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Reading Beyond "Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty"

Julian Adoff

The alluring, sensuous femme fatales that adorn Czech artist Alfons Maria Mucha’s (1860-1939) images have played the central role in much of the scholarship surrounding his work—especially after the art nouveau revival in the late 1960s. After decades of obscurity, artists in San Francisco began appropriating Mucha’s femme fatales for use in their prints associated with the psychedelic movement. Not coincidentally, the psychedelic movement was accompanied by a changing landscape in feminist movements, potentially mirroring the cultural shifts that transformed ideas of femininity during the Belle Époque (the period of western history from 1871-1914). One can see this changing style of femininity depicted in the work of art nouveau artists such as Mucha, carried over to ephemeral works from the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. Within the many narratives of Mucha's practice explored in Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty (there are many presented in this catalog for a retrospective styled exhibition) I will focus here on the coverage of the culture of changing femininity during Mucha's lifetime within the book, look at who contributed to these changes in culture, discuss examples of the artistic depictions of this changing culture, and so on; hopefully commenting on Mucha's place within these discussions in the process. I will also incorporate the writings of Griselda Pollock, Linda Nochlin, and others within the feminist art history discourse to comment on this narrative thread of the catalog as well as the writings within.

The exhibition, “Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty,” took place in multiple locations across the United Kingdom. The curators decided to connect Mucha's work and Paris life to British and Scottish artistic movements—both through inclusion of works from British museum collections and commission of Great-Britain-focused essays for inclusion in the catalog. The essays offered great accounts of the Pre-Raphaelite school, with their male dominated and controlled depictions of women, as well as an account of the Glasgow School, where they valued equal access to arts education for women—evident in the fact that the major artists in the school, collectively referred to as “The Four” were comprised of two sisters and their eventual spouses. Plates from these stylistic movements and others from the larger British arts are included with plates surveying Mucha’s practice. Through this expanded reading of the catalog, I will place Mucha's practice, and depiction of women, somewhere in the middle of a spectrum of equal representation; with the Glasgow School at one end (the most equal for the time) and the Pre-Raphaelites at the other (the least equal).

The plates of Mucha’s work (which most likely mirrored what work was included in the exhibit) were exactly what one would expect for a career-spanning overview of his work. After a brief introduction by curator Tomoko Sato that contains most of the standard biographical information on Mucha, images of his art are divided into three sections: “Women—Icons and Muses”, “Le Style Mucha—A Visual Message”, and “Beauty—Power for Inspiration”. The introduction discussed Mucha’s artistic biography through an emphasis on the development of his artistic philosophy and his concepts of beauty. Sato stressed that there has been little emphasis on the theoretical sides of Mucha’s artistic practice, stating that this aspect was “obscured by his huge success in the genre conventionally categorized as ‘commercial art’ as opposed to ‘fine art.’” I would agree with this claim, as much of the writing on Mucha and his art stems from the same handful of sources from the 1960s and ‘70s. Sato identified Mucha’s personal writings and the Mucha Archive as keys to unlock the theoretical aspects of his practice. One of the largest barriers to accessing this material—and probably also one of the main reasons behind the lack of emphasis on these areas of his practice—is the lack of published materials that includes his personal writing. The main, if not only, example of this being his Lectures on Art book published in 1975. The introduction also discussed Mucha’s design strategies that stemmed from newer scientific and psychological knowledge of the age; such as his desire to create harmonious images by incorporating these new knowledge sources and through his careful attention to composition, proportion, and color.

Within the first section, “Women—Icons and Muses,” works from his collaborations with the actress Sarah Bernhardt are highlighted, stressing her role as a muse in defining his style; Sato claimed that, “in the creation of his artistic style it was Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923)—the Parisian superstar actress who earned the nickname ‘the Divine Sarah’—who catalysed this force.” The poster Gismonda, Mucha's first poster, created for Bernhardt’s play by the same name, has often been described by writers as capturing Bernhard’s soul and not just her likeness. The curators utilize this description throughout the book to describe his practice of depicting women as a departure from the standard art nouveau artist. The small written blurb that opens the section on women begins, “Women form the central part of Mucha’s style. Beautiful, wholesome, sensuous yet innocent, they allure viewers with their magnetic charms, yet their serene eyes and benevolent expressions are the antithesis of the images of decadent, dangerous women represented by other late nineteenth-century artists.” The reader is confronted with this dichotomy when they read the articles about the Pre-Raphaelites and the Glasgow Four (the later being evident by seeing the criticism of the posters designed by the Macdonald sisters)—I will return to these articles in more detail later.

MF_Gimonda
Alfons Mucha, 1894
Gismonda

Overall, the descriptions of Mucha’s images do include a lot of the same words that the curators use to describe the Pre-Raphaelite paintings that are also present in the catalog: sensuous, beautiful, stylized, nymph like, and so on. By outlining Mucha’s artistic philosophy in the introduction, I believe that the curators are hoping to draw a cautious parallel between Mucha and the Pre-Raphaelites. They want to distinguish between the two from there. The article on the Pre-Raphaelites mention numerous times that models were often lovers of the artists. They present Mucha's women as part of something larger, these women do not operate to prove Mucha's masculinity, as they do for the Pre-Raphaelites. Drawn from his compiled lecture notes, which were published in 1975 in the volume Alphonse Mucha: Lectures on Art, Sato highlights Mucha’s reasoning for depicting beautiful women and the harmonies they bring. “The aim of art is to glorify beauty. And what is beauty? Beauty is the projection of moral harmonies on material and physical planes. On the moral plane, beauty addresses itself to the evolution of the spirit, and on the moral plane, it addresses itself to the refinement of the senses through which medium it reaches the soul.” In order to reach the soul with what Mucha describes as pure, moral harmony, Mucha aimed to use his depictions of women for the “goodness” of society; celebrating the harmonious workings of nature and elevate public morale, once again challenging the ideas of his contemporaries and their depictions of women as decadent and dangerous. On one level, I challenge this claim because of the stylistic aspects of Mucha’s women—especially within his depiction of the whiplash, curvilinear lines of the hair of his subjects. But, knowing how much Mucha’s work did defy and challenge that of his contemporaries, it is not a stretch to say that on some level, this claim is not sincere.

The second section of Mucha’s plates, “Le Style Mucha—A Visual Message,” discusses how Mucha “created dynamic tensions within a consistent visual form, ” and how he centered the female body to guide the viewer through the beauty of the images he created. Le Style Mucha, the term used to describe Mucha’s particular version of art nouveau, relied on the inclusion of specific visual motifs to help Mucha communicate with the Paris public. For instance, we regularly see a circular halo behind the women he depicted in order to convey a harmonious message. In the images "Zodiac" and "Rêverie." Both images feature women with reddish-brown hair adorned with flowers and gemstones. Behind them, halos of floral and decorative motifs place a calming effect on the viewer. Each woman looks calm and at peace, the halo behind them having served its purpose. It is also important to note that these women also wear Moravian folk costumes, alluding to Mucha’s desire for peace in homeland (then controlled by the imperialist Austrians). This section also features multiple samples of his four part decorative panels—such as The Seasons, The Flowers, and The Arts. It is important to note that these decorative panels were created for and bought by the common Parisian. Printed on a variety of papers and in a variety of sizes, Mucha wanted to make sure that anyone could own his work and adorn their houses with these harmonious images—thereby bringing harmony to their own lives. Throughout the multitude of cyclical works such as these, he extends and connects his concepts of “The marvelous poem of the human body… and the music of lines and colours emanating from flowers, leaves and fruits.” Mucha saw the ability of the body, and its connection to nature, as more than a tool for depiction, but as a way to learn about beauty. In Mucha’s Lectures, he discussed that he would learn from the bodily form as a collaboration. Mucha would then translate this collaboration to his book Documents décoratifs. Within this book, he prepared for the viewer seventy-two plates highlighting his development of Le style Mucha— so that the art student and casual viewer could participate with this collaboration as well.

