Alfons Mucha

The Slav Epic

And now it's time for this week's edition of Czechs in History, in which we examine the lives of famous figures in the history of the Czech Lands. Today, Nick Carey paints a portrait of Czech Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha...

The Slav Epic
As we are looking at Alfons Mucha today, I thought I would start off the programme in the Smetana Hall in Prague's beautiful Art Nouveau Obecni dùm building. Alfons Mucha designed the murals in this hall in 1910. They really are magnificent, and represent only a tiny fraction of Mucha's work, which included sculptures, portraits, jewellery, one of the stained glass windows in St. Vitus' Cathedral at Prague Castle, his famous Slav Epic, and of course the posters with which he first shot to fame when he lived in Paris at the end of the 19th century.

Alfons Mucha was born on July 24th 1860 in the village of Ivancice in South Moravia to a very poor family. He was a keen painter from an early age, but it was simply unthinkable to anyone in such a small village that Mucha could make a career out of this, and his first job was completely unrelated to the world of art, as Geraldine Mucha, the wife of Mucha's son Jiri, told me:

It was at this point, in 1879, that Alfons Mucha answered a newspaper advertisement from a firm of scenery painters in Vienna was looking young artists. Mucha applied, and although he had no training, he was hired. He worked on the paintings for the Burg Theatre in Vienna, until it burned down, leaving Mucha out of a job:

The aristocrat, Count Couen Belasi, sent Mucha to Munich in 1884, where he studied at the art academy for four years. Upon his return, something happened that was to change his life dramatically:

Altogether, Alfons Mucha spent almost twenty years of his life in Paris. He spent the first few years illustrating, like many other young hopeful artists in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, until on Christmas Eve 1894 he got his big break. He was working for a printer, who suddenly received an order for a poster to be made up immediately for the famous actress Sara Bernhardt:

Mucha then signed a six-year contract with Sara Bernhardt later that year, and he designed her posters, costumes and even jewellery. He did not work exclusively with Bernhardt, but made posters continuously, tried sculpting, opened a graphic art school, and wrote two books on graphic art. Although his posters were immensely popular, Alfons Mucha was not satisfied:

Whilst in Paris, Alfons Mucha also met his wife, a Czech girl twenty three years his junior. In 1904, Countess Rothschild gave him contacts in America for various millionaires who might want their wives' portraits painted, so that he could make more money. Mucha wanted funds for his life's greatest project:

Mucha's chance to obtain funding came during the war between Japan and Russia in 1905. The United States officially favoured Japan, but there was a strong Pan-Slavic lobby in favour of Russia, and Mucha was invited to one of their banquets:

Alfons Mucha returned to Prague in 1910 and set about finding a studio large enough to house the pictures in his Slav Epic, the largest of which measures eight by six metres, and settled upon Zbiroch Castle, not far from Prague. The Slavic Epic consists of twenty pictures, and Mucha spent eighteen years painting it, but being a hardworking man, he continued painting posters and portraits, and worked on countless other projects.

Alfons Mucha completed the Slav Epic in 1928. It was presented as a gift to the city of Prague. It was ridiculed by many artists at the time, and was generally poorly received. Because of its nationalist and Slavic tendencies, it was hidden away during the 1930s, as relations with Germany became strained.

When the Nazis occupied Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939, Alfons Mucha was amongst the first arrested by the Gestapo. He was released shortly thereafter, as he had caught pneumonia, and died a few months later, just short of his seventy ninth birthday, on July 14th 1939:

After Mucha's death, his son Jiri Mucha became his greatest champion. The Communist Party, which came to power in 1948, perceived Mucha's work as degenerate bourgeoisie, and in particular the party was hostile to Mucha's Slav Epic, and it had special plans for it:

The regime never made good its threat to destroy the Slav Epic. Jiri Mucha continued to look for a way to have his father's work exhibited, and this opportunity came in 1962:

The exhibition was a resounding success, and as the owners of the paintings, Jiri and Geraldine Mucha, were behind the Iron Curtain, copyright law did not apply. Millions of reproductions were made, but Jiri Mucha apparently didn't care. The most important thing for him was that his father's works were available to the public once again. And it is largely thanks to Jiri Mucha that the name of Alfons Mucha is known throughout the world.

It is difficult to sum Alfons Mucha's character in just a few words. Instead, I think it's best to defer to Geraldine Mucha, and her description of Alfons Mucha's work on the Slav Epic: