Mucha for the 21st century: Exhibition review

Two prominent art institutions in Prague are currently hosting two exhibitions of Alfons Mucha that try to place his work in a contemporary context. Although having the same curator, Karel Srp, they take seemingly different approaches. They, nevertheless, share the question as to whether Mucha is relevant today and if so, why and how and in what format his work might best exhibited.

Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) was a renowned graphic artist, applied arts designer, photographer and painter who spent his life partly in Paris, the USA and Bohemia. He is mostly famed for a variety of posters that promoted and advertised a wide range of lush, fin-de-siècle products: drinks, cigarettes, perfumes as well as the theatrical performances Paris based actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923). His oeuvre, however, also included painting, again in a wide range of genres from portraits to murals; as well as photography and design of household items, such as vases, candle sticks and furniture.

Alfons Mucha, Monaco. Monte Carlo, 1897

Alfons Mucha, Monaco, Monte Carlo, 1897, colour lithograph on paper (Paris, F. Champenois), Museum of West Bohemia in Pilsen

The core of both exhibitions consists of posters, even though other work is displayed as well. Both exhibitions also come mostly from the private collection of the Richard Fuxa Foundation. A large part of iMucha: A Famous Collection in Motion is based on the collection of posters once owned by Ivan Lendl, the tennis player of Czech origin, who donated it to Fuxa after a large exhibition of Mucha’s posters in the Municipal House in 2013. As a businessman, Fuxa comes from the world of outdoor advertising and billboards which one can see as having much in common with Mucha’s work.

Alfons Mucha: Roman Times and the Arrival of the Slavs, 1900

Alfons Mucha: Roman Times and the Arrival of the Slavs, part of the decoration of the Pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the World Exhibition in Paris, 1900, watercolour, tempera on canvas, Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague

This connection is quite prominent in Elusive Fusion at the Kampa Museum, which is known primarily as the location of Jan and Meda Mládek’s collection of works by František Kupka. Two rooms display Mucha’s posters, as well as a sizeable canvas from the Bosnia and Herzegovina pavilion of the 1900 exposition universelle in Paris. Commissioned by the Austrian government, which had assumed administration of the region in 1878, Mucha depicted scenes from Bosnian history and everyday life. At Kampa, these works are placed alongside work by a contemporary Czech artist known as Pasta Oner (*1979). Not formally trained, Pasta Oner grew from being a graffiti artist into a recognised and successful painter. His large-scale paintings are grounded in pop art and comic strips which are reminiscent of the works of Roy Lichtenstein. Pasta Oner’s postmodern pastiches, executed in acrylic paint, combine references to, for instance, classical figures, religious symbols, contemporary cultural artefacts and commercial products.

Pasta Oner, Dream Big, 2019

Pasta Oner: Dream Big, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas, private collection – photo: Michal Zikmund

This is where his work intersects most with Mucha, whose posters were, in the first place, promotional artworks. Pasta Oner, too, has been successful as an advertising and commercial artist even though his pop art references suggest that he is critical of consumerism. The work of the two artists has other formal and visual similarities described by the organisers as fascination with the female face and interest in eternal topics, such as the desire for perfection and beauty. Overall, Pasta Oner’s response to Mucha is a homage to the artist, not a critical re-evaluation. One of his paintings has even been finished with a decorative, floral background in a nod to the art nouveau artist.

Pasta Oner: Connecting, 2019

Pasta Oner: Connecting, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas, private collection – photo: Michal Zikmund

Across the river, the iMucha exhibition is located in the Municipal House (Obecní dům), which is itself decorated with a number of Mucha’s murals in the Mayor’s Hall. They depict figures and scenes form Czech national history and were his first large commission after his return to Bohemia from his sojourn abroad in 1910. However, it is the Slav Epic, a series of twenty large canvases on the history and myths of the Slavs and Czechs, that is the better-known rendition of the topic. It occasionally makes the news and keeps Mucha’s legacy alive because, after years of being placed in a small castle of Moravský Krumlov, the enormous work is still looking for a permanent home in Prague.

The premise of ‘iMucha: A Famous Collection in Motion’ (which in fact has a different subtitle in the actual exhibition: Posters in Motion) is to provide a digital experience of some of Mucha’s work. The various sections of the exhibition cover the basic general themes of relevance to Mucha, starting with the idea of the femme fatale which features some of the most iconic posters depicting Sarah Bernhard. This and subsequent parts overlap in their thematic focus: Mucha’s main interest, after all, did not change – his posters mostly depict a central female body, with a decorative surrounding area, various allegorical objects and prominent lettering. Most of the first half of the exhibition is embedded in advertising and features products which are now long gone, although some are still for purchase. The second part features Mucha’s posters advertising various exhibitions, calendars and work related to his homeland, including a painting of the Pantheon of Czech Music. Together with a scaled down replica of his stained glass in St Vitus cathedral at the Prague castle and snippets of the Slav Epic, it shows Mucha’s conscious commitment to the Czech nation.

View of the iMucha exhibition at the Municipal House

View of the iMucha exhibition at the Municipal House – photo: Milan Vopálenský

Where this exhibition tries to be different is by digitising some of the works of art. At the start of the show, the visitor is greeted by an animated self-portrait of the artist speaking in the voice of Pierce Brosnan and Jiří Dvořák in English and Czech respectively. A few paintings from the Slav Epic were animated and edited into a single video piece with background audio. Similarly, a number of posters had the same treatment, with female figures walking towards the foreground and gesturing to each other or to the viewers. This treatment could be seen as trivialising art but it may also be understood as part of the current trend of immersive art exhibitions.

Digitising art is, indeed, not new. A few years ago, an ‘immersive’ exhibition of Gustav Klimt travelled several countries and invited visitors to walk into the paintings – large projections of the works or their details in the exhibition space. Several other shows (and show is probably the right word here) with a similar concept have taken place simultaneously in Prague. The World of Banksy: An Immersive Experience has just finished at the Mánes exhibition hall. Not authorised by Banksy himself, the immersion here consisted not of animating the work but of entering and experiencing the world of street art. The art centre Forum Karlín, on the other hand, currently hosts ‘Once Upon a Time, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir…’ which presents the works of art on projection screens. With many other examples of such displays, immersion thus seems to be the latest thing which tries to appeal to a wider public and in some cases replicates or even replaces the actual work with a simulacrum. In comparison, the immersion into Mucha’s world is done on a much smaller scale with only a small number of the works digitised. Here, the visitor is only winked at by some of the women from the posters or treated to visualisations of works such as the Slav Epic.

iMucha’s aim of appealing to wider audiences is also noticeable in the marketing and promotion of not only the exhibition but also related products. The social media and website for the exhibition, for instance, not only provide basic data of Mucha’s life and overview of the exhibition parts, they also include many of the animations in an attempt to interact with visitors and followers. This may be seen as a step towards the next iMucha project, which is planned as a huge audio-visual experience with live music. The story of a comic superhero, Drawman, is told against the background of Mucha’s life and a battle between good and evil. Mucha’s story therefore becomes part of a multimedia spectacle and of contemporary popular culture in an attempt to update his work and life for the 21st century.

View of the Slav Epic in the iMucha exhibition, the Municipal House

View of the Slav Epic by Mucha in the iMucha exhibition, the Municipal House – photo: Milan Vopálenský

Back in the harsh reality of the current pandemic slowdown of culture and tourism, the Municipal House also attempts to make Mucha relevant as a contemporary product through the sales of Mucha merch. Scarves, calendars and fridge magnets with motifs from his works can be purchased in the exhibition gift shop alongside a special limited-edition of an iMucha & Moët bottle which draws on the success of Mucha’s original posters for the champagne producer featured in the section Bubbly Intoxication. This fusion of the commercial and the artistic is a striking reminder that Mucha was indeed an artist promoting commercial products of all kinds. And it is an important reminder that he himself became a commodity, being nowadays one of the main Prague attractions, next to Kafka, beer, glass ornaments and Jewish sites. The profusion of Mucha-related imagery is seen all around touristic Prague (fig. 8) and both current exhibitions are certainly aimed at tourists as the main audience.

Bookshop in Prague with Mucha merchandise

A bookshop in Prague with Mucha merchandise – photo: author

However, as Prague of today suffers heavily from the lack of foreign visitors, these intended blockbusters will not get the attention and response they sought.  And while many art historians will question the contribution of the two Mucha exhibitions and their concepts, what they show well is today’s not so elusive fusion of art, commerce, marketing and popular culture.

Marta Filipová

What do you think about these approaches to exhibiting art (immersion or confrontation with contemporary art)? Feel free to leave us a comment.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/FNYS3

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