Hair flowing all over the scene in whiplash curves, flowers whose colour is so precise that you feel as if you can almost smell their fragrances, robes whose folds are almost too perfectly rendered, and women whose beauty is unreal yet exquisite. This is the art of Alphonse Mucha.
Most people will recognise the 1897 ‘Reverie’ poster, with its central figure’s serene expression, as she sits in her traditional Slavic dress, leafing through a book of peach-coloured landscape designs, encircled by an intricate ring of pink flowers and bronze vines. And his other posters, here – in a touch of genius – displayed against pink and peach coloured walls, are even more iconic, especially those advertising plays starring Sarah Bernhardt. It gives you pause to think that Mucha gained this job almost by accident, just happening to be in the right place at the right time. Yet, as soon as his posters appeared, people were taking them off the walls and carrying them home! These vibrant, shining works, with their extended vertical length and their images of Bernhardt, surrounded by other scenes or Byzantine- or Celtic-style designs, are Mucha’s signature artistic achievement. Naturally, they are represented well in this exhibition, showing the actress in various roles, from playing Hamlet (a particularly striking example) to advertising liqueurs.
Advertising is another vital element here, as Mucha’s designs, so beautiful that they merit the title of ‘high art’ (or whatever you want to call it) any day, were also used to decorate such items as biscuit tins. Even here, the detail and originality are not lacking. Given the influences which seem to have been melded together in Mucha’s style, it is also satisfying to see his treatments of symbolic or allegorical themes, such as the four seasons, or his ‘Rose, Iris, Carnation, Lily’ series. Each figure has its own mood and setting, but whereas sometimes the naturalistic lines and the suggestion of mosaic work seem marginally more prominent in the context of an advertising poster, for example, these pieces, focused on nature itself, seem to be a return to the organic. Yet ‘marginally’ is the significant word: Mucha blends the boundaries between artificiality and verisimilitude, nature and art.
These elements each have their own area in the exhibition, as well: there is a section devoted to photographs of the (sometimes nude) models Mucha used, alongside examples of designs he compiled. These latter pieces show that he was conventional in the best sense, that he had his own way of doing things, of drawing things. He also gave lectures for a time, which, along with these textbook-style exercises, must have been inspirational. His aim was to produce ‘art for the people’ which was ‘inexpensive, accessible to the general public’ and which, he hoped, would improve their lives. The drawings, too, even in pencil, or pencil and ink, show a breath-taking delicacy and sensitivity, whether they depict flowers or knives.
In 1910, Mucha returned to his homeland and became involved in the Czech nationalist movement, producing a different kind of art, such as his ‘Song of Bohemia’ in 1918, when the Czech lands eventually became Czechoslovakia. Yet the figures in these works are in some ways similar to those in his earlier period, despite the sometimes wild divergences that can be observed in other aspects of his work from this time. Interestingly, as a short film shown towards the end of the exhibition explains, Mucha associated certain colours with certain times and conditions. For example, black symbolised oppression, blue evoked the past, yellow represented the present, and orange was the colour of the future. This gives some later works a truly unreal yet compelling quality, even if in my view they don’t quite equal the unity and beauty of his posters. Others yet seem to be composed of Lord Leighton’s treatment of fabric, and Millais’ treatment of grassy landscapes. Completely different again is a grotesque version of the Madonna and Child, a plea to give aid to Russia following its Civil War. Mucha’s art certainly strayed into new directions.
To conclude, this exhibition is another sign that the Sainsbury Centre is reaching ever new heights, as the turnout this evening demonstrated. Anyone from friends and supporters of the Centre, to the press, attended the private viewing, amid wine, live cello performances, and introductions by, among others, Mucha’s grandson John, who founded the Mucha Foundation. Last year’s ‘Sense and Sensuality’ also followed the Art Nouveau theme, and objects from the Centre’s permanent Anderson Collection are also featured in this display of Mucha’s work, in the form of busts or heads inspired by Mucha’s women, or jewellery, notably the gorgeous 1898 gold, ruby, pearl and enamel Orchid Brooch designed by Georges Fouquet. So this extraordinary and innovative period of art, the fin de siècle, seems to be a particular strength of theirs.
This exhibition will be open until 20th March 2016, and as ever, with student discounts available. Head here for more details.