Artist profile: Mucha – The Slav Epic

Every month, I profile an artist who inspires my own art,
in several segments.

My last post on Alphonse Mucha and my last post of the year is also my 300th post! Whoo hoo!

I am convinced that the development of every nation may proceed with success only if it grows organically and continuously form the nation’s own roots and that for the preservation of this continuity, knowledge of its historical past is indispensable.

Mucha had always dreamed of creating a series of paintings celebrating the Slavic peoples but decided to go ahead with it in 1899, after painting murals for the Pavilion of Bosnia-Herzegovina for the Paris Exhibition of 1900. After securing funding from American businessman Charles Richard Crane, he began painting in 1910.

(Charles Richard Crane was virulently anti-Semitic and admired Hitler. I think it’s pretty ironic that he funded The Slav Epic, yet Mucha died as a direct result of being arrested by the Nazis.)

Mucha working on The Slav Epic, 1920
Mucha working on The Slav Epic, 1920

Mucha consulted historians and visited places of significance in Russia and Eastern Europe. He also rented out a section of a castle to work on the paintings, several of which are over 25 feet wide. When he finished in 1926, after nearly fifteen years of work, he had painted twenty canvases. In the meantime, in 1918, the Slavs won their independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (when it fell after World War I) and formed an independent country, Czechoslovakia.

The themes he explores include pride in Slavic cultural values, oppression by outside forces, and unity through religion. The events depicted begin in the third century and continue through the Middle Ages to the 1800s.

The Slav Epic paintings are quite different from the Art Nouveau style for which Mucha is famous. While his Art Nouveau people are realistic, they do not always have the shadows and highlights of fully-modeled figures and can seem slightly cartoonish; in The Slav Epic, the people and environments are totally lifelike. There are also none of the geometric features that are the hallmark of his Art Nouveau works. (Geometric features do appear via architecture, however.)

I chose the paintings below based on how visually interesting they are. You can visit The Slav Epic: The Magnum Opus of Alphonse Mucha and The Mucha Foundation to see all of them, with commentary.

The Slav Epic #3
The Slav Epic #3

#3: The Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy in Great Moravia: Praise the Lord in Your Native Tongue (1912)
This painting is about the preservation of Slav language in the 800s, in the face of German missionary activity. The composition is odd, with levitating figures and the young man in the foreground, directly addressing the viewer. With his circle and fist, he represents Slavic unity.
The Slav Epic #13
The Slav Epic #13

#13: The Hussite King Jiří z Podĕbrad: Treaties are to be Observed (1923)
This scene takes place in the 1400s. The (elected) Czech king and a cardinal from Rome are about to have it out. Czech religion started to diverge from Catholicism in the 1400s with the popularity of Jan Hus, the first Catholic Church reformer (who was burned at the stake). King Jiří refuses to bow to Rome’s authority.
The Slav Epic #18
The Slav Epic #18

#18: The Oath of Omladina under the Slavic Linden Tree: The Slavic Revival (1926)
In the 1890s, a Slav youth organization called Omladina formed. In this imagined scene, members of the group swear allegiance to Slavia, a goddess figure that I assume represents the Slavic peoples (much like Britannia represents Great Britain). Mucha placed his children, Jaroslava and Jiří, in the foreground (Jaroslava plays a harp or lyre). A few figures in this work are not complete, and this painting was never exhibited while Mucha was alive.
The Slav Epic #19
The Slav Epic #19

#19: The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia: Work in Freedom is the Foundation of a State (1914)
Russia abolished serfdom much, much later that the rest of Europe – in 1861! This painting depicts a crowd of regular people, anxious about what this sweeping social and economic change means for their lives. St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin loom in the background, partially obscured by fog; the splendor of the architecture contrasts with the poverty of the crowd.

In 1928, Mucha donated The Slav Epic to the city of Prague (the capital of Czechoslovakia) and the paintings were displayed in Trade Fair Palace. Mucha died in 1939 after his arrest and interrogation by the Nazis, and The Slav Epic canvases were rolled up and stored for safety. We are very lucky that the entire collection wasn’t stolen by the Nazis or harmed by bombs.

Poster advertising the 1928 exhibit
Poster advertising the 1928 exhibit

The Epic was not shown to the public for twenty-four years, as Mucha wasn’t popular with the communist government that took over in 1948. In 1963, after Jaroslava restored the canvases, nine went on view in the chateau in the town of Moravsky Krumlov; five years later, all were available to the public. They remained there for almost fifty years, until Prague officials demanded they return to the capital city.

The paintings were moved to the National Gallery’s Veletržní Palace in Prague in 2012 even though thousands of people protested the move. Prague’s reasoning was that the Epic needed restoration and that “more people” would see it in Prague than in Moravsky Krumlov; Prague also asserted that it was Charles Richard Crane, not Mucha, who owned the paintings and donated them to the city.

Moravsky Krumlov’s citizens, as well as the Czech Republic’s president, were not happy with the move. Not only does it rob them of tourist dollars, the Epic is a source of pride for the town, especially since it had taken care of the paintings for five decades.

Right now, the paintings are still in Prague, but nobody knows where they will go after 2014.

I would like to thank you for joining me this month. I learned a great deal about Mucha’s life and works, as well as European history and politics. I hope you enjoyed learning with me!

Other parts in the Alphonse Mucha artist profile series
Theatre and advertisements
Art posters
3D works



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