Mucha in Prague - The Slav Epic
Alfons Mucha was a Czech Art Nouveau painter. He was one of the world’s leading forces of Art Nouveau, style of decorative arts that was incredibly popular between 1890 and 1910, inspired by natural forms and structures. If you have read my article "The Art of Prague", then you will know that this style could be found everywhere and totally embraced objects of every day life, from pieces of furniture and fabrics to jewellery and biscuit tins and Alfons Mucha is attributed to be one of the great influencers of this style of art. However, it was his love of his country and Czech history and culture that drove him and it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually go back to his roots, artistically and locationally. It was his tiring of the Art Nouveau scene that finally gave him the inspiration to create a collection of art about his country, for his country and so in the early 20th centure, Alfons Mucha’s ‘Slav Epic’ became a reality.
They say that great artists find companionship with other great artists and Mucha was no exception. The friendship that he found with the greatest Czech composer of that era, Leos Janacek, while studying at the Saint-Peter’s Cathedral in Brno as a teenager should have tipped the world off on the unforeseen success of Alfons Mucha. Drawing had been a hobby for Mucha since childhood and he found his way to decorative painting through jobs designing theatre sets in Moravia. He was eventually discovered by Count Karl Khuen of Mikulov, who hired Mucha to decorate Hrusovany Emmahof Castle with murals. He was so impressed with the work that he agreed to sponsor Mucha’s formal training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.
Mucha's Art Nouveau Style
In 1887, Mucha moved to Paris and continued his studies at Academie Julian and Academie Colarossi while also working at producing magazine and advertising illustrations. Timing is everything and Alfons Mucha just happened to go into a print shop where there was a sudden need for a new advertising poster for a play featuring the most famous actress in Paris, Sarah Bernhardt. Much volunteered to create a lithographed poster within two weeks and the result attracted a huge amount of attention for the unknown artist. Much then became contracted to Bernhardt and created six years worth of posters for the actress. Later, he gained international exposure at the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris and found that his Art Nouveau style was often imitated. Mucha had become an international sensation and influencer of the arts.
Mucha Tried to Distance Himself from the Art Nouveau Movement in Paris
Mucha always insisted that his paintings and works were entirely a product of himself and Czech art and desperately tried to disassociate himself from the Art Nouveau circles. He even declared that art existed only to communicate a spiritual message and nothing more. His frustration led to his realisation that he needed to go back to his routes and find the true heart of his love of art once again; Czechoslovakia. Much had always dreamed of completing a series of paintings in celebration of Slavic history but the Art Nouveau scene in Paris and the need to earn money and at one time raise a family, put these ideas on the back burner. However, in 1909 he obtained grants from an American philanthropist and keen admirer of the Slavic culture, Charles Richard Crane and his dream slowly became a reality.
Mucha began by visiting the places that he intended to depict in the cycle; Russia, Poland and the Balkans, including the Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos. He also consulted historians regarding details of historical events in order to make sure that his creations were accurate. In 1910, he rented a wing of the castle in Zbiroh and so his journey began. The cycle took 18 years to complete and he gradually handed the works over to the city of Prague. In 1919, the first part of the series, eleven canvasses, were displayed in the Klementium and while he was completing the collection, five were shown in New York and Chicago which brought Mucha to more international prominence. Finally, the collection was completed in 1928 and the cycle in its entirety was displayed for the first time at the Trade Fair Palace. While the collection has moved a few times since its completion, this is where you can find the Slav Epic today.
(The collection will be displayed at the Trade Fair Palace (Veletrzni Palac) until the end of 2016)
The Slav Epic
The Slav Epic consists of 20 incredible paintings, created with egg tempera and finished with oil on canvass which each depict a different idea taken from Slav history, culture and mythology, including the Czechs and other Slavic peoples. Incredibly, the paintings are all up to 6 metres tall and eight metres wide and each one completely swallows you up in the moment. The works are indeed epic, but also incredibly detailed, even down to the decorations on one man’s cloak, the petals of a bunch of flowers, the stars in a night sky, not to mention Mucha’s incredible use of lighting. The works also give an incredible and detailed insight into the horrors and successes of Czech history.
