I signed up for Pinterest a few months ago, and if you haven’t checked it out, it’s really a blast (and is not, as my husband once asked, a cult.) I love pinning images of amazing art that I find all over the web, but even more I love seeing what art other people pin.
One thing I noticed right away was the enormous popularity among the Pinteresti of Alphonse Mucha.
Mucha (the name is pronounced “moo-ha”) was a Czech artist who spent the majority of his career in Paris. He is famous for his distinct style that has come to characterize Art Nouveau.
His paintings, drawings and illustrations has a luscious organic quality. They swirl, slip, twist, curve, spiral. There’s not a straight line to be seen.
Mucha is best known for his paintings of women, and they’re all stunning beauties, usually draped with rippling hair. There’s a curious lack of gravity in his works–look at the figure in “Spring:” what is she standing on? Her feet seem poised just above the ground. This is a very Mucha trait, a sort of weightlessness to his settings.
Mucha trained in Moravia (part of what is now the Czech Republic) and worked in theatrical design and decorative art. He attended the Munich Academy of Fine Art, then moved to Paris in 1887, where he studied at esteemed art schools such as the Academie Julien. His breakthrough came in 1894, when on a visit to a print shop he learned the Theater de la Renaissance was in desperate need of a poster to promote an upcoming appearance of the great actress Sarah Bernhardt. Mucha volunteered to create a poster within two weeks, and right on schedule the poster was printed and displayed around the city. It attracted immediate attention and secured Mucha’s reputation as a cutting-edge decorative artist. He became the go-to guy for posters, advertisements, book illustrations–even theater sets and wallpaper.
He popularized what was known in France as Art Nouveau, in Germany as Jugendstil, in Russia as Modern, and in Austria-Hungary as Secession art. There were regional differences, of course, but all of these movements arose about the same time and all shared an interest in organic, flowing forms. Art Nouveau sought harmony between the modern world and the natural world. This was an era of rapid technological progress and the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, the first time in history that people could live their lives with little concern for nature or connection to natural rhythms. Art Nouveau, like the related Arts and Crafts movement in Britain and North American, called for a renewal of ties to nature.
What’s odd about Art Nouveau in general and Mucha in particular is that despite the movement’s popularity at the time and it’s renewed popularity today, you can make it through any number of art history classes and hear absolutely nothing about it.
There’s a sense that Mucha isn’t fine art–that Art Nouveau isn’t fine art. The movement usually gets skipped right over. Look at an art timeline for 1880-1910, the time period for Art Nouveau, and you’ll see the tail end of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, and the beginnings of Modernism, particularly Fauvism.
Why is this?
Partly it’s because Art Nouveau was so popular and was used so widely in commerical art. Mucha produced ads, posters, illustrations. He was a commercial artist for most of his career. He also created non-commercial works–serious art, you might say–and claimed he preferred works that didn’t sell anything but rather communicated a spiritual message, but nevertheless it’s his posters for Sarah Bernhardt and ads for bicycles and Nestle that people remember. There’s a long-standing preference for non-commercial art over commercial, I suppose for good reason. One is more “pure” than the other. On the other hand, the preference often veers into pure snobbery and takes a selective view of the artistic evidence. Toulouse-Lautrec designed posters at the same time Mucha did, but Toulouse-Lautrec isn’t considered primarily a commercial artist.
I think, however, that the biggest reason Mucha is ignored is that he falls outside of the narrative of 19th and 20th century art that we’ve been taught. Most people have probably come across this Alfred Barr timeline at some point:
It’s famous because it captures the story of the rise of Modern art as we like to tell it. Alfred Barr was the first direct of the Museum of Modern Art and an influential critic and art historian. He deserves a lot of credit for promoting modern art in the United States and making it accessible to wide audiences. He prepared this timeline when the museum put together a major exhibition in 1936 of Abstract and Cubist art; the timeline, which was the cover of the exhibition catalog, was his way of making sense of the different strains of modernism and their relationships to one another.
That story begins with Impressionis (which would be just above Barr’s timeline), moves through Post-Impressionism (called Neo-Impressionism on the timeline) with Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, to Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism.
This is a completely true and valid way of understanding and explaining 19th and 20th century art–but only one strain of 19th and 20th century art. This is the strain rooted in the rebellion of Impressionism that moves to increasing abstraction. The subject is increasingly downplayed–fractured by the Cubists, approached purely through emotion by the Expressionists, imagined by the Surrealists, rejected altogether by the Abstract Expressionists (who would be further down the timeline, around 1945.) In this timeline, art becomes increasingly intellectual, cerebral, theoretical.
But there was another strain of art in this same period that didn’t make it on to Barr’s timeline nor into your average intro to Art History course. That strain would begin with Neoclassicism, feed in the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement, and arrive at Art Nouveau, Jugendstil and Secession. German and Austrian art would get more attention in this timeline–Gustav Klimt, another Pinterest favorite, would get a prominent place. I’m not sure entirely where this timeline would go from there–I’d have to think about it’s windings, but in the U.S. it would probably include Regionalism. It would end up today at the imaginative art of painters such as Daniel Merriam.
This would be the timeline for art and artists that rejected abstraction–that chose to continue to explore the subject and retained allegiance to aesthetics. This is the timeline for art that isn’t as intellectual or dependent on theory or concept.
In my opinion, both timelines–Barr’s real one and my imaginary one–are valid. Both tell a true story about art. I think that’s been overlooked–in the art world’s embrace of the legacy of Picasso, Matisse, Pollock et. al. it’s given William Morris, Mucha and Klimt short-shrift.
It’s the average art lover, the person just putting pictures he or she likes onto Pinterest, where interest in these artists remains.
I’ve got more to say about this–I’ve got a lot swirling in my head, including a recent trip to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the difference between the art at arts festivals and the art at museums. I didn’t realize Mucha would open such an intellectual can of worms! And I’m liking the idea of an alternate timeline–I’m going to have to see if one exists, and if not, maybe create one.
So look to see more on this topic. And let me know what you think. Have we been unfair to Mucha, and are the Pinterest-ers right? Or have art historians been right to give more attention to the movements Barr emphasized? Let me know what you think!
And meanwhile, enjoy one more Mucha–credit where it’s due, this is a lovely work:
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