Known as the “Master of the Art Nouveau poster,” Alfons Mucha (generally known as “Alphonse” Mucha in French and English) was born July 24, 1860 in Ivancice, Moravia [of the present-day Czech Republic]. As a child, he liked to sing, but his main hobby was always drawing. In fact, he learned how to draw before he could walk (his mom would tie a pencil around his neck so that he could draw while crawling!). When he wasn’t accepted into the Prague Academy of the Arts, he got a court job with the help of his father. However, he would often spend his time drawing caricatures of the defendants and others in the court. He would continue on to a new job of painting scenery for theaters, but when he lost that job, he traveled to Moravia. There, he ran out of money, and had to resort to drawing portraits in return for a place to live. Fortunately, the landowner Count Khuen Belasi loved his drawings, and so decided to pay for Mucha to study at Munich’s Academy of Art for two years. After that, he continued to sponsor Mucha’s studies–this time in Paris, where Mucha moved to at the age of 27. However, although Belasi eventually stopped sponsoring Mucha, the latter’s claim to fame came when famous Parisian actress Sarah Berndhart demanded that a poster almost immediately be made for her new play. With the other artists on vacation, Mucha created a poster which was an immediate hit with the public. He would continue to create advertising posters and even design packages for companies throughout his career, but also made many of his own posters and paintings in his distinctive style (aptly coined “le style Mucha”!). Mucha later moved to the US, then back to Bohemia, where on July, 14 1939, he died of pneumonia at the age of 78.
Movement (Art Nouveau):
Art Nouveau was a decorative arts movement that emerged in 1880 and lasted until around 1910. Centering around architecture and decorative/graphic arts, the movement aimed to modernize design by incorporating organic, contoured forms (often depicting nature, such as flowers and stems) with more angular, geometric forms. This was a response to the current decorative objects and art forms of the time, which were often poorly constructed and made in the historical/traditional liberal arts style. The artists thus wanted to revitalize the status of the decorative arts by improving craftsmanship and modernizing the design, and to even bring it up to par with what was then considered fine art.
Style, Subject Matter, Technique & Their Influences:
Advertising posters were becoming very popular in Paris in the late 19th century, partly due to the improvement of printing and color lithography instruments and partly due to Mucha’s revolutionary twist on them. In addition to balancing shapes through the juxtaposition of wispy, flowing and curling forms with strongly geometric/linear forms, he also balanced size through the alternating use of large patterns and micro-patterns within his pieces. This allowed him to utilize with a wide variety of designs, forms and patterns without making his works cluttered or distracting. In addition, his careful use of harmonious colors helped to strongly distinguish certain forms in his paintings, such as the subject from the background. Both the background and foreground were often enclosed by some sort of patterned border, whether it was a leaf motif or simply repetitive, abstracted shapes.
He often incorporated the themes of women and nature into his works. Their “feminine,” organic and contoured forms, however, held their own against the strong linear elements of his works. For example, the flowing hair and stalks of plants which frequented his works were depicted with a bold and discerning eye–with strongly outlined and flat-colored thick wisps and curls rather than with more realistic shades and fine details.
Mucha’s women often personified certain subjects/ideas, an aspect of his art which helped to make him particularly successful in the emerging genre of decorative panels, or posters without text which were made simply for the viewer’s aesthetic enjoyment. He created many series of works, ranging from The Seasons (1896) and The Times of the Day (1899), to The Arts (1898)–which included painting, poetry and music–and The Precious Stones (1900).
Compared Artist (21st Century):
Prada (Spring 2008 RTW Collection):
Like Mucha’s art, this clothing series by Prada juxtaposes strong linear/geometric elements with more rounded and contoured forms (for example, the gridded fabric of the dress in Outfit 2 acts as a nice foil to the voluptuous flower detailing on the chest). This balancing act is not just limited to the patterns and forms printed onto the fabrics, but also to the whole shape of the garments themselves (such as the full, rounded tulip skirt vs. the streamlined tights in Outfit 2, or the cascading and ethereal hem of the dress vs. the solid, blocky ankle portion of the shoes in Outfit 4).
Similar to many of Mucha’s posters of women, many of Prada’s outfits boast a strongly outlined round form (ex: the large keyholes/necklines in some of the dresses and skirts). which helps to frame and anchor the subject’s face in the midst of all the other patterns.
Lastly, Prada also follows in the steps of Mucha by using rich colors that contrast, but also harmonize with each other.
The following photographs were taken by Marcio Madeira.
I came in somewhat familiar with Mucha’s style, but didn’t know specific works or themes off the top of my head. Through exploring his art, I gained an appreciation for his balance of simplicity with the ornate, of aesthetically-pleasing themes with intellectually-stimulating ones (such as The Arts series). I realized that his advertisements ranging from chocolates to cigars and his literary journal cover designs, in addition to his approachable and beautiful personal works, helped to spread an appreciation for and the availability of the decorative arts to the wider public (rather than just to the elite). He truly was an artist for the people.
Bières de la Meuse (1897), lithograph, 154.5 × 104.5 cm
Job (1896), lithography, 59 x 173 cm
The Arts: Music (1898), lithograph, 60 x 38 cm
Sarah Bernhardt (1896), lithography, no dimensions available
Laurel (1901), lithography, 53 x 39.5 cm
Summer (1896), oil, dimensions unavailable
Zodiac (1896), lithography, 65.7 x 48.2 cm
Mucha Foundation. Last modified 2014. http://www.muchafoundation.org.
The Art Story Foundation. “Art Nouveau.” The Art Story. Last modified 2014.