A perfect example of how the first two sections (“Women—Icons and Muses” and “Le Style Mucha—A Visual Message”) is the 1896 poster, "Job." We see a woman sitting in front of an arabesque background. One of the first elements we see is her voluptuous hair. This hair moves, curls, and bends in ways that are not at all natural, they are unreal. The way hair hangs off her arms defies gravity. This stylistic decision would lead critics at the time to call his hair “noodle hair” and make similar arguments I make here. One of the strangest qualities of this hair is its flatness when compared to the rest of the figure. The woman’s skin is highly modelled and natural while the hair sits animated, but lifelessly still. What does this say about Mucha’s depiction of female subjects? Paul Greenhalgh and Claire Allerton discuss the use of the line within art nouveau in an accompanying essay “Verve and Logic: The Lineage of Art Nouveau.” They connect this practice of abstraction to the prevalence of contradictions within art nouveau work. The modelled facial features and flat hair play out contradictions between the rational enlightenment and romantic symbolism and between nature and machine. It is within these contradictions that we see Mucha purposefully place his subject, for even though she has become a mixture between a human and mechanized, industrial being, she is at peace as she holds a burning cigarette in her hands. As a reader, I connect this idea of peace with Mucha’s desire to depict harmony. I ultimately draw the conclusion that Mucha had intended to show her peaceful nature within the trying times of industrialization. But one can still find troubling elements in the image.

The most troubling element of this image for me is that it is one of the few images of Mucha’s where the woman is not looking back at the viewer; she is the object of the male gaze. A majority of Mucha’s posters depict women looking back, confronting this gaze, but in Job, her eyelids are heavy and low, she is looking at nothing; some have gone as far as to say she is being depicted in a “cigarette-induced orgasm.” In “The ‘New Woman’ as Prometheus: Women Artists Depict Women Smoking,” Dolores Mitchell identified artistic depictions of smoking as a typical masculine activity during the nineteenth century; and once women began to be depicted smoking, they were symbolized as deviants. She discusses Mucha’s Job as an example of this; the woman “wields the phallic cigarette for her own pleasure;” her averted gaze drawing her into herself, to be consumed by the male audience. Here, my mind turns to traditional notions of the surveyor and surveyed, as present in John Berger’s 1972 Way of Seeing. He defines the male gaze as, “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Mitchell contrasts Mucha’s Job that typifies this male gaze to another Job poster made the same year, 1896, created by a female artist, Jane Atché. Atché did not depict this new, smoking woman as a dangerous, sexualized being as Mucha did. "Atché’s Job" does not give the viewer any clues of flirtation, provocation, or sexualized energies. She is not inhaling in the smoke as Mucha’s woman does. She is also fully clothed in a dress and cloak while Mucha’s depicts his new woman as provocative, with her skin colored dress, relying on her voluptuous hair to cover more of her body than her dress.

This concept of the male gaze is compounded by the inclusion of Sandra Penketh’s article “Beguiling Beauty: Aestheticism in Britain and Works from the Collection of the National Museums Liverpool.” It seems that the curators are attempting to distinguish Mucha’s depiction of women with that of the earlier, British Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelites contributed to the definition of femininity in art during the Belle Époque through their practice of aestheticism. Penketh defines the aestheticism movement’s goals (which lasted from about 1860-90), and that of the Brotherhood, as rooted in beauty. The artists did not make art in order to carry out a religious or political purpose, but only to depict what they believed was pure beauty. The author noted that even with this, the paintings of the Brotherhood carried deep emotive qualities that would influence the art nouveau style, as well as Mucha. Focusing primarily on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, the article brings to light some very interesting claims that differentiates Mucha’s depictions of women from theirs. First, when discussing Rossetti, Penketh says “From the 1860s women became the sole focus of his paintings…” These women, as we see in "Sibylla Palmifera," always had red lips and auburn-red hair; a look attributed to “Rossetti’s beauties” as the article calls them. The author notes that he was able to dedicate himself to studying his interests in poetic feelings and the ideal beauty in womanly attributes. It seems that the female form as an object to be consumed for his interests.

