IN THE dim, deep stillness of the *Hangaram* Art Museum's exhibition hall, each of Alphonse Mucha’s 325 art pieces exudes an air of grace and luxury. Within the golden frames stand godly figures of women, cast in exquisite molds whose statuesque poses suggest that they have been momentarily frozen in splashes of colors. The women are too beautiful and fantastical to be real; the perfect smoothness of their skins, along with the cascading, thick hair and the flowing robes, renders deluxe delicacy, while remarkably sophisticated details of the ornaments and the lush flowers in the background create a sublime atmosphere. Style upon style of intricacy, these figures are breathtakingly vivid and entrancing, a wondrous elegance in plain sight— such are the creations of Mucha.
The Serendipitous Beginning
Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) is one of the most influential artists of Art Nouveau, an international movement of the early 20th century that resisted traditional restrictions of the norm and aimed for novel ideas. He is well-known for his unique style of art, later coined as ‘le style Mucha’ (translated as ‘Mucha style’), that portray seductive feminine models with elaborately decorative backgrounds that combine organic objects such as flowers and vines in foliate forms. It was during the time of the Belle Époque when economic prosperity allowed the arts to flourish that Mucha started his independent artistic career. When the sponsorship from the German Count Khuen-Belasi suddenly ended, he was forced to enter the local commercial arts industry where he started designing for various mercantile purposes.
This seemingly disastrous chain of events, however, turned out to be serendipitous as it freed the artist from the classical norms of contemporary art and enabled him to develop his own personal aesthetic and philosophical style that eventually served as an inspirational chrysalis for the Art Nouveau. While working as a commercial artist, Mucha designed a revolutionary poster for *Gismonda*, a play acted out by Sarah Bernhardt who was an internationally renowned French actress at the time. The poster's innovative composition, transparent yet solid pastel colors and mysterious Byzantine mosaic effects emerged as an artistic breakthrough, immediately catapulting Mucha to stardom.
Soon, 'le style Mucha' surpassed the realm of fine arts, and its influence extended to architectural decorations, jewelry ornamentations, and other commercial areas. Mucha came to be characterized as an icon of Art Nouveau, breaking the preconception of art as a privileged form of entertainment fancied exclusively by higher social classes. He destroyed the boundaries between art and business, beauty and function, and most significantly, “high art” and “low art,” presenting the arts as a means of communication and enrichment of life available to all members of the society. With the Industrial Revolution, which paved way for the development of advanced printing technology and color lithography, the artist could mass-produce his artworks at cheap prices and experiment with new mediums of art.
Looking Through the Opaque Fame: Mucha to Dive Right Into
"Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau & Utopia" introduces Mucha as an artist while comprehensively narrating his personal life and manifesting how he had matured both as an artist and as a human being. In fact, one of the main purposes of this event as a private exhibition is to establish an accurate, complete impression of Mucha as a well-rounded virtuoso. Park Gi-yeon (Exhibition Team, Culture & I Leaders), an organizer of the exhibition, explains, “In many aspects, Alphonse Mucha, along with his unique style of art, has been relatively unknown to Koreans, which makes this exhibition the first official introduction of Mucha to the local audience. Hence, during the entire process of planning, including that of selecting the artworks for the exhibition, our team spent much time ruminating upon the purpose and motive with which we would present Alphonse Mucha as well as the first impression of Art Nouveau that we want to leave the Korean audience with.” In the end, it was decided that the exhibition was to become a revelation of Mucha’s personality, doctrines, and a range of multifarious talents in addition to his much prevalent image as a decorative artist. “Alphonse Mucha was not merely an artist,” Park adds thoughtfully. “He was a versatile genius whose compassionate heart embraced his country, Czechoslovakia, and dreamt of world peace.”
Art so truthful and pure
To Mucha, art was much more than a mere stylistic element as he devoutly adhered to his creative vision of unveiling a spiritual utopia of harmony; he asserted, “The purpose of my work was… to construct, to unite people.… We must all hope that humanity will draw together, and the more people understand each other, the easier this will be.” It was amidst the pessimistic, decadent social atmosphere of the late 19th century, saturated with dissipated images of femme fatale, that ‘le style Mucha’ of glowing vitality and celestial beauty was spawned. Reminiscent of Transcendentalism, which emphasizes the importance of nature in reaching spirituality, Mucha’s art is aimed at connecting with the viewers’ inner selves. That is to say, his art, like a silent ripple that glides over a smooth surface of water or a musical note that sweetly rustles the air around it. Each piece elicits instinctive empathy and finds a home in the audience’s hearts, ringing the undercurrent of sub-consciousness.
Mucha was also an artist who firmly believed in the power of art and its strength to shape history. As a patriot, he sought to spiritually unite his countrymen to work for the Slavonic nations’ independence through his piece "The Slav Epic." This ambitious project consists of 20 mega-size artworks that trace the history of Slavonic people and was meant to be a “symbolistic evocation of [the Slavic people’s] past and invocation of their highest values,” celebrating the Slavic love for both peace and unity and lamenting the oppressive foreign domination.
After the birth of Czechoslovakia, Alphonse Mucha’s pacifistic vision expanded to embrace philanthropic empathy towards humanity. During his final years, he launched a new (but unfinished due to his death in 1939) project, a triptych that portrays the concepts of reason, wisdom and love— the three attributes of humanity that he identified as crucial for its progress— and a testimony to himself that art will forever remain as truthful and pure as it can be.
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As it turns out, there is much more behind the gentle, ravishing feminine figures; every little corner of the artworks—from the slightest stroke of a brush on their rosy-pink cheeks to the glimpse of light dearly held in their deep blue eyes— is varnished with the artist’s deepest philanthropic affection and an unfurled dream. There also lies in them a heritage of a trembling heart passionate to explore the depths of human souls. Even after all these years, Mucha's passion continues to breathe as there still exist moments when somewhere, sometime in this world a person sees one of his works and catches a thread of inspiration that untangles all the ecstasies, efforts, and contemplations poured into the work. It is that one moment of awe, that one thread of realization that reveals an authentic, tunneling view into the heartwarming story of a genius. And so it goes, such is the immortality of Alphonse Mucha.
Place: Hangaram Art Museum
Ticket Price: \12,000