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Venturing through near-hidden gates into the lush landscaped gardens of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, situated high on the spectacular East Cliff, Bournemouth, one immediately understands why this venue was chosen to hold a world-exclusive exhibition on the Czech-born artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-–1939), whose name is synonymous with the fin-de-siècle style of Art Nouveau.
The building, erected 1897–1901, was commissioned by wealthy Bournemouth hotelier Merton Russell-Cotes (1835–1921), as a birthday gift for his wife Annie. Their house, now the museum and gallery, is a time capsule of opulent Victorian taste, containing elements of Art Nouveau in architectural design, interior decoration, furniture and paintings. Over 1,000 objects – including the second-largest collection of Japanese art in the UK – and notable paintings such as Venus Verticordia (1864-8) by Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Albert Moore’s masterpiece Midsummer, 1887, fill this historic house. Four galleries were added from 1920–6, to house the Russell-Cotes’ growing art collection.
This step into the past is an extraordinary experience and a wonderful preparation for the intimate exhibition ‘Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty’ (on until 27 September 2015), which is on display in two gallery spaces. It is the first UK exhibition in 15 years devoted solely to Mucha’s work. The focus is on his depictions of women, his ideals of beauty, which dominate decorative posters and magazine illustrations, in addition to commercial advertisements. These feature a diverse range of commodities from champagne to baby food, soap and bicycles, cigarette papers and holiday destinations and design packaging. The exhibition is divided into three parts. ‘Women – Icons and Muses’ focuses on early commercial work; ‘Le Style Mucha – A Visual Language’, explores his approach to modernism (seen clearly in Reverie, 1897/8); and ‘Beauty – The Power of Inspiration’, which includes his intensely patriotic painting Song of Bohemia, 1918.
One highlight of the show is the collection of original theatre posters created for the French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), for this is where Mucha’s path to international fame was launched in Paris in 1894. That road to success began in and around his birthplace, Ivancice, Moravia when he chose to become a professional artist. Eventually Mucha, financially supported by a wealthy patron Count Karl Khuen-Belasi, moved to Paris in 1887 to study art at Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi.
A year later his allowance was stopped and he sought work as an illustrator, with some success. And then, at Christmas 1894, working through proofs for a friend at the printers Lemercier, a rush-order came for a poster to be designed quickly by 1 January, for Sarah Bernhardt’s play Gismonda at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris. Mucha was given the commission and produced a stunning graphic design, narrow in shape and double the height of regular theatre posters, which allowed a full-length image of Bernhardt in costume. It was created in pastel colours – unusual for posters – with Bernhardt’s name drawn in a halo effect around her head.
Bernhardt loved it, had it posted up around Paris, and ordered extra copies as theatre-goer souvenirs. The posters were stolen from hoardings in the city, such was its popularity. Following this, Mucha found himself much in demand for decorative panels, posters, advertisements, and graphic designs, from jewellery to biscuit tins. His design ‘signature’ of beautiful women, often semi-dressed with flowing Medusa-like hair, became known as Le Style Mucha. Many of these works are on display in this exhibition.
Bernhardt signed a six-year contract with Mucha for play promotions, stage and costume design. This was a hugely successful partnership, boosting her career even further and making his name. Some of the original posters are here, including Gismonda (1894), La Dame aux Camélias (1896), Lorenzaccio (1896), and Tragique Histoire d’Hamlet, Prince de Denmark (1899). As a contrast, a much later poster, 1918–28 Poster for the 10th Anniversary of the Independence of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, 1928, is informed by Mucha’s cycle of 20 monumental paintings ‘The Slav Epic’ (1910–28) (National Gallery, Prague), illustrating the heroic history and mythology of the Slavic nation, a subject close to his heart.
Other highlights are Mucha’s photographs of his models in the studio, where one can see the poses informing his work. There are also sensual works, such as an advertisement for Job cigarette papers. Here Mucha illustrated the pleasure of cigarette smoking from a female perspective, with a cigarette held by a sensuous young woman, thus attracting the attention of both male and female consumers. There are sultry bicycle advertisements, with focus on female cyclists, such as Waverley Cycles (1892), where barely-there handlebars mirror the shape of the fallen straps of a barely dressed woman. There is the stunning girl with long hair in arabesques of curls draped in abundance over the handlebars in Cycles Perfecta (1902). These are just a few examples of Le Style Mucha from a multi-talented artist enjoying an overdue revival. Well worth a trip to Bournemouth before 27 September.