This claim is highlighted by Griselda Pollock’s “Women as Sign in Pre-Raphaelite Literature: The representation of Elizabeth Siddall,” a chapter in her book Vision & Difference. In this chapter, she tells the story of erasure of one Elizabeth Siddall, a model and later wife of Rossetti. Through Rossetti’s notes, and the writings of his brother, Pollock tells the story of how Siddall’s life as a painter was erased due to a misspelling of her name in these records. As such, they created a contradiction of woman as muse for, and object of, art celebrated by art historians and women as ignored producers.” Siddall became an object for Rossetti to confirm his masculinity; the “passive beautiful or erotic object of a creativity exclusively tied to the masculine.” Pollock claimed that he created her with his misspelling of her name in order to turn her into a sign that represented this fragile, feminine idea and stripped her of her humanity. Tied to the Victorian era ideas of femininity, the depictions of Siddall as this passive beauty only further exemplified the idea that Rossetti owned her. Pollock claimed there is an innate power in naming, and that through this, he is able to strip her of her humanity. She becomes the “beautiful creature” he writes about in his poetry and notes. Because she was also his wife, there is also a layer of ownership and confirmation of the artist’s own sexual desires. We see similar themes in Burne-Jones’s story told in the catalog essay. His painted females are also often referred to as “dreamy Burne-Jones Brides.” His painting, "The Tree of Forgiveness," features a naked man and women in an embrace in front of a tree. From Penketh’s commentary, we learn that Burne-Jones was in a scandalous love affair with the model used for this painting. He utilized the woman, Maria Zambaco, as a sign for his infatuation. He stripped her of her humanity so that he could depict her to meet his gaze.

We must also talk about the changing roles and depictions of women in the second half of the nineteenth century; with Paris at the center of these changing times. Sarah Blattner, in her article “Alphonse Mucha and the Emergence of the ‘New Woman’ during the Belle Époque (1871–1914)” discusses these changing, progressive ideas and places Mucha’s work partially in contrast to the Brotherhood’s images. The Pre-Raphaelite woman was described by Blattner as a modest maiden, meant to be passive, elegant, submissive, and sexually repressed. The women, such as Siddall mentioned above, would simply submissively accept their repressed fate as an object of the male gaze. With the Belle Époque (especially French art nouveau) this woman would become liberated. Mucha’s images, such as his Job poster I discussed above, would celebrate and depict the “symbolic emergence of the femme nouvelle” This shifting representation of the new woman, no longer submissive, repressed, and passive, was hereby liberated. With this liberated woman, the male viewer was present, activating their gaze through their fascination with the new sexuality. As opposed to Sato’s claim quoted at the beginning of this paper, where she claimed that Mucha’s women were not decadent and dangerous, Blattner claimed that his women operate within dual roles, they are dangerous and not dangerous at the same time, they are simultaneously the virgin and temptress. By depicting the symbolic freedom of the changing femininity, Mucha was not oppressing women the same way as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but at the same time, his images made the women he depicted susceptible to the male gaze.

Following the essay on the Brotherhood, two small sections were compiled detailing works from the Collection of the National Museums Liverpool and the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth. Four of the eleven plates chosen in these sections (two paintings and two pieces of pottery) were developed by women artists, Ruth Bare, Cassandra Annie Walker, Liz Wilkins, Louise Jopling, and Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, but there is little discussion of their artistry within the style that would go on to inform and influence Mucha. The lack of coverage of these five women artists brings to mind the 1971 article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” that appeared in the book Woman in Sexist Society and later that same year in ARTNews. Nochlin looks at this question from a variety of different angles, but concludes that the question is erroneous as it relies on a patriarchal field set up to keep women out. She begins by saying that the first answer to the question would be that there are no great women artists because “women are incapable of genius” The lack of ability to be “genius” was created by the institutions and educational systems. They are “stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferable middle class, and, above all, male.” She identifies the clouded mystery of the art historical world, the fabled “artistic genius” as a tool to keep women out of the conversation. She then articulates that the standard answer to the question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” lies within this paradigm; if there were women who were great, their genius would have been seen. But the very definition of artistic genius was developed to keep women from being able to “claim” this title—therefore keeping these five (and countless others) out of the conversation, only to be mentioned as sidenotes.

