A. Mucha and his wondrous art
"The artist is the person who makes life more interesting or beautiful, more understandable or mysterious, or probably, in the best sense, more wonderful."
Mucha and the 'fin de siècle'
Alfons Mucha was one of the most fascinating artistic personalities of the turn of century, to many he is best known for his beautiful belle époque posters and magnificent decorative panels. His work is indissolubly linked with the style whose name was at the same time its program: Art Nouveau. With their catchily decorative motifs, their inexhaustible abundance of ornamental pictorial elements, and the terseness of their calligraphically drawn lines, his compositions had in them the strenght to shape a style.
He was truly the embodiment of the Art Nouveau synthetist- practising almost all the arts, including architectural design and photography, fusing the spiritual with the material, the ideal with the real, the eastern with the western, the ancient with the modern. All in a quest for the beautiful. The "style Mucha" came for a while to be regarded as synonymous with the whole Art Nouveau movement. At the zenith of his creativity, in the years between 1895 and 1898, he had developed not only his own style, but also a vocabulary of forms and motifs, which, capable of variation though it was, nevertheless imposed his unique signature on all his works. In line with the new movement's demands for a comprehensiveness of design, Mucha paid homage to the ideal of artistic versatility: he was not only a painter and a graphic artist, but also took an interest in sculpture, jewellery and interior decorating. His particular talents, however, lay in decorative graphics, this was the basis of his fame, and remains so today. Looking at a selection of Mucha's work, one gets a sense of why his work was so instantly popular. Rooted as it is in the folk traditions of his homeland, the style is very accessible, requiring little familiarity with artistic traditions or modern conventions. The designs combine dynamic lines in the geometric patterning with dramatic figures whose impact is heightened by the way they emerge from or blend with that pattern. The colours are generally understated, and the effect is carried by the superb linear design and the harmony established between that and the human figure.
Although Moravian by birth and descent, Mucha experienced his greatest successes in Paris; his work documents the vital atmosphere of the city at a time when it was not just the capital of France, but the glittering capital of the world- it captures the vitality of the fin de siècle and the belle époque with all their wordliness and decadence, all their predilection and yearning. It is well known that in Paris Mucha maintained contact with the Symbolists and circles close to them; he must also have been acquainted with individual key works of the literature of the period which were to have a decisive influence on the pictorial language of Symbolism and the fin de siècle , such as Baudelaire's "Le fleurs du mal" and Flaubert's "Hérodias". They contained the roots of the form of artistic expression for representing dream-images and yearnings experienced in meditation along with a symbolism based on flowers. Significant ispiration was provided also by the English Pre-Raphaelites, about whom Mucha, in common with other artists at the time, was extremely enthusiastic.
He also, in common with many other artists of the time, was unable to ignore the influence of Far Eastern art, newly rediscovered as it was towards the end of the 19th century. Above all, Japanese woodcut, with its linear emphasis together with its exploitation and stylistic reshaping of the forms of nature, was to point the way ahead for the exponents of Art Nouveau and Mucha himself. His refined Japanese sense of nature, his recurrent use of female motifs, including Medusas, nudes, nymphs, fairies, dancers, many with stylised arabesques of hair, as well as kisses, swans, flight, sea organisms, androgynous and hybrid figures align him with the movement of Art Nouveau and its ideals. As does his evocation of atmosphere through the use of iridescence, translucence and milky moonlight.
Women and symbols
His hallmark was the idealized, stylized figure of the beautiful or girlishly graceful woman, loosely but inseparably framed in an ornamental system of flowers and foliage, symbols and arabesques. His advertisements for commercial customers also have as their central pictorial motif the stylized figure of the female beauty: like harbingers of a higher enjoyement of life, they hover timelessly, their expressions lost in the reverie of their own thoughts. Often he strove to express inner human feelings and the affinity of mankind to nature; with conventional gender casting, the female and the feminine form were used to symbolize all kinds of emotions and situations, the link with the earth, regeneration and beauty. Mucha's portraits of women and girls typically locate them in a design strongly evocative of nature or natural patterning, and there is nothing about them of the high-society decadence which we see, for example, in the work of his contemporary Gustav Klimt. Most of them seem, by contrast, wonderful, dreamy girls, brimming with health and natural vigour and conveying an inborn self-confidence and directness which has no malicious intent. Ronald F. Lipp argues that “the Mucha Woman embodies in anthropomorphic form the great soul of the world and conveys… that life is good and that happiness is within our reach."
