Mucha

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.

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Artwork of the Month, July 2020: The Black Boy by Helena Johnová (1912–c. 1939)

The Black Boy was the most commercially successful work of the Czech ceramicist Helena Johnová (1884–1962) with nearly 900 sold items of various colour versions. The black figure with exaggerated facial features, however, may well raise eyebrows today, but also a number of questions. These are worth exploring in connection with interwar art and design in Central Europe, as well as with current political issues. The most obvious ones relate to ethnic and gender stereotypes, which still resonate today thanks to the #BlackLivesMatter and #metoo movements. Many people, even academic scholars, argue that the current Czech and, by extension, Central European society has never had problems with racism or sexism, and that therefore issues highlighted by these movements are irrelevant in this geographical and political context. If we look at Johnová’s work more closely, we can, however, point to deep-rooted beliefs that shape today’s understanding of race and racial equality; we can question the assumption that because there were no colonies, there were no stereotypical views of race.

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Still from The Highway Sings, a commercial for the Baťa company

Artwork of the Month, February 2020: The Highway Sings by Elmar Klos, Jan Lukas and Alexander Hackenschmied (1937)

A detail camera shot examines rubber being mixed and moulded by heavy machinery. ‘Finished. You’re beautiful. Alas, it took me a while but you have been made properly.’ A young man sings as he is taking a rubber tyre off the machine. Walking through the factory yard and wheeling the tyre alongside, he carries on: ‘And now, off you go on your own, find your master and serve him well, I’m telling you.’ The camera focuses on the tyre with large lettering that reads Baťa and Superb. ‘It’s no easy task as every one of your masters entrusts his life to you,’ the young man warns. And as he starts running with the tyre over a field and down the road leading away from the factory, he cheers up.

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Devětsil 1920-1931: Exhibition review

To many, the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 following the traumatic war experience promised a reorganisation of the unjust class system and social and class change became the dream of many leftist artists. Creating a new visual language that would not be elitist and appeal especially to the disadvantaged working classes was an idea promoted by many individuals and collectives from the foundation of the new state. The artistic association Devětsil was born on these principles in 1920. Its key representatives were the young men of Prague and, from 1923, of Brno, who engaged in various artistic forms: painting, sculpture, architecture, design, film, photography, literature, theatre. The choice of the name Devětsil is a mystery. The Czech word refers to a plant, a butterbar, while the literary translation of nine forces could suggest a connection with the nine Greek muses.

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Artwork of the Month, September 2019: Design for a lookout tower in Prague by Jiří Hrubý (1937)

 “See! A vertical from steel of 1000 meters! This was made by Czech hands! Look out from above the clouds! This is the Czech land, our homeland!”[1]

In 1937, the Czechoslovak government, the Chamber of Commerce and a number of businesses decided to host an international exhibition in Prague, scheduled to take place in 1942. The plan was published and immediately attracted the attention of a host of individuals and institutions. Part of the bid was a proposal to build a lookout tower which would be located on a hill in northern Prague and be 1000 meters high. The estimated price was a staggering 65,000,000 crowns; to put this amount into context, an average monthly salary at the time was 764 crowns. However excessive the idea may seem, the design was very well thought through and an elaborate rationale was provided.

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