Artists With Tragic Deaths: Alphonse Mucha
Alphonse Mucha (July 24, 1860-- July 14, 1939)
Artists are memory makers or, rather, memory keepers in the times before cameras. What we do is immortalize a time, an era, a community, or a person in a portrait. It is why the public is still fascinated with the little-known lady captured in the Mona Lisa. It is why an era that lasted a little more than 11 years and the dancers who only danced two years at best, are immortalized forever in the posters of the Moulin Rouge by the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It is why the era of this artist will be forever remembered. This is an artist who played a major role in the direction of the artists’ movement that has remained inspirational and fascinating to the people of today. He captured feelings and emotions, the very essence of women in elegance and style, which still captures the imagination of the world. The movement was called Art Nouveau.
I have to say it’s sad when anyone dies young, but doubly so for artists because there is so much more they could have done to make the world a more beautiful, colorful place. This artist didn’t die as young as some. In fact he had lived an extraordinary life and if he had died of natural causes, the world would still have revered him for all he had accomplished. The sad fact is that this artist didn’t have to die when he did. It was a horrible injustice and tragedy that was brought about through stupidity and race prejudice. He was guilty of little more than being loyal to his country and his convictions. Some artists just succumbed to sickness, sadness and drug addiction before their work was done. Some just couldn’t take the rejection and short-lived popularity that comes with art and artist’s movements. However this artist was brought low because he was Czechoslovakian when it was suspect to be one. This is the story of Alphonse Mucha.
I appreciate the stories and struggles that artists have to endure to make the mark in history. Many times it is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I know that it seems like artists who are not very talented or who have no more talent than others who did not achieve fame did, however it is a lot of chance, happenstance and whom you know, more than talent most of the time. In Alphonse Mucha’s case, he did know some famous people who helped him along the way, but these very intimacies couldn’t help save him, and indeed condemned him from the rise of the Third Reich, which eventually ended his career and life at the age of 78.
Mucha (pronounced Mooka), was a master of the Art Nouveau, working as an illustrator on advertisements, postcards, posters and book designs. His mastery of the female form is unsurpassed and has often been copied and revered throughout the decades.
Alphonse Maria Mucha was born in the town of Ivancice, Moravia, which is currently a region of the Czech Republic. Drawing and singing had been his main hobbies throughout his childhood and after relocating to Vienna in 1879, he was augmenting his artistic education while working designing theatrical scenery and designs. After a wealthy Count hired him to decorate his castle with murals, the Count decided to help Mucha with his formal training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. In 1887, he moved to Paris to continue his studies at Academie Julian and Academie Colarossi, while working on magazine illustrations.
Do you know Mucha's work?
It was the era of the most famous theatrical actress, Sarah Bernhardt, and while visiting a print shop, Mucha became aware of the need for theatrical posters for a play featuring the great actress. He volunteered to create a lithograph poster in just 2 weeks and afterward his posters, posted all over Paris, received a great deal of attention. His fame was set. Bernhardt was so happy with the success of the first poster that she began a six-year contract with Mucha. Afterwards, he produced a flurry of paintings, posters, advertisments, magazine and book illustrations, as well as designs for jewelry, carpets, wallpaper, and theatrical sets all in the Art Nouveau.
Art Nouveau (in French meaning new art) frequently featured beautiful young women in a Neoclassical style robe or clothing and often with a sort of halo, sometimes using rings of flowers, birds or just ornaments. The colors were mostly in pale pastels and sometimes had only outlines to define the shapes. Yet his use of line and color makes the women appear stylized and romanticized. He claimed that art existed only to communicate a spiritual message, and nothing more. Sometimes he was frustrated with the fame he gained and just wanted freedom to paint as he liked.
Mucha married Mauska Chytilova in 1906 in Prague. Together they had a daughter, Jaroslava, born in New York City. They also had a son, Jiri, who became a writer, journalist and screenwriter.
Not a 'sell out'
Living and working much of his life in Paris, Mucha was concerned that his fellow Czechs thought him a “sell out” so he gave often to nationalist projects. When Czechoslovakia won its independence after World War I, Mucha designed the new bank notes, postage stamps and other government documents for the new state as well as many murals including in the Mayor’s Office at the Municipal House, in Prague.
The Slav Epic
He spent many years working on 20 huge paintings depicting the history of Czech and Slavic people. These came to be known as The Slav Epic or the Slavic paintings. He donated all these to the Czech public. It may be these and other nationalist projects that got him on the black list with the Nazis.
When the German troops marched into Czechoslovakia during the spring of 1939, Mucha was among the first persons arrested by the Gestapo. During his month long interrogation, the aging artist became ill with pneumonia. Although he was released, he was weakened by the event and died of the resulting lung infection. Now what need would the Gestapo have to interrogate and artist? What could he possibly have that they wanted besides knowledge of anatomy and color theory? It was a totally unnecessary unsupportable atrocity to have happened to an artist. And for no other reason than he was born a Czech.
Okay, so he wasn't a young man. He did live a full life filled with productivity and generosity. It still makes my blood boil to think of the torture and inexcusable disrespect he received at the hands of the Nazis.
The style lives on
At the time of his death, Mucha’s style was considered outdated but enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the 1960’s and even today. He work has strongly influenced a number of other artists, musicians, playwrights and theatrical designers. It has a charm that will live on for centuries.
I have several books about Mucha and his work. There are a few out there including one with accordion pages that is now out of print and worth thousands of dollars. His work and even books about his work gains in value with each passing year.
You can find a few original lithograph prints on eBay for $1,000 up to $15,000 if you are interested in having one of your very own. Many poster-making companies have mass reproduced some of the Mucha posters on cheaper quality paper and charge only a fraction of what an original lithograph would cost.