This lack of inclusion is not universal within art history and the catalog. The essay about the Glasgow School, “The Glasgow Style, The Four, and The Controversial Poster Ghouls” by Alison Brown. The Glasgow School, most well known for four of their artists—sisters Margaret Macdonald and Frances Macdonald, and their future husbands Charles Rennie Mackintosh and James Herbert McNair—collectively known as “The Four” defended their equal educational practices when critics reacted negatively to the work of the sisters because of their “hideous” “ghoul-like” figures. As we can see in their Drooko poster, they depicted an elongated, menacing, and androgynous women with a mixture of floral patterns that depict multiple life stages of plant life (showing they had detailed knowledge of life sciences. Brown, discussed the key that Glasgow’s educational system played in their artistry, “The political desire to see more art school training was positively encouraged in Glasgow.” Within works like Drooko, they would utilize their life science knowledge they learned at school symbolically. When the sisters were attacked for their imagery, Francis Newbery, the director of the school, came forward and defended the sisters as the beacon of the new standard in art. Eventually their work would be displayed in exhibitions with their male counterparts such as Chéret, Mucha, and Toulouse-Lautrec with more favorable views, but their husbands would always outshine them; proving that while there was still progress, it was not all positive.

Returning to Mucha, the final section of Mucha’s plates, “Beauty—Power for Inspiration,” applies Mucha’s theoretical concepts of beauty to his nationalist work when he leaves Paris and returns to the Czech lands and includes the most recent work chronologically. Mucha traveled to America multiple times in the early 1900s looking for funding to complete a monumental project, The Slav Epic, a series of paintings that would tell the history of the Slavic people. Within this series, as well as other public projects, he applied his theoretical aspects of Le style Mucha into nationalistic art. Sato explains, “Women remained central to the composition but they now became spiritual symbols clad in ceremonial folk costumes—‘the soul of the nation’ according to Mucha—to inspire and unite the Slavic peoples under common political goals.” Many of these spiritually symbolic women were depicted as mythical allegories of Slav unity or of deities watching over the Czech peoples. Two examples of this are presented side by side, "The 8th Sokol Festival" and 1918-1928: Poster for the 10th Anniversary of the Independence of the Republic of Czechoslovakia (Figure 10). In the first, a poster for the yearly Sokol sporting event, two young Czech men stand at the ready behind the Bohemian flag. In the background we see the mythic Slavia, the personification of unity of the Slavic nations—Slavia was an allegorical source from Czech national literature. She gives the young athletes her blessing, willing them to win. The Sokol Festival occurred as an annual sporting event during the last years of Austrian rule over the Czech lands. Disguised as a gymnastic event, the group existed to train and prepare Czech youth to overthrow Austrian control—World War I would occur and the revolution would never occur. The second poster, celebrating the ten year anniversary of the newly independent Czechoslovakia features two distinct allegorical women. In the foreground, seated, wearing white ceremonial robes and a headdress identifying the five ethnic regions of Czechoslovakia, a young woman personifying the young fledgling nation is presented with a garland of flowers by another woman. This second woman in blue robes, her face tinted blue in the shadows, is the personified spirit of the Allied nations who granted the Slavs independence after Austria’s defeat. In both these examples, Mucha’s depiction of women is not about commercial success or advertising a product, but celebrating unity. Mucha used the image of these women, these imagined personifications, to inspire the lost, to instill hope in the hopeless.

From this extended reading of the catalog Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty, we can see that there was a spectrum when it came to the depiction of women in art nouveau art (and before it, in the case of the Pre-Raphaelites). Beginning with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, we see how women were depicted as repressed in order to prove the male artists’ masculinity. They would extent this practice to the point where they strip their model of her humanity, turning her into a sign, an object. On the opposite side was the Glasgow School, where the Macdonald sisters were two of their most well known artists. The school championed equal access to education regardless of class background and gender. Even with this, they still had trouble with criticism and being overshadowed by their husbands, because of their gender. Situated somewhere in the middle (depending on the image) is Mucha, whose depictions of women were still susceptible to the male gaze, but at times held onto a larger purpose, national unity, harmonious life, and so on. Through the inclusion of Mucha’s lesser known theoretical ideas, Sato was able to distinguish Mucha’s artwork as indeed different, at least in some aspects, from his contemporaries. His dedication to the development of theoretical ideas of beauty moves his images away from the Brotherhood and other art nouveau artists that followed aestheticism or ideas of “art for art’s sake;” he was using his “Quest of Beauty” for deeper purposes, not just for the sake of beauty.