A striking and indispensable element of Mucha's ornamental design is the luxuriant coiffure of the female subject- sometimes, indeed, it is the central feature of the composition. The whole figure is often swathed about by strands of hair of exaggerated length, either streaming naturalistically in the wind, or else stylized to arabesques or other fanciful patterns. The decorative character of the composition is further underlined by the clinging, timeless, fantasy germents and draperies with their ornamentally elegant folds. In the universe of this series of paintings sexuality is limited. These women are all “pure”: they do not feel shame over their bodies. Mucha's art, particularly when he was at the peak of his creative powers around 1900, above all else is an apotheoses of womanhood. While his women are always strikingly beautiful and often quite voluptuous, one would hesitate to say that the artist saw them as “sex objects”, to use the present-day terminology. While their femininity is always strongly accentuated, there is something about them, perhaps their innocence, that reminds one more of the idealistic Pre-Raphaelite painters than of Mucha's contemporaries, such as the Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, whose portraits, while equally glamorous, are far more sensuous. There is something soignée and erotic about Art Nouveau and Mucha's work, because it is the only art style in which the functional was transformed into the sensual and beautiful- in which not only objects, jewelry, clothes and theatre décor were given the look of things that exotically grow in nature, but in which people themselves turned into symbols of the style. Based as it is on rhyhmic design, Mucha's work will undoubtedly continue to be very appreciated if for no other reason than that it lends charm, delicacy and a certain sense of the outré to life.
Ornaments and symbols
There is something else that lies underneath Mucha’s art. While not looking much for inspiration in the works of his contemporaries, nevertheless he could not escape the influence of the occult revival that had hit Paris just before his arrival. If one looks carefully, particularly on Mucha's ornamental panels, which are usually loaded with symbols, and which he seems to have painted mainly for his own pleasure, it is hard not to admit that almost everything in Mucha’s art points to his preoccupation with the more esoteric aspects of life. One suspects that he must have seriously studied not only the works of some old masters, such as Leonardo or Rembrandt, architects such as Vitruvius, but also the teachings of the ancient philosophers, such as Pythagoras, and his principles of sacred geometry and numerology. Almost everything in the latter's philosophical treatises that have come to us through his disciples, is about cycles of nature, which to him are closely associated with the evolution of the human spirit. So it is with Mucha.
Moreover, there is a long tradition of floral symbolism in 19th century art: a major formal inspiration for Art Nouveau was the idea of nature as an endless source of design ideas, especially in its flora and fauna and, above all, in its sinuosity, its development of asymmetric, flowing lines which subvert attempts at static rectilinear structures (a feature which brought it very close in some respects to aspects of Mucha's inheritance from Moravian folklore). So it is notable, for example, that "The Moon" is framed in orchid blossoms. Her hair contains in what appear to be oak leaves and chrysanthemums. Orchids stand for “love, beauty, refinement, many children, thoughtfulness and mature charm.” Oak leaves stand for strength and bravery, while mums are another symbol of fidelity and love. (I think it’s interesting, although I don’t think it influenced his decision at all, but the chrysanthemum is a symbol of the sun in Japanese flower symbolism.) These flower symbols reinforce the maternal aspects of the lithograph. Again, following the enormous success of Mucha's posters for Sarah Bernhardt the Champenois printing works in Paris embarked on the production of the so called panneaux décoratifs: these were framed like pictures, or else, in accordance with current fashion, used to decorate screens and most of Mucha's panneaux are series of four. Formally, the panneaux are based on the schema derived from the theatrical posters, albeit usually embellished with landscape details, which lend the compositions a new atmospheric quality as well as a lyrical note. They show Mucha's predilection for the personification of things and concepts, for the subjects were always connected with allegorical female figures: beginning with the first four-part series, 'The Four seasons', they simbolize 'Flowers', the 'Arts', 'Gemstones', 'Stars' and 'The Months'. The contrast between the central, hieratic, symbolic figure and the luscious, tropical yet simple ornaments yields in his works that saturation, that pure fin de siècle quality. That rich ornamentation makes most Mucha's symbols decorative, symbol passes into ornament, ornament into symbol, creating a complex pattern of meanings. Sarah Phelps notices in Mucha "the transformation of Rossetti's beautiful and enigmatic women (as his Astarte Syriaca) and flowers into Art Nouveau, as well as the tension between symbol and ornament." Another stricking example of his art is shown in the design of the Fouquet jewellery shop: for the front he created a bronze central panel depicting, in relief, a nine-foot semi-naked maiden enveloped by tresses of hair and drapery that flow in S-shaped curves and which are combined with looped pieces of jewellery. Another touch was a frieze of ten stained glass panels, nine of which were square, depicting fashionable female beauties. Inside, the saleroom was fitted out in a menagerie of Art Nouveau organic motifs- turquoise tendril mouldings on the ceiling, peacocks, snakes, floral stained glass, budding forms, shells, reptiles, nymphs ascending to heaven, off-centre circle-within-circle designs and a swirling crescent-shaped fireplace.