Resilience: My Husband, A Museum & Alphonse Mucha, Part 3

Resilience: My Husband, A Museum & Alphonse Mucha, Part 3

“After the assassination of the Reichsprotector Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, all classical institutions were closed in retaliation.  I reached the final year of middle school and wanted to transfer to an art academy, but these were among the schools that had been closed. If I could not get into an accredited institution that was recognized by the Germans, I would have been drafted to the Technische Nothilfe—the German Black Army, which was cleaning up after bombardments in Germany. The death rate in the TN was 50%.”

―Charles Novacek, excerpt from Border Crossings

I journeyed to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to be a part of the grand reopening of the National

The Moon by Mucha

Czech and Slovak Museum & Library to celebrate its recovery after a tragic flood. Alphonse Mucha: Inspirations of Art Nouveau, the museum’s exhibit of over 230 rare paintings, photographs, jewelry and sculptures by Mucha was one of the main attractions. It was the first of its kind exhibit in the Midwest region and my first time to see so much Mucha work at one time in the U.S.!

This wasn’t, however, my first experience with Mucha. When I was in sixth grade our teacher gave an assignment to find a few paragraphs of information on a famous person that shared our birthday. She promised extra credit if we found more than one. I loved to do research (still do) and needed to make up for some low quiz scores so my father took me to

the public library to start my search. Simon Bolivar. Alexander Dumas. Zelda Fitzgerald. Amelia Earhart. Alphonse Mucha! This was my list. They all had a July 24 birthday just like me. I found plenty of information on the first four, but for Mucha I could only find his birth and death dates and that he was an artist/illustrator from Czechoslovakia.

It was when I met and married Charles Novacek forty years later that I became reacquainted with Mucha when we travelled to the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Charles wanted to introduce me to his family, his homeland and the significant places where he spent his youth during wartime.  When he was a child he loved to draw and paint and wanted to be an artist.  That dream was shattered when Hitler closed all of the art schools.

When we visited Prague we were reintroduced to Mucha at the Mucha Museum where we watched a film on Mucha’s life.

Alphonse Mucha

Alphonse (Alfons in Czech) Maria Mucha was born on July 24, 1860 in the southern Moravian town of Ivančice then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The picturesque Ivančice lies at the union of three rivers (the Jihlava, Oslava and Rokytná ) and historically, the intersection of three trade routes. This brought caravans, merchants and wealth to the town. It also brought troops and armies passing through Moravia and the Czech lands.

Interestingly, Ivancice is only twelve miles away from the town of Namest nad Oslavou in Moravia where Charles’ family was forced by the Nazis to flee to from Slovakia in 1938.  Back to Mucha . . .   

His father was a court usher, and the family lived a simple life. In 1871, he joined the choir at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Brno. He pursued singing seriously, but was forced to

Mucha Paris Poster

abandon it after his voice started cracking.  Mucha then started drawing lessons.

In 1877, Mucha applied to the Academy of Visual Arts in Prague, but was rejected.  He continued attending drawing classes. In 1879, he got a job in Vienna as an assistant in a firm that made stage sets. There he learned about the theater and art of interior decoration, but was laid off in 1882 after a theater fire.

Mucha took up portrait painting and moved back to Mikulov, Moravia where he met Count Karl Khuen-Belassil, who commissioned him to decorate the Emmahof Castle. Impressed with Mucha’s work, the count agreed to sponsor the artist’s formal education at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.

Then, in 1888, at the age of twenty-eight, Mucha left for Paris to study art.  It was there at the end of the 19th Century that he made his name and fortune as a designer of posters, costumes and stage sets, jewelry, furniture, magazines and book covers in the style later known as Art Nouveau.

Gismonda Poster

His breakthrough actually came in 1892 when Mucha designed his first advertising poster. He found the work profitable and began taking regular commissions. In 1894, he designed a poster for the show Gismonda starring the popular stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. The poster was revolutionary, bringing unheard of innovations to the art of poster-printing with a radically new vertical format and an overwhelming number of colors. Sarah Bernhardt was so impressed with his work that she immediately offered Mucha an exclusive contract for six years.

Mucha was very patriotic.  In 1918 after World War I when Czechoslovakia became an independent nation, he worked without compensation on projects for the new government. He created all the stamps, banknotes, and other documents for them. Some examples of these were on display at the Cedar Rapids and Prague museums. They are extremely beautiful. It’s hard to believe they were used in daily life for money and postage! Along with these common items, Mucha also created beautiful Art Nouveau jewelry and furniture.

Despite this success in Paris and four year period in America, where he enjoyed great acclaim as a teacher and portraitist, Mucha never forgot his Czech origins. Charles Richard Crane, a Chicago industrialist and Slavophile, agreed to finance Mucha’s series of 20 huge paintings entitled the Slav Epic featuring twenty enormous canvases which showed both his commitment to his art and the history of his country.

None of these canvasses were exhibited in Cedar Rapids but they did exhibit a large captivating collection of Mucha photographs, drawings and smaller paintings

Study of Slav Epic

that told the story of the process he used to did to prepare the finished paintings. And large video screens showed the finished canvases . This fascinated me as Charles and I were fortunate to view the Slav Epic in the castle in Moravsky Krumlov.

The first eleven canvases were displayed in Prague’s Klementium in 1919 to great public interest and acclaim, but critical opinion was negative because of the work’s dated nationalism and academic style. They were accepted more enthusiastically in New York in 1921.

After eighteen years Mucha completed all twenty paintings, giving   them to the City of Prague in 1928. Unfortunately, there was no place large enough to exhibit the beautiful works in Prague and the works were placed in storage.

During the Nazi Occupation the canvases were rolled up and stored underground. And when the Communists took control, Mucha’s work was considered to be petty

Mucha & Slav Epic

bourgeois so the canvases were transferred to the obscure Moravský Krumlov chateau in south Moravia (near Mucha’s birthplace) in 1950. The first nine paintings were exhibited there in 1963 with the remaining installed by 1967.

In 2010, when the City of Prague requested Moravský Krumlov to give back the Slav Epic, over 1,000 people voiced their objections in a demonstration. The following year the City of Prague forcefully removed the canvases and transported them to Prague. A fierce argument over where the paintings should be housed ensued. Since May 15, 2012 they have been exhibited at Prague’s Trade Fair (Veletržní ) Palace, where visitors first viewed the canvases during 1928.

I’m not sure Mucha would have thought about all of the controversy about his work  today. Unfortunately, it was controversy about his work in 1939 that contributed to his death.  Mucha’s works, as well as his Slavic nationalism, were denounced in the press as “reactionary” with the spreading fascism occurred in the late 1930s.

When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia during the spring of 1939 and divided the country into Bohemia and Moravia. Mucha was among the first persons to be arrested by the Gestapo. He was an aging artist at this time, and became ill with pneumonia, a victim of Nazi harassment. Though he was eventually released, he was weakened by this event and died in Prague on July 14, 1939, from a lung infection. In spite of the Nazis’ ban against the attendance of his funeral, 100,000 people defied the order and gave Mucha the respect that was due him for his great genius. He is buried in the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague, where the most important, creative Czech artists are buried.

Do you have any favorite works by Alphonse Mucha?

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