCHA: Modern, not Modernist

by Matthew Larking

For Alphonse Mucha, being a “Modernist” in the 19th and 20th centuries was never as important as being in the right place at the right time: which is why for critics the Impressionists of the late 19th century are Modernist and Mucha, their contemporary, was merely modern.

By capital “M” Modernism I mean the singularity of mind that came to reject specific subject matter, was attentive to the “flatness” of the painting medium, and focused on the ideal of a pure art rather than an applied one. It was founded in a series of movements beginning with Impressionism and leading to Cubism and Orphism before ending with late 20th-century Abstract-Expressionism and Minimalism.

Alternately, in lowercase “m” modernity, artists respond directly to the present state of their own culture. The 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire said it best when his celebration of cultural “now-ness” led him to praise “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the sketch of manners, the depiction of bourgeois life, the pageant of fashion; the pleasure we derive from the representation of the present is due to its essential quality of being present.”

While the Impressionists certainly depicted incidental scenes of modernity — steam locomotives, tugboats and Baron Haussmann’s remodeled 1860s Paris with its grand boulevards, concert parks, fashion houses and cafe-cabarets — their true intentions lay elsewhere. As the critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary wrote in 1874, “They are Impressionists in the sense that they render not the landscape but the sensation [impressions] produced by the landscape.” Modernist art simply had a lack of immediate concern with issues of cultural “present-ness.”

Before arriving in Paris in 1888, Czech-born Mucha had attempted, and failed, to enter the Prague Academy of Fine Arts, after which he worked on stage sets and painted portraits of local notaries. Once in Paris, he became more entangled in the extroverted, commercial celebration of the Belle Epoque than in any Modernist aesthetic philosophy, as he captured 19th-century pop-culture subjects and designed the signs of his time — that is, advertising posters.

His posters and other pieces from his extensive body of work are currently on display at the Suntory Museum Tempozan in Osaka till Jan. 29, the last venue for an exhibition that has shown across Japan.

Mucha broke into the big time in Paris when he designed the poster “Gismonda” (1894) for a production of the Theatre de la Renaissance. The “divine” Sarah Bernhardt, muse of Oscar Wilde and arguably the most famous actress of the 19th century, was playing the leading role — and also acting as the theater manager. Taken with Mucha’s image of herself, she signed him to a six-year contract to provide posters for performances, as well as to design stage sets, costumes and jewelry. Mucha quickly shook off his obscurity and acquired the celebrity that a professional association with Bernhardt ensured.

Now an established graphic artist with an in-demand style, he went on to design posters for brands such as “Job” cigarettes (1896) and “Moet and Chandon: Dry Imperial” (1899).

Mucha’s sinuous lines, floral designs, and Byzantine colors, the hallmarks of what was to become Art Nouveau, were seemingly without precedent, and many consider him a pioneer of that movement which was prominent from 1894 until around 1915 — though he himself shied away from direct association.

Nouveau continued in the direction of the earlier Arts and Crafts movement that was prominent in the 1850s and ’60s in Britain and later spread throughout Europe and North America. The focus was on unifying the various arts and rooting them in utility as a counterweight to the demoralizing and unaesthetic industrialization of products. An international modern style was the aim, one that would include — as art — tableware, decorative poster panels, wallpaper, doorframes and the like.

For Mucha, a commission to decorate the Bosnia and Herzegovina pavilion for the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1900 aroused patriotic spirit for his native Bohemian folk traditions. The fruits of this was his “Slav Epic,” which was begun in 1910 and presented to the city of Prague in 1928. The “Epic” is a series of 20 enormous historical paintings which inevitably saw him adopting the Classical tradition originally abandoned by the Impressionists 70 years earlier and signaling for Mucha in “modern” terms a stylistic regression. The exhibition illustrates his return to Classicism with a handful of paintings dating from 1915, and the “Slav Epic” with preparatory sketches and photographs.

Mucha’s Art Nouveau posters and his later uptake of an already outmoded style of painting offered no real possibilities for development. As early as 1903, London’s influential Magazine of Art was referring to Art Nouveau as a “strange decorative disease,” while in 1920s France it was being dismissed as the “stick of parsley style.”

On the other hand, Impressionism fostered a century of artists building upon the achievements of their forbears. It is for this reason that Impressionism is profound while Art Nouveau gets short shrift.

It has always been Mucha’s posters, with their seasonal and elegant beauties so amenable to ephemeral calendar design — and their appeal to popular aesthetic predilections amenable to commercial demands — that fuel the artist’s continuing visibility and broad appeal. As such, it is confirmation of Baudelaire’s wisdom, that beauty is a product combining the eternal and the transitory. In Mucha’s case, his ephemeral work has been the most enduring, while his historic work is but a footnote.