A Brief History Of Art Nouveau And The Work Of Alphonse Mucha.
The Life And Times Of Art Nouveau
The Art Nouveau movement was a natural reaction to the fast pace of life and soulless mechanisation, caused by the industrial revolution of the mid 19th century onwards. Mass production had not just created conformity across almost all consumer goods, but also across the lives of consumers as more people moved away from the countryside to work in the new factories.
It was at this time that people dissatisfied with the new ideologies of science, rationalism and literal interpretation started to embrace spiritualism, mysticism, and influences from newly accessible cultures such as Japan, India and Africa.
As the Indian stories of Rabindraanath Tagore became popularised, Japanese woodcuts and porcelain flooded into Europe and African art began to appear, the idea of symbolic art which had been squashed by the work of Raphael and then by the realism of photographs began to re-emerge.
Influenced by these new cultures and a yearning for the past values of a simpler more natural life, many artists and designers began to look at the free flowing forms of nature for their inspiration.
To a society of people harnessed to the new technologies of the time, their lives regulated by factory shifts and endless repetitive tasks, the rich idealistic portrayal of nature and the freedom of an artistic movement which broke all the rules, came as a means of escape from their otherwise dull lives.
In fact it is the same need to escape from uniformity and the repetitiveness of our technologically driven lives today, which has lead to the resurgence in popularity of Art Nouveau since the 1970s’.
Although there is no real date which can be set to the beginning of the Art Nouveau movement, the term Art Nouveau comes from the name of a gallery in Paris which opened in 1895, exhibiting the works of such influential names as Tiffany, Galle, Beardsley, Rodin and Pissarro. These were a mixed group of artists and sculptors who drew their inspiration from the Pre-Raphaelites, who were heavily influenced by the Gothic Revival dating from the earliest days of the industrial revolution, by such artists as Pugin, Ruskin and William Morris.
Among the most shining exponents of Art Nouveau was Alphonse Mucha, a man far better known for his distinctive style than by his name.
He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1860 when the country was in the fierce grip of a program of Germanisation throughout the Slav provinces. His ambitious father had destined Alphonse for the priesthood, but against his wishes and the oppressive political climate at the time, Alphonse left home to become a scene painter in Vienna.
Due to his upbringing he carried his ardent nationalism and deep religious convictions with him, which were to heavily influence both his life and his work. Then by one of the many cruel acts of fate which shaped Mucha’s life his employers were soon near-bankrupt, leaving him penniless and trying to support himself by selling sketches in the small town of Mikulov.
It was there that his talent was spotted by a local land owner who commissioned him to restore paintings and after several years, lead to a patronage which allowed him to study art in Paris.
Another twist of fate bought a sudden end to his allowance and Alphonse found himself earning a living as an illustrator. His reputation soon grew and a lucky break in 1894 catapulted him to fame for his Gismondu poster, commissioned by the actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Her influence set him on course for six years of immense productivity, before his move to America and the slow-down of his graphic output in favour of The Slav Epic. This was in fact an epic work, completed between 1912 and 1928 and consisting of 20 huge panels depicting Slav history and culture.
He later moved to Prague where he spent the rest of his life, often refusing to charge for his services, until his untimely death in 1939 after an interrogation by the Gestapo. Despite his prolific output and the fact that his posters epitomise how people envisage Art Nouveau, even today Alphonse Mucha is sadly a name little known or mentioned outside the art world itself.
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