”The mission of the artist is to encourage people to love beauty and harmony” – this is the underlying principle by which Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha created his work, explored in Walker Art Gallery’s current exhibition Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty. This rule led to the birth of Mucha’s distinctive style, whose influence on art history and his contemporaries is examined throughout the show; beautiful women in elegant poses, framed with harmonious motifs inspired by nature.
The exhibition spans all three rooms of the gallery’s temporary exhibition space and makes good use of this natural division. Split into three main areas – introduction, development and influence – the exhibition charts the artist’s early work in advertising, his influence on British style, and demonstrates his experimentation with other mediums such as photography and political paintings. Although this trio of spaces help to isolate the themes of the exhibition, the effect on the visitor journey is apparent, and at times the curatorial flow jars slightly with the segmented route.
The exhibition begins with Mucha’s early theatre posters featuring Sarah Bernhardt. These works demonstrate how he progressed from using a single, sensuous figure, to later combine hidden allegories, motifs and patterns to communicate a narrative. This is further explored in the second exhibition space, which focuses on the development of Mucha’s style to convey meaning for the purpose of advertising. Such message-laden motifs are expanded upon in the investigation of his product packaging design and advertorial artwork, so the visitor can see how his style was later adapted for the market.
Attention to his distinct visual language further explores his fascination with advertising, with the third and final room using well know pieces such as ‘Zodiac’ (1896) and ‘Réverie’ (1898). Here, curators also draw attention to the references to Slavic folk art in Mucha’s work, which played a part in creating his instantly recognisable designs.
The inclusion of parts of ‘The Slav Epic’ (Slovanská epopej), a series of twenty huge paintings depicting the history of the Czech and the Slavic people paintings offers a different perspective of Mucha, revealing a more serious and political artist than we are used to contemplating. These works retain the aesthetics of beauty in harmonious design true of his commercial work, and bestow his output with an importance previously overlooked.
Claire Walker is a writer based in Wigan.
Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty is on display at Walker Art Gallery until 29 October.