“The purpose of my work was never to destroy but always to create" - the Czech Art Nouveau painter, graphic and commercial artist Alphonse Mucha

1860, the Czech Art Nouveau painter, graphic and commercial artist Alphonse  Mucha was born in Ivančice in Moravia.

“The purpose of my work was never to destroy but always to create, to construct bridges, because we must live in the hope that humankind will draw together and that the better we understand each other the easier this will become.“ (Alphonse Mucha)

Mucha’s co-operative advertisement for “Bières de la Meuse“ (1897),
Beers brewed along the river Meuse in Belgium

The jotted lines, the simple but expressive shapes, the strong colour contrasts of a Toulouse-Lautrec’s imagination that had revolutionised theatrical advertisements in the early 1890s and made them into works of art, they were all yesterday’s news, when the last man in a Paris print shop on the night before Christmas, a 34 years old Czech artist, found himself tasked with the creation of a poster ad for the great Sarah Bernhardt as “Gismonda” in Victorien Sardou’s recently premiered eponymous play that went into extra time on January 4th. The young man was Alphonse Mucha and his creation revolutionised poster ads overnight. Displaying Sarah Bernhardt, already 50 at the time, as a life-sized stately, but youngish-ageless beauty with flowing hair in a fantastically, fluently tasteful arrangement full of gold, flowers and palm branches hit the nerve not only of the great, flattered actress but that of the whole of the capital of arts as well. Mucha became a celebrity all by himself, praised Bernhardt in further poster ads on a five-year contract, did more advertisements in the same style, had fans who scraped his characteristic designs as collector’s items from the walls as soon as they were posted while the artist himself had become the midwife and figurehead of a new style: Art Nouveau, Jugendstil.

Alphonse Mucha:
"La Dame aux camélias" (1896),
featuring Mme Sarah Bernhardt

After all is said and done, Mucha was a bit miffed about being best remembered and cherished for his ads and Jugendstil on top of it. And while he designed bank notes, stamps and other documents and more commercial art for customers from all over the world, he dreamed about more epic forms of painting and finally created a cycle of 20 large canvasses celebrating his Slavic heritage, completed in 1928 and being largely ignored. Except by the Gestapo. When the Nazis marched into Prague after the Munich betrayal on 16 March 1939, Mucha was among the first Czechs cashiered for their obvious patriotism. He was released afterwards as mostly harmless, but the old gentleman didn’t survive the attention of the Third Reich for long. He died in July of the same year and his art was promptly ignored again by the Communist regime after the war, since he was rather not fitting into the ideal of socialist realism, tractors, wheat fields (albeit flowing) and happy workers and farmers. Rediscovered after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Mucha was officially rediscovered in his native land, the Slavic Cycle is finally on exhibition in Prague’s National Gallery, while his wonderfully aesthetic, groundbreaking commercial art was never quite forgotten all over the world.

Alfons Mucha: “The Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy - Praise the Lord in Your Native Tongue” (c 1925), 
part of the “Slav Epic”.

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