Wednesday 1 April 2015

Mucha: In Quest of Beauty

April is upon us!  Not only that but today marks the opening of a brand new and exciting exhibition at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth: Mucha: In Quest of Beauty...

Zodiac (1896)

Taking as its theme the quote 'The aim of art is to celebrate beauty', the exhibition shows Alphonse Mucha's extraordinary work which really has come to epitomise all that is 'art nouveau': swirls of hair, the movement of fabric and nature and of course, beautiful women.  I was surprised to find how modern his vision was from posters to celebrity and the synergy of packaging and advertising.

Biscuits Lefèvre-Utiles (1896)
When I was a teenager, I bought the above poster from a supermarket because it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  Over twenty years later it hangs in our hallway and last night I got to see one of the original prints of it.  The business of selling in a belle époque manner finds its pinnacle in Mucha, his beautiful women offering all manner of things from bicycles to cigarettes to biscuits in a very alluring manner. It was copied but never equalled in terms of detail and sheer gorgeousness.

I'll just have a smoke...

...then I'll hop on my bike...
The selection of the advertising works on display are wonderful and it is amazing how the simple start of a long haired damsel in a floaty dress can be repeated yet never seem the same.  On show too are some examples of packaging of the products he advertised and the packaging ties in with the poster art giving a consistent visual message for a product.  Take that Don Draper!

Gismonda (1894)
Beyond his well-known advertising posters, what made Mucha a household name was his work promoting the actress Sarah Bernhardt.  Bernhardt's performances were advertised using lifesize images of her on long strip posters, striking and impactive. The figure of Miss Bernhardt is what is being shown here, her performance almost incidental to the fact that she is the art on display.  Mucha loved these works, displayed on the streets and enlightening the public while promoting plays.  These acts of advertising turned the outside into art galleries for the public.

Lorenzaccio (1896)
While Maxine Peake is making a smash as Hamlet it is worth noting the Bernhardt was playing male roles back in the 1890s.  My favourite poster of her advertises her role of Lorenzo de Medici in Lorenzaccio, the dragon symbolising the tyranical Duke Alexander who the main character considers murdering.  Incidentally, Bernhardt played Hamlet in 1899, accompanied by a poster by Mucha.

Dance (1898)

Mucha was so modern in terms of his vision of what art meant to people in the modern age.  At the end of the 1890 he produced a series of decorative panels on themes such as the arts (from which Dance above comes), seasons, precious stones, flora and times of day. Some of these pictures appeared as prints, some in calendars, all available and accessible to an audience who craved art they could own and appreciate in their homes.  Like me, buying my poster at SavaCentre outside Reading, the Parisian public could place a swirling Mucha woman on their wall.

Song of Bohemia (1918)
In 1910 Alphonse Mucha returned to his homeland of Czechoslovakia after an absence of 25 years.  He spent the next 17 years celebrating his country of birth in paintings celebrating Czech and Slavic heritage.  The women who appeared in them were still glamorous, but had a more spiritual and symbolic edge.  The culmination of this period is the Slav Epic cycle, a series of 20 massive canvases depicting the history of the Slavic peoples.

Model posing in Mucha's studio (1899-1900)
An unexpected delight in the exhibition is Mucha's photographs.  All manner of bendy young ladies drape themselves in familiar poses to beautiful effect, the resultant photographs showing belle époque goddesses.

I cannot recommend the exhibition enough, especially if you are after a little art nouveau glamour in your life.  The whole effect of the rooms is to beguile and engulf you in a swirl of hair and magic.  The art of Alphonse Mucha is more than just the advertising posters and this is the perfect place to discover how much more.  Mind you, the advertising posters are pretty amazing.  This might well be the most beautiful exhibition of the year...

To find out more, including opening times, visit the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum pages here.


  1. Dear Kirsty
    I have always liked the gorgeous work of Mucha with his sinuous lines. It would be really interesting to see the photos too, but I don't think I'll be able to visit, sadly. I'll have to content myself with books (and your post!)
    Best wishes

  2. Thanks Ellie, the photos were a revelation and may just be my favourite bit. Mind you, it is all splendid!

  3. Ahhh to be able to see this vision in person would be wonderful! I have collected Mucha prints, porcelain pieces, and tapestries for the shear beauty of his images and line work. Thanks for sharing this post of your experience!

  4. I did a Mucha inspired painting of some rather redheaded woman sitting in the moonlight... I guess that's what happens when you look at too many 19thC paintings; you end up doing Art Nouveau redheads in medieval dresses! Anyway, the painting now resides with my future-mother-in-law, and she loves all things Art Nouveau and the painting I did, so all is well with the world.

    Zodiac is one of my favourite Mucha pictures. It's on the cover of the first book on Art Nouveau I ever bought, and I love it for all its Pagan, 'earth mother' beauty.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx