Whenever museums or galleries host large-scale exhibitions of work by household-name master artists, they're faced with the challenge of making the show into more than a dazzling display of familiar beauty. Sure, the draw of seeing works created by the actual hands of immortalized artists is enough to pull the public through the doors, but that's not enough for the delightful nerds who become curators, nor many of the delightful nerds in the audience.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with wanting to see the work of some of history's most renowned names. I was enticed enough when I heard that the Memorial Art Gallery would be presenting an exhibition of work by renowned and prolific Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha this year, and that it would showcase more than 80 works, including rare original lithographs, drawings, books, portfolios, and other ephemera. A chance to closely study a master artist's progress over many decades -- as well as the decisions made between sketches and finished work -- is valuable not only to other artists, but to anyone who still thinks that art just magically manifests or is an act of skill without the labor.
And I'm definitely one of those countless former art students whose dorm walls were wallpapered with cheap reproductions of Pre-Raphaelite painters' works, as well as enchanting women by Alphonse Mucha; mind-bending math art by M.C. Escher; and the peaceful dance of atmospheric conditions in paintings by Claude Monet -- all three artists, by the way, have now been featured in major exhibitions at the MAG in the past three years. And all three exhibits beautifully contextualized the artists' work, drawing the viewer deeper into the experience of understanding the work and, valuably, that art -- even pretty art -- isn't made in a vacuum.
A funny thing about being a household name is that sometimes crucial details about an artist's life are glossed over, or aren't mentioned at all. For example, before seeing this show, I didn't really know what nationality Mucha was (I had incorrectly assumed he was French) and had no idea that the rise of Nazism basically ended his life.
Mucha is known for framing his depictions of earthy or otherworldly, goddess-like women with deeply ornate, meticulously balanced natural elements. His color lithographs feature heavy outlines that flatten clothing, hair, and scenery, but subtle gradations of shade on faces and limbs bring dimensionality back into play. This combined effect has always brought to mind saints frozen in stained glass windows, but on paper.
The curation of the exhibition's items, selected from the extensive Mucha archives of the Dhawan Collection of Los Angeles, tells the story of Mucha's life, from his 1860 birth in the region of Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), to his art education in Vienna, Munich, and Paris; and his "big break" commission in 1894, when he illustrated the distinctive tall-and-narrow, nearly-life-size poster advertising the premiere of Sarah Bernhardt's play "Gismonda" at her Theater of the Renaissance. Bernhardt became a frequent muse of Mucha, and his star soared as he designed posters, costumes, and sets for her productions. Soon his illustrations graced the covers and pages of countless French publications, and his influence spread among his contemporaries. Like Bernhardt, who shocked and then won audiences with her performances of male roles, Mucha's women seemed self-possessed and heroic, at the right times intimidating -- not the average object of the male gaze.
If I was to choose a single nuance from the show to focus on, I have to say I found myself gawking at, really studying, Mucha's rendered hands in particular. Drawing hands is notoriously tricky -- countless artists have found ways to avoid the task of foreshortening fingers and depicting an elegant twist of the wrist by hiding the hands behind objects, in pockets, by gloving them, and so on. With enough practice some artists have certainly mastered hands, but what's perhaps even harder is capturing both form and expressive gesture with just a few precisely placed lines. A few sweeps of simple outlines and a knuckle dimple here and there, and he's created arched digits clasping at cloth, a gently poised forearm with fingertips brushing the night air, or a play of fingers plucking at a gargantuan jewel. Mucha's hands alone are iconic.
Mucha's post-Parisian life was off to a beautiful start when he retired from metropolitan culture in 1910 and returned to his home country, where he focused his artistic efforts on personal projects, including "The Slav Epic," a series of 20 monumental paintings illustrating the history of the Slavic people from ancient to contemporary times. Deeply devout and hugely impacted by the traditional folklore and religious practices of his cultural heritage, Mucha wanted to present his culture's richness through the dramatic, heroic style he was known for. But his sense of nationalism wasn't the fearful, hollow pride that aims to disenfranchise and do away with those deemed different. It was the kind that takes pride in and seeks to preserve cultural memory.
But as fascism encroached in the 1930s, Mucha's work and cultural pride were denounced as reactionary, and when German troops invaded Czechoslovakia, he was in the first wave of arrests by the Gestapo. He was released after several days, but the stress of his interrogation and the invasion of his homeland weakened him, and Mucha died a few months later of a lung infection at the age of 78.
Even as we applaud their beautifying services, artists are often dismissed as dreamers and idealists, painting pictures that can serve as either mirrors of society or better-case-scenarios. This role has too often put a target on their backs.
One of the last bodies of work that Mucha began was intended to be a monument to humanity, a triptych he called "The Three Ages." The show includes an ink and pencil drawing of a costumed Czech girl that is believed to be a figure study for one of the panels. Curatorial text on the wall provides context: "For Mucha, the themes of reason, wisdom, and love were the fundamental building blocks of society. He considered reason and love to be two extremes that could only be united through wisdom."
Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's arts and entertainment editor. She can be reached at [email protected].