The latest exhibition at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery is a celebration of the work of Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), the Czech artist whose stylishly elegant theatrical and advertising posters are synonymous with the late nineteenth century Art Nouveau movement. It is a beautifully-curated show full of all the lush familiar images I expected, but this is Kelvingrove, where no one is ever invited just to admire and works are firmly set in a social and political context. I came away feeling like I had met a new artist.
Mucha was born in 1860 in Ivancice, South Moravia which was under the rule of the Austrian Empire. His artistic career began in 1879 when he was apprenticed as a scene-painter and was formalised at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts and the Academie Julian in Paris, the city which he made his home until he returned to Bohemia in 1910. It is fair to say his career really started through his collaboration with the iconic French actress Sarah Bernhardt after he designed the poster for her play Gismonda in 1894, in one of those lovely acts of timing history is littered with. Bernhardt urgently needed a new design, Mucha happened to be correcting proofs at the Lemercier printing studio when the request came in and was assigned the task. The resulting partnership with Bernhardt led to a series of six posters, published for display in the streets of Paris, which established Bernhardt’s brand and became such objects of desire they were stolen from their hoardings.
It is not hard to see why Bernhardt favoured Mucha’s commanding style which centres on a long single female form encased in a halo. Character’s traits are revealed with a stance or a look and the powerful posters dominate the first gallery. They act as a visual introduction to ‘le style Mucha’ and his determination to spread the democratisation of art through beautiful, inexpensive and accessible works, without text, which would elevate morale and improve the quality of ordinary lives. This philosophy is showcased in the exhibition’s collection of his advertising posters and objects full of the richness of Belle Epoque Paris and is highlighted by using artworks from the wider collection which demonstrate the interchange of artistic ideas between Scotland, the rest of the UK, and continental Europe. There is also a rather fascinating video about comic books and tattoos. Mucha, it seems, is everywhere.
The photographs of Mucha in his studio (and a quite bizarre one of Gauguin) and his models are a good insight into the way he worked but the exhibition keeps its biggest surprises, and its biggest works, for last. They are worth taking the time to linger with. Influences from Mucha’s Slavic past can be seen in all the artworks on display, including motifs from traditional costumes and folklore, but, after his return to Bohemia, it is this heritage that comes to the fore. The last gallery contains a representation of The Slav Epic, a cycle of 20 massive paintings depicting Slav history which Mucha painted between 1911-1926 as part of his contribution to his country’s strive towards political freedom. It is astonishing. The original canvases are on show in Prague so the Kelvingrove exhibition takes a panoramic sweep through them: as each giant painting is shown, a second camera zooms in and through the details of faces and textures and the quite remarkable use of colour. It takes about 20 minutes and then you will want to sit through it all again.
I went along as an Art Nouveau lover, thinking Mucha’s work was just beautiful, it really is so much more. If you get a chance to visit this exhibition, I urge you to go – it’s only £5 (I could get very smug here about the arts in Scotland but I shall resist) so go again, you won’t be disappointed.
Catherine Hokin is a Glasgow-based author whose fascination with the medieval period began during a History degree which included studies into witchcraft, women and the role of political propaganda. This sparked an interest in hidden female voices resulting in her debut novel, Blood and Roses which brings a new perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories – she was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has been published by iScot magazine – and blogs monthly for The History Girls.