Grandson of great Czech painter Alfons Mucha says Slav Epic should not be part of “travelling circus”

Slav Epic, photo: Filip Jandourek

The Slav Epic is a cycle of 20 enormous canvases by the great Czech painter Alfons Mucha, depicting the history and mythology of the Slav peoples. Mucha regarded the works as his lifetime achievement but controversy remains over how the canvases are being exhibited and why it has been seemingly impossible to reach a decision on a permanent space where they could be displayed.

Slav Epic,  photo: Filip Jandourek
The painter’s grandson, John Mucha, recently sent a letter to Prague City Council, warning legal action. He told Radio Prague’s Chris Johnstone why ‘enough was enough’.

“Basically what the first letter said to the City of Prague is that because, unfortunately, they did not fulfill the key condition under which the Slav Epic was given to Prague (and through the capital to the Czech nation) and because the City of Prague is now planning on sending the Slav Epic to Japan, China, Korea, America and who know where else, and there seems to be a significant degree of uncertainty over where it will go and when it will return, we have decided to take steps. I have been trying for the last 20 years to keep open a dialogue with the City of Prague but I feel that I have no option now but to take legal steps, meaning to reopen the artistic estate, and through that to demand the return of the Slav Epic to the family.”

Have you received as yet a reply from City Hall?

“Our initial letter received a negative answer.”

“I see the Slav Epic as one of the artistic crown jewels of the Czech nation. People should come here to see it.”

Negative in what way? Are they not willing to discuss the matter?

“Well, the current councilor who is responsible for the arts… we have actually been trying for about two years just to meet up. But he has consistently refused to meet us. When last year part of the ceiling collapsed in the area where the Slavic Epic is housed, I requested to see what had happened and I was not allowed to do that. It is not easy to communicate with people who show no interest.”

So what did it say in the letter? ‘No’? Or ‘We don’t want to talk’?

“It alleges in fact that there is no legal case because Alfons, according to the councillor, never specified that a suitable space be built for it, provided by the City of Prague, which is not the case. I would advise him to read the document, which is the document underscoring the gift and I think he will then understand what this is all about.”

What’s your next step?

John Mucha,  photo: Miroslav Krupička
“Sadly, we are now in a process with our lawyers preparing the beginning of formal legal action against the City of Prague. What we will be saying is that for over 20 years I tried to respect, look after, and make available the artistic heritage of my grandfather. We do this, for example, through the Mucha Museum in Prague, through exhibitions and so on. And also to focus on the fact that as far as the Slav Epic is concerned, Alfons was absolutely clear about it, Prague had to do something about it. He was also absolutely clear that, yes it was given to Prague, but only as a vehicle, as a gift to the people and the nation.

“Then the next bit will be that since there is this huge uncertainty now – and indeed the concept now of suddenly making a travelling circus almost out of the Slav Epic - goes dead against my grandfather’s wishes. He certainly would not wish for that to happen. And I think one has to realise, and I don’t think it is just my view, the Slav Epic is something extraordinary and unique. I would suggest that it is, sort of, one of the artistic crown jewels of the Czech nation and I don’t think crown jewels travel. If people want to see it, I think they should come to the Czech Republic.”

Your main worries there are where it is going, how it will be stored, that it will be somewhere abroad, as it were, on the road…

“The problem with the palace where it is now is that it is really a hall built for trade fairs. It was not built to be a museum.”

“According to the media, and internal confirmation I also have, we are not talking about one year. We are talking about two, three or possibly four years. The medium in which the Slav Epic was done is a combination oil and tempera. Tempera is very fragile and the concept of six or eight venues in China for instance, where the canvases are rolled up and unrolled represents a significant risk. Also, the museum standards in some countries are simply not up to the standards one would expect for such a work.”

You also have concerns about the place where the Slav Epic is currently on view: the Veletržní palác or Trades Fair Palace. What are your concerns there?

“Historically, when Prague suddenly decided to move the Slav Epic from Moravský Krumlov, where admittedly when you arrived at the castle it looked like nothing on Earth, but actually the internal conditions, while not ideal, suited the Slav Epic and it survived there for 40 years. The problem with the palace where it is now is that it is really a hall built for trade fairs, for machinery to be displayed and so on. It was not built to be a museum. I have it from external conservators who have expressed great concern that if the paintings remain there for long they will be damaged.

Photo: Tomáš Berger
“There is also a philosophical or spiritual aspect to this: when the battle lines were drawn the City of Prague said ‘Mr Mucha, why do you complain? Alfons Mucha did exhibit the Slav Epic for a brief period during his lifetime. And I agree but that was before the Second World War. Today, my grandfather would be livid. The reason is because my grandmother Maruška was of Jewish origin. What is not ventilated very often is that during the war was that the Gestapo and the SS used the Veletržní palác to get all the Jews together before they transported them to the concentration camps. And some of them were my relatives and relatives of Alfons Mucha. I don’t think my grandma would be very happy about it today.”

As a family and as the descendants, what are you doing now to try and find a more suitable space? As a family are you trying to do something with or without City Hall?

“Over the last 15 years we have specifically come to the City of Prague and we have discussed a number of possible projects. We discussed on possibility with the former mayor of Prague Bohuslav Svoboda. At that time we discussed the possibility of using the left wing of the main railway station next to Fanta Café. For various reasons it didn’t happen. Perhaps the saddest aspect is that there was another possibility where the Stalin monument used to be. It is not a new idea, in 2010, we looked at that and submitted the project to the City of Prague. We even had someone on board who was prepared to be involved in the financing of it. But the city said ‘No’.”

“[With the Slav Epic] you could really do something sensational. But for some reason the City of Prague keeps on slamming the door in our face.

“Having said all that, I am not trying to ‘grab’ the Slav Epic for myself. But ideally what should happen is that we and the City of Prague should come together and constructively work on something. The Slav Epic should not be travelling and it should be kept in the republic. If we were to come to an agreement, the Slav Epic is not just the 20 canvases. We have a huge amount of material in our collection: studies and photographs, his writings and his thoughts. You could really do something sensational, something three dimensional. But for some reason the City of Prague keeps on slamming the door in our face.”