By Shazia Anwer Cheema
Alphonse Mucha (Alfons Mucha) 1860-1939 was a Czech painter a practitioner of Art Nouveau, he disregarded condescending artistic approaches considered as high art and dwell in applied art instead of Fine Art. A never-ending discussion about what art is. based on aesthetic value and then defining the concept of aesthetic value itself is always an interesting idea, it is hard to consider a poster, pamphlet, or book cover painter as an artist and we often find ourselves indulging in the argument that art is for the art sake and any commercial aspect related to its core creation makes it lesser art however the commercial value can be added as an aftermath of an artistic masterpiece.
Art Nouveau being based on applied art created an artistic phenomenon in architecture, jewelry, furniture designing, and utensils and broaden the concept of art and artist, a strange idea of craftsmen being an artist and artists being crafty provide the basis for today’s artistic analogy of a car, a building, a cup, and a sofa being an art piece. Although the Art Nouveau as an art movement ended in 1910 but its effect can be seen even in today’s art where we have observed artistic craftsmen producing art pieces with functional usage. Following my series of museums, one of the reasons I chose “Mucha Museum Prague” was the information that Alphonse Mucha took commissioned work of theatre posters in Paris which give rise to my curiosity having the knowledge about theatre posters in Pakistan, I can hardly find anything artistic and aesthetic in that, what could have Alphonse done differently that his theatre poster, made just for commercial purposes are considered art masterpieces.
One of his posters was the play Hamlet, translated into French by Eugene Morand and Marcel Schwob. In the background, behind and central figure of Hamlet, we can see the ghost of his murdered father haunting the ramparts of Elsinore. Ophelia who had drowned, lies decorated with flowers in the panel at Hamlet’s feet. For me, it is not just a publicity poster of a play but an extension of it, the main character Hamlet played by Sara, and historians have written that Mucha’s posters have made Sara Bernhardt forever present in Parisian theatre history.
In the poster of the “Cassan Fils Printing” works, Mucha combines the real with the emblematic. The half-naked model portrays a real person whereas the faun-painter represents an allegory of the art of printing. The image of the eye bordering the mosaic background may possibly represent readers who are enthusiastic about publishing.
Mucha designed decorative panels with the theme “four arts” and another one with the “four seasons”, panels that primarily have the functional purpose of a separator become a masterpiece because of an artist who didn’t feel shy about choosing his canvas, let it be a wall, a wooden panel, a poster, a matchbox, porcelain plate, lampshade, magazine cover page, book illustrations, whatever Alphonse touches becomes an art.
Mucha Museum’s permanent exhibition is divided into seven sections: 1: Decorative Panels, having panels of four seasons and four arts, 2: The Parisian Posters, including publicity posters of theatre, exhibition, and publishing companies 3: Document Decoratifs, the title covers of magazine and books also the famous book “Ilsee” based on a medieval legend which used as the basis for Rostand’s Drama “La Princesse Lointaine” written for Sara Bernhardt, it was the “Ilsee” that Mucha first developed his practice of drawing personifications of spiritual or natural powers to a larger scale in order to accentuate their protective role. Also, in “Ilsee” Mucha’s ornamentation begins to take on a more deliberate symbolic meaning, with motifs derived from theosophical and Masonic themes. 4: The Czech Posters, where Mucha’s work set the reactionary tone, and the poster where a symbolic Czech mother is looking at a Czech girl purged under the Austro-Hungarian rule. 5: Oil Paintings, the highlight of the exhibition is a Russian mother looking at the sky, the calmness and resolute in her eyes are unmatchable to any other depiction of such an idea. 6: Pencil Drawings and Pastels, the sketches of Mucha’s jewelry designs, and impressions of inertia are interesting to see. And the last section is 7: Photographs and personal memorabilia of the artist. While his stay in Paris and USA he also used the camera to photograph prominent models and actresses.
While visiting all seven sections I find reinforcement about my personal notion of art; that art and the artist is a self-defining phenomenon and a truly artistic mind can create art under strange situations and a non-artistic person, no matter sitting in a sophisticated studio with rigidly following art for the art’s sake will not be able to create art. On the contrary, an artist even while earning his livelihood by accepting work like painting billboards can create wonders. That artist by not limiting his/her esthetic enigma not only creates art from the mundane but also gives a unique added value to that seemingly trivial task.
If you are an art enthusiast, I will recommend you the Alphonse Mucha Museum in Prague. Unlike my other write-ups, I have not provided a detailed analysis of the items on display as they are available on the internet for study, I was more interested in the philosophy behind his art.