Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty

Publication: The Times.  
October 2016

Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty
Kelvingrove Museum

 As part of a series of posthumously-published lectures, Czech painter and designer Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), wrote: “The aim of art is to glorify beauty. And what is beauty? Beauty is the projection of moral harmonies on material and physical planes…” This exceptional and meticulously curated touring show explores Mucha’s idea of beauty – its historical, philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings – and draws links with other contemporaneous art, including exponents of the Glasgow style including Mackintosh and Jessie M. King. Mucha came from a small town, Ivančice in Moravia which is now in the Czech Republic, but was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied in Munich, and Paris, where in 1894 he was offered the chance to design a poster for the actress-director Sarah Bernhardt who was starring in the leading role in Victorien Sardin’s play, Gismonde, set in medieval Greece. Mucha’s distinctive, vertically elongated-design, with its ‘Q-motif’ (a female figure set against a rounded back-ground with long, flowing dress and hair), as well characteristic lettering, became an overnight success. Bernhardt commissioned Mucha to continue making posters and also to work on stage sets, jewellery and costumes. Mucha’s philosophical theories included the idea that art should be communicative and serve a purpose. The notion of poster design, where multiple copies of his work could appear in many situations simultaneously, clearly supported this ethos. His belief in ‘art for the people’ also seems highly relevant in the present venue. As well as his designs for the theatre, Mucha also worked as a poster designer for consumer products such the La Trappistine liqueur (1897), manufactured by Legouey & Delbergue and the famous JOB cigarette papers (1896) made by the Joseph Bardou Company.  The influence of Mucha’s style and iconography was widespread, extending to all manner of products and applications such as light fittings and other applied and decorative arts  such as jewellery. Le Style Mucha extended its influence over the general field of Art Nouveau. Here, a posterfrom 1896 by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for the Scottish Musical Review, bears a number of similarities to Mucha’s style. Mucha was a keen exponent of photography as a means of developing his design and compositional processes. He developed his use of the medium from the late 1890s onwards. Some examples of his work are to be seen here, as well as a film which illustrates his later masterwork, The Slav Epic (1912-1926), a series of 20 monumental panels showing his interpretations of mythical and historical scenes from a national ancestral past. Such work can be seen as part of various pan-European movements that asserted national identity as a means of challenging imperialist control. This important show reassesses Mucha’s contribution as an important pedagogue, theorist artist and designer, whose influence remains with us today.