Who was Alphonse Mucha?

New DAI exhibit showcases Czech artist’s Art Nouveau style

How could she ever have guessed when she walked into a Phoenix consignment store as a middle school student and fell in love with an Art Nouveau poster that she’d someday be involved with an exhibit of the artist’s work?

The Middle School student — who purchased and lived with that poster in her bedroom for years— was Katherine Ryckman Siegwarth, now the Dayton Art Institute’s Kettering Assistant Curator of Collections and Exhibitions. The exhibit is “Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau.” It opened this weekend at the DAI and will be on view through Dec. 31.

Her beloved poster is titled “Bières de la Meuse” and it’s one of the color lithographs now on display at the DAI. It pictures a river goddess wearing a crown. “It was actually an advertisement for beer made in the Meuse Valley and the crown was made from beer ingredients — poppies, barley, hops,” Siegwarth says. “I’m not sure if I really knew much about Alphonse Mucha until I went to college and began to study art history. But I loved the romantic feel of the work, her flowing hair and her crown.”

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We asked the DAI curator to tell us more about an artist she’s admired since childhood.

Q: Who was Alphonse Mucha?

Siegwarth: Mucha was a Czechoslovakian artist who lived from 1860 to 1939 and became known for a distinctive style that established him as a leader of the Art Nouveau movement. His work ranged from paintings, posters and advertisements to jewelry, carpet and wallpaper designs. Mucha’s works frequently featured beautiful young women in flowing, vaguely Neoclassical-looking robes, often surrounded by lush flowers which sometimes formed halos behind their heads. In contrast with contemporary poster-makers he used pale pastel colors.

Q: How did his career take off?

Siegwarth: As the story goes, Mucha was helping in a Parisian printing studio around Christmas time in 1894, when suddenly there was a rush order for an advertising design highlighting the famous actor Sarah Bernhardt in the theatrical role, Gismonda. Mucha seized the opportunity to design the advertisement, which became an overnight sensation when seen across the streets of Paris that New Year.

The advertisement presented Sarah Bernhardt in her feature role, set against a halo-like disk and other decorative motifs. Apparently, the design was so admired, some people took to cutting the posters off the walls in the dead of night as keepsakes. Bernhardt herself loved the design so much, she became one of the primary supporters of the artist’s work, offering him a contract to produce stage and costume designs as well as lithographic prints.

Q: What is Art Nouveau and how does one recognize it?

Siegwarth:Art Nouveau was a visual, decorative and architectural art style popular from the late 1880’s until the First World War when the Art Deco style gained popularity. Art Nouveau can be recognized by its highly-stylized forms inspired by natural elements. You’ll see a lot of long, curving plants and other sinuous line details. And within the visual arts, you will note beautiful women, or femme fatales, with long, flowing hair and seductive glances — a trademark style of Alphonse Mucha.

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Mucha was also interested in spiritualism and Masonic philosophy. He later became a Grand Master of the Freemasons of Czechoslovakia which also influenced many of his later designs. At that point in his career he was trying to elevate the meaning and influence of his designs — no longer seductive women, but figures who represented virtrues such as “truth” and “peace.” There are other symbols within designs that are associated with the Freemasons. Some of the works towards the end of our exhibit demonstrate this change.

Q: What materials did Mucha use in his art?

Siegwarth: As a principal designer for advertisements as well as book and journal illustrations, Mucha made a significant number of lithographs. There were several advancements in printing and color lithography techniques during his time, making it an exciting medium for experimentation.

Mucha’s lithographs reflect the rich texture of modern life in Paris at the turn of the century — this is the opulent Belle Époque and fin-de-siècle. His subject matter ranges from biscuits, perfumes and liqueurs to exhibitions and expositions locations. He also did publicity for leading theatrical celebrities of the era.

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Q: How is he best known?

Siegwarth: Mucha is perhaps best known for the “Slav Epic,” his series of twenty monumental paintings depicting Czech and Slovak history. He was an ardent supporter of Czech independence and gifted this series of paintings in 1928 to Czechoslovakia on the 10th anniversary of its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Also, in 1919, he designed the first Czech bank notes, which will be on view in the exhibition.

Q: What is the range of size of the works shown at The DAI and where do they come from?

Siegwarth: There is a great range of size within this exhibition. There are small objects such as Czech money, and many of the lithographs on view are nearly seven feet tall.

Most artworks on view are lithographs, including a few proofs that will give museum visitors an idea of the lithographic process. Mucha also drew and painted — we’re displaying several examples — and even assisted in jewelry design. His designs were extremely popular and his influence could be seen throughout visual and decorative art materials.

The show is organized in three sections — posters, book and journal illustrations, and The Slav Epic paintings. All the artworks on display come from the Dhawan Collection, one of the finest private collections of Mucha’s work in the United States.

Q: What would you hope visitors take away from the exhibition?

Siegwarth: With any exhibition, I hope visitors are able to see how the artworks on view were influenced by the time and events surrounding its creation, but also how the visual arts in turn influenced the world around it.

This exhibition is a great example of that. Mucha created singular works that shaped an artistic style, changed advertising campaign strategies, while also showed audiences today the opulent world of turn of the twentieth century Paris.

But most importantly, I wish for visitors to have fun!

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