Today, while waiting for various things to happen, I decided it was time to check out the exhibition of Alfons Mucha, the great Czech Art Nouveau icon and creator of some of the most famous advertising art of the 20th Century.
I've been a fan of Mucha ever since hippie days, when his Job cigarette-paper ad was omnipresent, and was even appropriated for one of the Avalon Ballroom's most famous posters. I remember visiting Prague, right after the Velvet Revolution early in 1990, and seeing, just off Wenceslas Square, what appeared to be an old department store whose facade had been designed by Mucha. His work is over-the-top sentimental, eye-bustingly crowded, and yet, with its curves and fripperies which seem never to stop, it manages to keep your eye very, very busy. The overall feeling is somewhat overwhelming, but still fun.
Of course, that applies to his commercial art, which, until today, was all I knew of him. As it develops, his story is a lot more complex than I had imagined. He was learning to become an academic painter, the kind of guy you'd hire to paint a family portrait or a picture of yourself on horseback or a picture of your house and grounds if you were immensely wealthy, although he himself was of pretty humble stock. The patron who was putting him through school cut him off suddenly, and young Alfons was stuck in Paris. No big deal: he just took whatever illustration work he could get.
A chance meeting with the actress Sarah Bernhardt proved to be his great break: he painted posters showing her in her most celebrated roles -- Salome, Tosca, Gismonda -- and, in a way, turned her not just into an icon, but something of a logo. The posters were all over Paris, and Mucha's career was born. Still, he was thirsting for that recognition as a great academic painter, and produced some rather tortuous allegorical pieces which wound up in books. He also was a Mason, and he illustrated the Lord's Prayer, verse by verse, in a book called Pater:
This sort of thing proved to be his way out. While he was pimping Nestlé and a brand of cookies and various other corporate clients, he was also refining a style which would eventually allow him to create his masterpieces. If you're ever in Paris, the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris, which has a number of whole rooms from historical places, has an entire jewelry shop designed by Mucha. Some of the sketches for that place are in the Fabre show, rondelets with women's heads in them. This was where he was headed.
The 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris was a big deal: it was what the Eiffel Tower was built for, after all. The nations of the world showed off, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire like Mucha's homeland of Moravia, was no exception. They commissioned huge murals from Mucha to show Bosnian history from cavemen to the present. That any of it at all survived is pretty amazing, and some of it isn't in great shape, but the reconstruction of what there is in a huge room in the Fabre will give your eyeballs a workout. Its one drawback -- and judging from what came later, it appears Mucha was thinking this, too -- was that it was flat, not three-dimensional, and no amount of arrangement of human figures and curlicues of smoke could disguise that fact. Still, it's hard to look at the mammoth depiction of Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim Bosnians practicing their religions in peaceful coexistence without feeling a little twinge.
Two further huge projects remained. In 1910-11, Prague erected a new town hall, and gave various Czech artists free rein to design its rooms. Mucha drew the Lord Mayor's hall, with a cupola and sconces in which he put a dozen paintings with Czech virtues, as personified by various heroes and heroines. Each virtue has also got an avatar, a spiritual figure who looks over the historical figure. Meant to be inspirational, I found them deeply disquieting: they're way too intense to be decoration, way too kitschy to be art. But next to what he attempted next, they're bubblegum cards.
The Slav Epic consists of 20 paintings, each a modest 24x30 feet -- yes, feet (and that's 7.3x9.1 meters) -- in size. Unsurprisingly, the Fabre's only managed to get two of them -- the last two in the cycle -- for this show, but that's plenty enough. You want 3-D? These are, at least in technique, the exact opposite of the Bosnian paintings. You want detail? These paintings each contain a book's worth. You want a very, very creepy feeling of nationalism stealing over you? Just stand there and stare into them, particularly the Apotheosis of the Slavs, the last painting, which has, well, just about everything Slavic in one mammoth, yellow-tinted orgasm of paint and detail. You want to end a museum show with a great crashing major chord? Mission accomplished. (And if you want to really test your limits, except for the two which are on tour here, the entire thing, which, incidentally, was funded by a Chicago Slavophile and industrialist named Charles Crane, is on view in a castle near Brno called Moravsky Krumlov.) You'll stagger out of this room, I promise.
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As beguilingly weird as the art, and Mucha's story, is, given my druthers I'd wait for the show to hit Munich, where it will be at the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung sometime this fall. When I first moved here, I was moaning that I now lived in a city with one art museum, whose central collection had the definitive collection of a genre of art -- 19th century French landscape painting -- that I just cannot abide. The good news is, of course, that shows like this come to fill in the space between the dull pictures of woods and fields, but the bad news is that the Fabre seems not to understand how to display art -- even the stuff I don't like. I suppose it's possible that the lighting in this behemoth was installed so that it cannot be moved a millimeter, but it's odd that a museum would countenance such a thing, and anyway, it doesn't seem technically possible.
But the overall impression of the Mucha show is gloom, deep, deep gloom. For someone whose whole thing was colors -- albeit usually subtle ones -- and light, it isn't until the very last room, with the Town Hall and Slav Epic paintings, which takes advantage of natural light, that you actually get to see the art. To make it worse, each exhibition room has an introduction to its contents in French and English. I usually like to read both, because the English translations are invariably awful and leave out information that the French captions contain. (One example: at one point, Mucha moved his studio to one on a street in Paris which I didn't recognize, although reading the French caption, it would appear to be on the Ile de la Cité near the Sainte Chapelle -- and lo, so it is!) But the poor French are doomed to squint at gold lettering on dark charcoal-grey walls, moving their heads back and forth to catch the reflection of the tiny, dim bulb that's not quite focused on the writing. We lucky English-speakers get ivory lettering. Of course, if you want to decode the captions on the Pater series, you'll be fortunate if you're a practicing Catholic, because the captions are about an inch off of the floor, and you'll have to kneel and get up before each one. And forget stuff, like the books Mucha illustrated, in the vitrines. They're so dark you can't even make out the type, let alone the smudge which is presumably, from its circular shape, one of those iconic Mucha women-in-a-rondelet.
I was also confused: what did Mucha do between the time he finished the Slav Epic in the early '20s and his death in 1939? I left the big, well-lighted room and decided to backtrack and see if I'd missed something. My way was blocked by a guard. "This is an exit," he said. "I know," I said. "I wanted to see something again." "You have to go around again and enter at the beginning." "Why?" He glared at me, then said, in English, "Sorry." No, I thought, you're not. I spent eight years reporting museum shows, among other things, and have never once had this problem. (Well, there was one guy who refused to let me into a hall at the Documenta in Kassel, although I had a press pass, because he'd never heard of the Wall Street Journal and I didn't have a German Federal press pass). The guards at the Fabre are notoriously rude, and, along with the lighting rendering stuff hard to look at, are part of the utterly unacceptable experience the museum as a whole gives the visitor. I figured I could look it up on Wikipedia or something, and walked out into the sunshine.
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Alfons Mucha, Musée Fabre, Montpellier. June 20-September 20, 2009. Open daily except Wednesday, 10am to 8pm, Wednesday 1pm to 9pm. Admission €8, €7 with Pass'Agglo, €6 concessions and children.