An exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 16th June, 2017 to 29th October, 2017


Edited by Tomoko Sato.

Mucha Foundation Publishing. 168 pages. £15.99. ISBN 978-0-9536322-99

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I have a suspicion that a lot of people may not be prepared to accept that Alphonse Mucha’s work, or at least that part of it he produced for “commercial”, as opposed to “fine art” purposes, deserves to be given serious consideration as “art”. His posters and other designs were usually commissioned and were created to promote plays, magazines, bicycles, brands of beer or other alcoholic beverages, biscuits, and train journeys.

It’s true that various of his contemporaries, Toulouse-Lautrec perhaps most famously, also did commercial work, though in his case it was often to advertise the kind of establishment, and its performers, where bohemians were said to congregate. So, there isn’t a problem if his posters are displayed in exhibitions of his work alongside his paintings. They’re seen as part of whole that includes brothel studies, portraits, and more.

With Mucha it might be a little different. He did paint some pictures and murals which weren’t meant for advertising purposes, and a few of them are included in the exhibition. But I have to admit that I found them of less interest than the commercial posters.

Mucha was born in Ivancice, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1860. He didn’t have a very distinguished school record, and though he showed some talent for drawing, his application to enter the Prague Academy of Fine Arts was rejected. In 1879 he moved to Vienna to work as an apprentice scene painter. He attended evening art classes and visited art galleries, but lost his job in Vienna and then made a living painting portraits of local notables in South Moravia.

He was sponsored by several titled people, spent time as a student in Munich, and in 1887 moved to Paris to study at the Académie Julian. In 1889 he started to work as illustrator for publishers in Prague and Paris. He mixed with the painters associated with the Nabis, and also met and became friends with Gauguin. His breakthrough came in late-1894 when he designed a poster advertising the famed actress Sarah Bernhardt’s appearance in the play, Gismonda. It was displayed across Paris and attracted a great deal of attention. As a result, Mucha was asked to create sets, costumes and posters for Bernhardt’s theatre productions on a regular basis. 

By 1897 Mucha was holding solo exhibitions and expanding his circle of friends to include many well-known writers, artists, and musicians. And his career went from strength to strength. He visited the USA several times, taught at art schools in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and was commissioned to decorate a theatre. He had similar successes in Europe, and was asked to work on murals for the Municipal House in Prague. He did make another visit to New York in 1913 and attended the famous Armoury Show which introduced a range of European modern art to America. He also went to Poland and Russia to research for the project, The Slav Epic, “a series of twenty murals painted on enormous canvases and depicting “the history of all the Slavic peoples”.

Mucha was always a Czech patriot, and when Czechoslovakia came into existence as an independent country in 1918 he stayed there, and designed postage stamps and bank notes for the new state. He died in Prague in 1939, shortly after the Nazis had moved into Czechoslovakia and he had been arrested and questioned by the Gestapo because of his involvements as a Freemason.

As I remarked earlier, I don’t find his historical paintings, relevant though they may be from a documentary point of view, as interesting as the posters and designs for books, etc., he produced during his Paris years. That could be because I have a particular liking for the art emanating from the French capital in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. But it would be useful to know how many other people visiting the gallery inclined towards my point of view.

It’s said that Mucha’s poster designs ( 120 between 1895 and 1904) are now regarded as “icons of Art Nouveau”, and that he “left an enduring legacy through his style…….which Is characterised by the image of a beautiful woman In an elegant pose arranged in a harmonious composition with flowers and other decorative motifs taken from nature”.  He had perhaps been influenced by what he knew about the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Edwards Burne-Jones, and he was aware of the work and ideas of William Morris. He had a firm idea that the “aim of art is to glorify beauty”, and it is obvious that he found beauty particularly expressed through the faces and forms of many women.

In commercial terms this, of course, came down to “using” women to advertise almost everything, which raises the question of whether or not Mucha exploited the sexual angle to emphasise the qualities of what was being sold. In a way, he did, though the sensuality on show is mild by modern standards. Usually the most that can be seen are bare arms and shoulders, though occasionally there is a glimpse of a bare breast. It’s always possible to read phallic symbols into paintings, of course, though they may only exist in the eye of the beholder. Likewise with other references. An advertisement for a bicycle appears to draw a relationship between the curves of the handlebars and the curve of a cleavage made evident by the low-cut dress of the girl in the illustration. One wonders what today’s Advertising Standards Authority might make of Mucha’s proclivity for using attractive women to advertise goods and services? Would they find him guilty of perpetuating gender stereotypes?

Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty is a colourful exhibition, with an excellent accompanying catalogue which has some stimulating essays about Mucha and the general background to his work. It may be of interest to mention a couple of relevant recent publications. Alain Weill’s large The Art Nouveau Poster (Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2015) sets Mucha in context, alongside the brilliant Jules Chéret, Eugène Grasset, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, and many others. Jeannine Falino’s L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters (The Richard H. Driehaus Museum, Chicago, 2017) looks at the Richard H. Driehaus collection. Driehaus is a contemporary collector, but people have valued the posters almost from the start, and it wasn’t unusual for them to be stripped from walls and hoardings within a short time of their being displayed. And gallery exhibitions of poster art were held around the time of their employment for the purpose of advertising. It’s obvious that they were recognised as having artistic qualities that raised them above mere commercial use.