It was 120 years ago that the talented but relatively unknown young artist Alphonse Mucha was catapulted to international fame after a chance encounter in a Paris print shop found him designing a poster for superstar actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Such was the power of his work publicising her new play Gismonda that the public clamoured for copies. As soon as the image appeared on the streets of the French capital on New year’s day 1895 people were cutting them from hoardings and bribing bill-posters to hand them over. Bernhardt, at the height of her fame, immediately signed Mucha to a six year contract.
His Gismonda, with it’s subtle pastel shades and sensual design literally revolutionise poster art. No one had seen anything like it before. Art Nouveau had been born and Mucha’s reputation had been sealed. Before long his work was everywhere, advertising not just the illustrious Bernhardt but cigarettes, bicycles and baby food.
Mucha’s work drifted in and out of style but decades later, long after his death in 1939, his influence could be seen in the hippy era posters for concerts by Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and The Doors. Mouse and Kelly in San Francisco and Hapshash and the Coloured Coat in London were among those who adapted Mucha’s style for the tune in, turn on, drop out generation. Yet Alphonse Mucha’s posters represent just a tiny part of his prodigious output. He didn’t much care for the Art Nouveau label either. There was more to him than that.
Now a breakthrough exhibition at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth explores the full might of his extraordinary artistic legacy.
Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty runs from 1st of April until 27th September and explores the core principle underlying his artistic philosophy – that the aim of art is to celebrate beauty. It examines how Mucha’s distinctive style evolved and developed beyond Art Nouveau. It’s a compelling story tracing the work of an artist driven to create not just posters but paintings, sculptures, jewellery and much more in a roller-coaster life of changing fortunes.
Born in Moravia (now the Czech Republic), Alphonse Mucha was feted in Paris and New York at the turn of the 19th/20th century and went on to enjoy widespread recognition in the newly independent Czechoslovakia where he designed the Republic’s new postage stamps and bank notes. Eventually though, during the dark days of the rising Nazi regime, he was sidelined in his Czech homeland. His death at the age of 78 came after severe interrogation by the Gestapo. Even beyond the grave Mucha’s artistic legacy faced a struggle. Communist control in Czechoslovakia saw his art dismissed as bourgeois and decadent.
Which is where Dorset law firm Humphries Kirk, which is sponsoring the Russell-Cotes exhibition, comes into the equation. The company has close connections with the Mucha family and worked tirelessly to keep Alphonse Mucha’s name and work alive when it was threatened with obscurity before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Senior partner James Selby Bennett is a cousin of Sarah Mucha, wife of Alphonse’s grandson John, and has known the family for decades: “I well remember the dark days of uncertainty and repression before the velvet revolution in Prague,” he says. “Alphonse’s works and heritage were under considerable threat. The advice that we gave the Mucha family proved resilient. It is no exaggeration to say that the works on display and the deeper artistic heritage of this extraordinary artist were saved for posterity and we at Humphries Kirk are very pleased to have played our not inconsiderable part in that.”
What happened to Alphonse Mucha was the result of massive political upheaval across Europe during the 20th century. “He was very big in Paris and then in New York and then in the Czech Republic right up until the time of his death but during the Second World War they tried to airbrush him from history,” says Mr Bennett. “There was a short interval when everyone thought it was OK and Alphonse’s son George took his wife Geraldine and their young son back to Prague and lived in the family house. Then suddenly the Communists grabbed power and they were all out. Literally out. “Geraldine once described to me how George came back from work one day and they were all sitting on the street with a handcart with all their possessions in it, including the priceless works of art.”
As a visitor to the home of George and Geraldine in cold war Prague Mr Bennett witnessed at first hand the bugging of their home. “When I was there they would often find a new microphone usually with a light and a slight humming noise. It was extraordinary. I was a Territorial Army officer and after the wall came down I was given sight of part of my own dossier. Here I am a solicitor and farmer in Dorset and yet excerpts of my conversations were being listened to too. Every room in that house was bugged including the loo. They listened to every poop and parp.”
It was a strange time and, as the Berlin Wall fell and what Mr Bennett calls the “vultures and carrion crows” moved in for a piece of the action, the future of the Mucha collection was very much under threat. Happily with legal advice from Humphries Kirk the collection was saved and Mucha’s wider artistic heritage fully re-established.
Mr Bennett, whose mother Dolores Lees was a wartime resistance heroine and the only Englishwoman to receive the Croix de Guerre and bar, also has a curious political history. He is that rare beast – an English country solicitor, landowner and former TA officer who is a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. He even made front page national headlines during the 2001 general election campaign when he unwittingly became a have-a-go hero while canvassing as the Labour candidate in Dorset Mid and North Poole during the elections. The six foot seven inch, 17 stone lawyer raced into action after spotting a burglar breaking away from two men who had him cornered. Leaping from his Labour battle bus, he felled the thief with a rugby tackle and hung onto him until the police arrived. He then calmly continued canvassing, making sure that the victim of the burglary pledged a vote for Labour in return for his actions.
Fourteen years on his commitment to both the Labour Party and the artistic legacy of Alphonse Mucha remain as strong as ever. “I think it is marvellous that you can go to the Russell-Cotes and see these extraordinarily beautiful and fascinating pieces. Not just the pictures and the posters but also his sculptures, jewellery and his designs for everyday living. It’s a very appropriate location.” he says.
Museum manager Sue Hayward agrees, pointing out that the exhibition will draw links between Mucha’s work and philosophy and the Art Nouveau environment of the Russell-Cotes Museum and its remarkable collections.
*Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty is at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum until Sunday 27th September. For more information visit russellcotes.com