Poor, poor Alphonse Mucha.
What he wanted – what he really, really wanted – was to be remembered as a ‘proper’ artist. And so he is, by many. But sadly for Mucha even more people are familiar solely with his commercial work, which he only carried out to pay the bills and enable him to do his ‘real’ artwork.
Mucha’s mistake was to make his commercial art just as good as his ‘proper’ art, with the result that it has lasted phenomenally well.
He was an Art Nouveau artist, and the style has come in and out of fashion several times since his death. Mucha’s popularity has waxed and waned with it. But whenever it’s ‘in’, so is Mucha. He’s everywhere at the moment, on calendars, stationery, and even biscuit tins.
He’d probably hate this article, because it concentrates on his commercial art, in particular what are perhaps some of the loveliest paintings ever made to sell transport. Although his commercial output was substantial, he completed just the three transport adverts. But he invented the style that would be adopted as the trademark of the Paris Métro, and which would influence Leslie Green’s UERL underground stations in London, so he is thoroughly worthy of inclusion here. In terms of quantity he might not have had the biggest impact, but in terms of quality his influence was immense.
So far in this occasional series of artists who have depicted transport, we’ve looked at Impressionists (the Pissarros, Van Gogh and Monet) or proto-Impressionists (Turner). They captured scenes and people as they came across them, quickly and with honesty, as much concerned with the mood of the time and place they were painting as whether or not it was conventionally attractive.
Mucha was nothing like that.
He was an Art Nouveau artist, though he rejected the label himself. His paintings are simulataneously highly realistic and also highly stylised. They very often feature women illustrated with forensic and highly realistic detail in terms of their faces and bodies. Yet these same women are often depicted against backgrounds of stylised plant shapes, arranged in circular patterns framing the subject. Hair and clothing (usually flowing robes) is also stylised, depicted in a way that would be impossible (or at least extraordinarily difficult) to arrange in real life. Mucha’s paintings were made with enormous care and consideration down to the very last fine detail.
These are not scenes and people captured from life. These are women artfully posed for maximum aesthetic impact.
And they were very often used to sell biscuits.
Mucha was born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1860. He started out as a youngster decorating stage sets, and later moved to Vienna to do similar work for a theatre company. He moved to Paris in 1887, at the height of Impressionism, but that artistic movement seems to have passed him by completely.
In 1894/95 he completed the painting that would make him a French sensation. At short notice, he completed a poster advert for a play in which famous actor Sarah Bernhardt was performing. It depicted her in the lead role of Gismonda. Posted all over Paris, it made his name, and Bernhardt put him under contract. He also became highly sought after by other companies, who wanted some of the same Mucha magic to rub off on them. These included companies selling chocolate, champagne, biscuits (as already mentioned), beer (ditto), cigarette papers and baby milk.
One early client was the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée, which commissioned Mucha in 1897 to produce a poster promoting train travel to the south east of France.
There might be other railway posters which are more technically accurate (anything by Terence Cuneo for British Railways), bolder (practically anything Tom Purvis ever produced for the LNER), more clever (Man Ray for London Transport) or more quotable (“No need to ask a p’liceman“). But when it comes to sensual gorgeousness there has never been anything to hold a candle to it. All the Mucha characteristics are there: a beautiful woman, flowing tendrils of hair and clothing, and stylised floral backgrounds (arranged to suggest a railway wheel?).
Look at the lady with her hopeful expression. She’s imploring you to come to Monte Carlo, or to take her there with you. She’s more or less fully dressed but let’s face it, this is a sexy poster and sex sold then just like it sells now. Although it’s not usually used to sell public transport these days.
[There is an earlier railway poster sometimes attributed to Mucha, Luchon of 1895 (which can be seen at WikiArt). However, it is not clear that Mucha is definitely the artist and this poster has also been attributed to Eugène Grasset (Ellridge (2001): p53). To be honest, it doesn’t feel quite like a Mucha work. For a start, the main subject is a man.]
The whiplash curve stylings of the backgrounds of Mucha’s paintings would effectively define French Art Nouveau at the end of the 19th Century. It was a curvaceous style much imitated, not least by Hector Guimard in his entrances to the new Parisian Métro stations which started to appear from 1900. It makes an interesting comparison with the more restrained, geometric Art Nouveau of Vienna, which can still be seen on various Stadtbahn stations there.
The Art Nouveau style Mucha had ushered in dominated the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris, where Mucha provided artwork for the Bosnia and Herzegovina pavilion. He always viewed himself as a Czech artist, however, rather than Art Nouveau, despite the fact that today his style is seen as epitomising Paris in the early 20th Century.
Nor were railway companies the only transport-related firms who wanted a bit of Mucha style to help sell their products. In a time before widespread car ownership, it is perhaps less surprising than it might otherwise be to find that bicycle manufacturers were keen clients. I don’t know about you, but I slightly regret that bike ownership is no longer seen as being this glamorous:
Waverley Cycles was an American company. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that the hammer and anvil in the foreground symbolised the tough manufacturing standards of this brand, but I’ve completely lost the reference. Unfortunately, whatever the strength of the bikes, the lady’s dress straps appear rather less robust, and her dress appears to be in danger of falling off. Only the handlebars of the bike can be seen, but that’s not really the point. The idea that Mucha is selling is that you either want to be cycling with someone like this, or you would like to think you are someone like this.
Waverley Cycles wasn’t the only cycle manufacturer which employed Mucha for its adverts. Here is Cycles Perfecta (a British company this time (see here)) seducing you into buying one of their machines:
With the lady’s hair flowing in the breeze (though the bicycle must be at rest unless she wants her hair to catch in the front wheel) Mucha defines the exhilaration of bike travel. It’s not perhaps the most practical clothing for a bike ride, but you’ll have realised by now that practicality wasn’t really the point of Mucha’s paintings. Beauty, on the other hand, was.
As he got older, Mucha tried to move away from his advertisement work. Immediately after the First World War he designed stamps and banknotes for Czechoslovakia. He then became increasingly selective about the commerical work he undertook. He returned to Czechoslovakia and spent most of his time working on his great project, The Slav Epic, a series of 20 enormous paintings in identifiably Mucha style, illustrating the history of the Slav people. It was his proudest achievement, yet you’ll almost certainly have seen his champagne and biscuit adverts rather than reproductions of this enormous and ambitious work.
He died in 1939 of pneumonia shortly after his arrest and subsequent release by the Gestapo. The Nazis had recently invaded Czechoslovakia and they considered his work degenerate. The millions of people today who continue to enjoy Mucha’s work have proved them to be as wrong in this as they were in everything else.
Bibliography and further reading
Ellridge, Arthur (2001): Mucha: The Triumph of Art Nouveau. Terrail: Paris
Ormiston, Rosalind (2007) Alphonse Mucha: Masterworks. Flame Tree Publishing, London
The Mucha Foundation’s website, here