When I went to Prague this summer, I went for everything but its art reputation.
In a city where beer is cheaper than water and homes are sandwiched between massive gothic cathedrals, most of my attention was focused away from the world’s only museum dedicated to the Czech Art Noveau artist Alphonse Mucha. Nonetheless, stumbling upon this hidden gemprovided me with a truly unique experience.
The building is unassuming, with only a subtle green sign above the door telling you what you’re getting into. I got there just as it began heavily raining. The weather, combined with the somberly lit interior of the museum, meant we basically needed to squint to even see the artwork.
The exhibition is split into seven sections which are based around the evolution of Mucha’s style, whether its early Art Nouveau panels to his Parisian film posters or his later years of nationalist Czech and Slavic paintings, the exhibit shows his distinctive style.
Mucha was born in Moravia and spent much of life around Europe. He studied art in Munich and later lived in Paris while developing the style of Art Nouveau.
The style rejected earlier religious and monarchical themes that dominated at the time. Instead, it explored the role of Christianity in everyday life, without all the technical expertise of earlier generations. After all, art nouveau is just French for ‘new art’.
He applied this pared down approach to his landmark work — posters featuring stage actress Sarah Bernhardt.
One of these posters for the play ‘’ shows Bernhardt on full display in the idealized beauty she presented onstage, dressed like an ancient Byzantine with a wreath in her hair.
Mucha’s posters gave the hand drawn impressions of a sketch while still remaining sophisticated works of art. They’re life-size and hung up on the wall so it looks as though the subjects are staring down at you.
After seeing several similar works walking around the museum, I was awe of this man’s capabilities for capturing something in women. Through his work, Mucha shows their personalities and interests—not society’s—that had never been explored before.
His work lacked the objectification and control of women that many of the previous centuries of art had instilled.
Like a lot of students abroad, Mucha eventually got sick of loitering in foreign countries with bad exchange rates and returned home to what was then Czechoslovakia. Those 20 or so years would be the country’s last as an independent state until the fall of the U.S.S.R.
Reflecting this history, his work turned toward Slavic and Czech national identity after his return.
This phase is at its most evocative in the last room of the museum, which featured a large painting called ‘Star’. The painting depicts a Slavic woman in the Siberian tundra looking up helplessly to a shining star. Her face is bent and sorrowful and her palms are outstretched.
The painting was produced in 1923 and is considered a critical response to the Bolshevik revolution. When I looked at this woman, I felther pain—tthe plaintive pain that comes from having no opportunities to better your situation and life.
Through paintings like ‘Star’, Mucha showed a side of Europe forgotten by the constant revolutions. Slavic people weren’t hopeful for the shining light of communism because they’d been through it all before.
Mucha wasn’t immune to that trend. Living in Prague at the beginning of the Nazi occupation was disastrous for the artist with Jewish and Slavic roots. He took ill after he was questioned by the secret police of Nazi-Germany, Gestapo, and died, oddly enough, on my birthday — another thing to remember as I count my wrinkles.
He lived the life of a carefree artist in Paris until his artistic awakening paralleled the birth of Czech national identity. I left the museum with a much better grasp of art in the Czech Republic, because that’s how profound an influence Mucha had.
Although surprised to come across the museum as I strolled the streets of Prague, learning about Mucha opened my eyes to a whole other side of the country’s history.
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