Mucha’s Women

The enduring mystique of fin-de-sciecle Vienna in an exhibition at the Belvedere

On The Town | Ksenia Kuvaeva | April 2009

Le Pater by Czech artist Alfons Mucha (Photo: Mucha Trust)

Delicate figures of pale women with knee-long waves of silky hair vaguely supported by a large flower, frail hands, large piercing eyes and seducing forms: This is the Mucha woman, an image of romantic perfection and part of the enduring mystique of fin-de-siècle Vienna that is the subject of a major exhibition at the Lower Belvedere through June 1.

A Czech born decorative painter who lived and worked in Vienna from 1879 to the 1881, Alphons Mucha was a seducer, tempting the viewer with [mouth-watering] images of sensual female forms. Taking us on a chronological journey through the artist’s life, the exhibit explores each era in its historical context and we watch how his style developed and grew throughout his lifetime.

Entering the exhibition in early March, a crowd packed the galleries; after starting out in advertising design, Mucha made his reputation as a poster artist.  His paintings are so well known, that today we can officially say that he has created a new style in art, often called the Mucha Style.

Women became the main subject of Mucha’s paintings, the long flowing hair, extravagant dresses and fairy-like appearance the common elements of nearly all of his artwork. They were studies in colors and characteristic poses: the light pastel and pure colors with slightly sexual, yet not provocative poses, highly sensual without being vulgar.

The exhibition includes one of his most famous posters, Job, an advertisment for cigarette papers, depicting an elegant woman, her head slightly cocked back, her mouth in a seductive smile. In her right hand she holds a cigarette, smoke spiraling up from the tip and curling around her angelic face like a snake. The strands of her long blond hair also coil around her and mingle with the snake-like smoke. Her white light dress covering her voluptuous figure contrasts with the dark purple and green background. Large purple-green letters behind her fragile head hang like a moon in the dark sky: Job, the art of seduction, taunting the viewer to light up.

Also included is Mucha’s detailed pencil sketch "Le Pater," depicting a couple standing on a cliff, surrounded by dead bodies, staring up at a large vision of a woman with pale eyes in the sky. The vision of the slightly aggressive woman shields her from the strong illumination in the sky. The couple huddles together, the woman on the ground, wrapping her frail arms around the legs of the man hunched over in despair. It is a breathtaking scene.

Perhaps most remarkable in this exhibition is the range of the work – every painting representing a different direction in the artist’s work –  also allows us to relive the moments these women were living, feel what they felt, enjoy what they enjoyed or even fear what they feared. Every painting is a story.

So what is it about Mucha that explains his enduring appeal? What makes the crowd stand in awe? Mucha’s version art nouveau – part of the iconoclastic Jugendstil movement of the Wiener Secession may be considered a break-through and the beginning of what became a satirical, narrative style of illustration. His images are usually painted in watercolors that give them a vivid and light touch, making them almost dream-like. The contours of the women or objects are done in ink, allowing them to stand out from the background and separate them from the surroundings. Mucha was an agent provocateur at the dawn of animation, whose style of drawing developed into the modern day visual storytelling of the French bandes dessinées and even American comic strips.

Mucha had a very unique way of drawing his images. He would ask some of his models to pose for him in front of a black curtain in his home; later with the help of his imagination he would place them in different settings, extravagant fantasy landscapes springing from his imagination. His models too were altered by adding long poofy dresses, mystical hair curling around the model, creating a border around the image, creating a sense of weightlessness and delicacy.

Mucha’s style attracted the attention of movie producers and advertising companies, who hired him to design posters for products and films, many on display at the Lower Belvedere. The exhibition contains over 200 pieces in all, loaned by private and public collectors from all over the world.

A walk through the show follows the stages of Mucha’s artistic life, starting from simple sketches and notes that the artist took and finishing with his masterpieces, allowing us to evaluate how the artist developed and how his life affected his work.

It is a remarkable exhibit. But that day, the size of the audience in the crowded pavilion was itself astonishing, a measure of Mucha’s enduring popularity so remarkable for a commercial artist and equaled perhaps only by the French poster artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In the final gallery, people thronged around a glass table, viewing old papers with fading images of sculptures on them, drinking in the ideas and thoughts that had gone through the mind of the artist back then, now here in front of us today.

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