The Slav Epic on Display in Prague
It completely astounds me that Mucha began with such immensely sized canvasses and knew in his mind, exactly what he wanted to put where. I am sure he sketched and planned, but as I stood admiring the works, I was completely in awe of his ideas related to light and depth of colour and his incredibly imagination. Each painting tells you about the history, they create a story, one that allows your own imagination to wander and build your own ideas. You sense the emotion of the people, you can imagine the wonders and the pains that they felt, you are suddenly timeless and engrossed.
From the very moment you step into the immense room that contains the cycle, you are enthralled, firstly by the incredible size of the canvasses, but secondly by the incredible craftsmanship of Alfons Mucha and brilliantly, you think you have seen the best that you can see and then you turn a corner and your breath is stolen once more. It truly is one of the most incredible displays of art that I have ever seen.
An Introduction to the Slav Epic
1) The Slavs in Their Original Homeland
Dimensions - 8.10m x 6.10m
“Between the Turanian Whip and the Sword of the Goths”
Beginning in the 4th century, Mucha provides us with an insight to the Slavic tribes who lived in the marshes between the Vistula River, the Dnepr Rover, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. They were people of the land, dependent on agriculture, but were under constant attack by Germanic tribes who would burn their houses and steal their animals and crops. In this first painting, the couple of Slavs are hiding in the marshes with fear in their eyes as their village is attacked and burned in the background. Above, a pagan priest watches over them with two angels, one symbolising peace, the other war. Mucha used these angels to foretell the peace and freedom that would come to the Slav people after gaining independence through war.
2) The Celebration of Svantovit in Rügen
Dimensions - 8.10m x 6.10m
“When Gods are at War, Salvation is in the Arts”
Moving on to the 8th - 10th centuries, the second painting is set in the city of Arcona on the island of Rügen, which is now in Germany. There they built a temple dedicated to the Slavic pagan God, Svantovit, a place that European pilgrims would travel to for the annual harvest festival. In 1168, Danes attacked the island and the temple was destroyed, becoming a symbol of the former glory of the Baltic Slavs. In the painting, festival pilgrims are celebrating, unaware of the horror that is about to ensue. Above, the gods ready themselves for the oncoming enemy led by wolves, destruction implied in the tumultuous sky. Below a young mother with her child looks out, knowing about the imminent demise of the city.
3) Introduction of the Slavic Library
Dimensions - 8.10m x 6.10m
“Praise the Lord in your Native Tongue”
Here Mucha depicts the triumphant return of Methodius from Rome, the bearded man, hailed as a defender of the Slavic language when he translated the Bible into Old Church Slavonic. Prince Svatopluk sits on a throne to the far right, listening as a priest reads a letter from the Pope. At the top right of the painting are the figures of rulers who supported the spread of Christianity in the Slavic tongue, Boris of Bulgaria and Igor of Russia. At the front, a young man with a clenched fist and a circle in his right hand symbolises the strength and unity of the Slav people.
4) Tsar Simeon I of Bulgaria
Dimensions - 4.8m x 4.05m
“The Morning Star of Slavonic Literature”
After the death of Methodius, Prince Svatopluk decided not to support the Slavonic translation of the New Testament and evicted its followers from Moravia. The Bulgarian Tsar Simeon, who had a passion for Byzantine literature, gave them refuge and allowed them to continue with the translation. In this fourth painting, Mucha portrays the evicted followers in the Byzantine frescos that cover the walls. Tsar Simeon sits at the centre of the painting, while his scholars and scribes work in the foreground.
5) King Otakar II of Bohemia
Dimensions - 4.8m x 4.05m
“The Union of Slavic Dynasties”
Mucha shows King Premysl Otakar II greeting his guests as they arrive at the wedding of his niece, Kunhuta of Brandenburg and the son of Hungary’s King Bela IV. King Premysl Otakar II ruled Bohemia from 1253 to 1278 and was known as the ‘Iron King’ for his military success, and the ‘Golden King’ thanks to his fortunes made in the silver mines of Kutna Hora. He was also known for establishing close ties between the Slavic monarchs in a drive to secure peace for the future generations of Bohemia. In the painting, the King is holding hands with two friends, Mucha’s way of showing a gesture of friendship.
6) Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Uros Dusan as East Roman Emperor
Dimensions - 4.05m x 4.8m
“The Slavic Code of Law”
Here we are invited to the coronation of Tsar Stefan Uros Dusan, who was once responsible for expanding the Slavic territory in the 1300s and for establishing a code of law. His coronation came about after several military victories against the Byzantine Empire. The Tsar can be seen in the middle of the painting, with his aids carrying his cloak. In the foreground, the young girls dressed in traditional costume show a faith that the younger generation will carry forward Pan-Slavic ideals.
7) Jan Milic of Kromeriz
Dimensions - 4.05 x 6.2m
“A Brothel Converted to a Convent”
Milic of Kromeriz was a young theologist who held positions of responsibility in the church but one day became horrified by the immorality of the clergy. In the late 1300s, Milic left the church and dedicated his life to the city’s poor, teaching against the transgressions of the church. These moral teachings inspired a number of prostitutes to repent and devote their lives to looking after the sick and the poor, so Milic created a refuge for them, a chapel and convent dedicated to Mary Magdalen. In the painting we see the building of the refuge, with Milic in the blue cloak, preaching from the top of the scaffolding.
8) Master Jan Hus Preaching at Bethlehem Chapel
Dimensions - 8.10m x 6.10m
Jan Hus was one of the most influential clergymen of the Czech Reformation. Mucha shows Hus preaching to his audience in Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel in 1412. Jan Zizka, the future military leader of the Hussites, stands near the wall on the left, while Queen Sophia, wife of King Vaklav IV sits listening under a red shelter with her ladies in waiting. Jan Hus was later declared a heretic and was burned at the stake. His death sparked a rebellion among Czech nationalists which led to the Hussite wars.
9) The Meeting at Krizky
Dimensions - 4.05m x 6.20m
After the death of Jan Hus, an increasing number of clergymen began to turn their backs on papal rule and began to deliver their sermons in the Czech language. They were all declared heretics and were ordered to be removed from their parishes. Charles University in Prague was even closed to ensure that they couldn’t teach their beliefs. Hus followers began to gather outside the city walls to mount their rebellion. Here we see one of those gatherings, which took place at Krizky, just south of Prague in 1419. The radical preacher, Koranda, stands on a makeshift pulpit calling the followers as they arrive, asking them to take up their arms and defend their faith. The dark skies signify the imminent devastation of the Hussite Wars.
10) After the Battle of Grunewald
Dimensions - 6.10m x 4.05m
“The Solidarity of the Northern Slavs”
The morning after the Battle of Grunewald, the Polish King Wladyslaw, stands among the dead bodies and casualties of the battlefield, covering his face in sadness and horror, realising that freedom has come at a cost. The Battle was fought between the Teutonic Knights who settled in the Baltic area to spread Christianity among pagan tribes, and the Slavs and Poles of the allies in 1410.
11) After the Battle of Vitkov Hill
Dimensions - 4.8m x 4.05m
“God Represents Truth, Not Power”
Mucha painted the eleventh canvass in 1916 as Europe was fighting in the trenches, and this painting carries a personal commentary on the horrors of war. King Wenceslas IV was succeeded by his brother, Sigismund, King of Hungary, who was held responsible by the Czech people for the death of Jan Hus. The Czechs refused to accept his claim to the throne. The new King launched an attack against the Hussite movement and occupied Prague Castle where he was crowned. In 1420, the Hussites challenged Sigismund at Vitkov Hill on the outskirts of Prague, led by Jan Zizka. The Hussites succeeded in overthrowing the new King and forced his abdication. In the painting we see a mass given by the priests who led the Czech soldiers from Prague and they are surrounded by clergy lying in supplication on the ground. The beams of the rising sun highlight the figure of Zizka at the right of the canvas and at the bottom left, a mother and her child turn their backs on the celebration, knowing that her people will suffer further bloodshed as the Hussite Wars continue.