Museum  December 20, 2021  Amy Funderburk

NCMA’s Dazzling Alphonse Mucha Show Lauds Art Nouveau Visionary

Mucha Trust Collection, © 2021 Mucha Trust.

Alphonse Mucha, detail of Self-portrait with posters for Sarah Bernhardt at the studio in rue du Val-de-Grâce, Paris, circa 1901. Modern print from original glass plate negative. 9 7/16 × 7 1/16 in.

Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary is currently on display through January 23, 2022 at The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, co-organized by The Mucha Foundation, Prague.

Through more than 100 objects thoughtfully selected from the Mucha Trust Collection, an illuminating spotlight is placed on lesser-known aspects of Alphonse Mucha—whose interests extended beyond the pretty, while his cultural identity was always at the fore.

Courtesy of the Mucha Foundation.

Alphonse Mucha, Gismonda, 1894. Color lithograph. 85 x 29 1/8 in.

Le style Mucha may have contributed much to the Parisian visual aesthetic, but the artist was born in 1860 in the Moravian town of Ivančice. While now part of the Czech Republic, at that time, this region was an occupied Slavic province of the Austrian Empire.

Destined to become one of the preeminent designers of Art Nouveau after he moved to Paris in 1887, Mucha’s contributions to this international art and design style were largely from his Slavic background. His intricate halo-like rondelles, Byzantine-inspired mosaics, lacy floral patterns, embroidered gowns, and other decorative ornamentation were previously unseen in Paris.

Fascinated by a link between Brittany and Czech culture, he also employed Celtic designs, as well as Jewish, Greek, Egyptian, Islamic, Japanese, Rococo, and Gothic motifs.

In a legendary right-place-at-the-right-time story, Mucha was at the print shop when famed actress Sarah Bernhardt sent word that she was seeking a new designer.

After she saw his design for the intricate, life-sized Gismonda (1894) she declared, “Mr. Mucha, you have made me immortal!” Soon, a six-year contract with Bernhardt cemented his own future.

Supporting social reform through art, the artist believed in “art for the people,” considering his posters in the streets as open-air exhibitions. Alphonse Mucha utilized strong contours and minimal values of soft, rich colors. In person, the seams are visible on such sizable lithographs where two pieces of paper were pieced together.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary featuring Cycles Perfecta.
Courtesy of NCMA.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary featuring Cycles Perfecta (1902) on the far right.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary featuring a Mucha JOB cigarette papers advertisement (1896).
Courtesy of NCMA.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary featuring JOB (cigarette papers), 1896 on the far left.

Alphonse Mucha, The Lovers (Les Amants), 1896. Color lithograph.
Photo by Amy Funderburk.

Alphonse Mucha, The Lovers (Les Amants), 1896. Color lithograph.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary featuring Mucha's Monaco – Monte Carlo (1897).
Courtesy of NCMA.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary featuring Monaco – Monte Carlo (1897).

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary featuring Medea (1898) and The Samaritan (1897).
Courtesy of NCMA.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary featuring from left to right: The Samaritan (1897), Medea (1898), and sketches for Medea.

The composition of Cycles Perfecta is not dominated by the model’s bicycle, but by her billowing red tresses and flaming sleeves. The sultry muse for JOB (cigarette papers) violates a chevron border to climb out towards the viewer, the top of her cascading auburn coiffure rising like the undulating smoke.

Three misaligned registration marks visible in the margin of The Lovers/Les Amants reveal the complexity of the lithographic printing process. Monaco – Monte Carlo features a wistful Snow White-like model. Birds at the top of the largest of three vegetable rondelles seem to transform from the leaves. Bernhardt’s intense gaze befits the dramatic Medea (Medée). The poster is accompanied by impressive pencil studies that demonstrate effortless drawing skills.

Photo by Art & Object Staff.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary featuring an 1899 Mucha-designed Heart of Jeannette (Coeur de Jeannette) Houbigant perfume bottle and box.

Mucha adorned everything from menus and little guidebooks to biscuit boxes and perfume bottles. Compared to the immortal lithographs, such everyday items feel like poignant time capsules. Mucha also created sumptuous decorative panels without advertising text, exploring archetypes such as the seasons, times of day, and gemstones.

Photo by Amy Funderburk.

Alphonse Mucha, a photograveur from Le Pater, 1899.

His interest in spiritualism and mysticism is showcased through a folio of stunning symbolist illustrations filled with light and shadow, each portraying verses from Mucha’s interpretation of The Lord’s Prayer (Le Pater). In contrast to his aim of readily available art, only 510 numbered copies of these visionary books were printed in 1899.

Photo by Amy Funderburk.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary featuring a still from the show's digital projections of The Slav Epic (1911-26).

Concerned that his homeland “was left to quench its thirst on ditch water,” in his later works, Mucha focused on the Slavic people after returning home in 1910. The Czech language was banned by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so Mucha utilized his native tongue, folk costumes, and regional symbolism as art activism tactics on posters such as Moravian Teachers’ Choir. The Slav Epic (1911-26) is represented by immersive projections as well as archival footage. Consisting of twenty massive canvases showing 1,000 years of history, Mucha considered this dramatic magnum opus to be his greatest achievement.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary featuring artwork created for the Modern Beauty Campaign.
Courtesy of NCMA.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary featuring artwork created for the Modern Beauty Campaign on the left wall.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary. features bench with decorative background (a photo op) and a plaque that says "you are beautiful" with a paragraph on Mucha's use of photography and diverse models for the time.
Photo by Art & Object Staff.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary.

Mucha’s photographs reveal just how much artistic license he used with his Parisian muses. To mitigate the lack of model diversity in the exhibit, in the Modern Beauty Campaign, the NCMA selected artists Alisha Locklear Monroe, Tori “FNoRD” Carpenter, and Lakeshia T. Reid to produce Mucha-inspired pieces. Additionally, visitors are encouraged to contribute their definition of modern-day beauty at an interactive, post-it note station.

Courtesy of NCMA.

Installation view of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary. The left wall features wallpaper designed for this show.

Related works from the NCMA permanent collection flesh out the exhibit, including sculptures by Mucha’s friend Auguste Rodin. A rare bronze by Mucha, Nude on a Rock, is displayed beside a work that Rodin dedicated to his friend. Period music and inspired exhibition design including custom wallpaper also provide a sense of place and time.

About the Author

Amy Funderburk

Amy Funderburk is a professional artist and freelance arts writer based in Winston-Salem, NC, specializing in visionary works in which she explores the intersection of the physical world with a more fluid spiritual realm. She works out of the Sternberger Artists Center in Greensboro, NC, and maintains a blog, Drinking from the Well of Inspiration, to provide deeper insight into her creative process. Follow her on twitter: @AFunderburkArt and on Instagram: @AmyFunderburkArtist.

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