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How the "Slav Epic" was created, after which Alphonse Muhu was called a genius: 20 paintings in 20 years
How the "Slav Epic" was created, after which Alphonse Muhu was called a genius: 20 paintings in 20 years

Most know the outstanding Czech artist Alfons Muhu, as a great decorator who once created stunning posters and posters in a unique style. But very few people know him as a monumental artist who wrote the legendary cycle of large-scale paintings called "The Slav Epic". The artist devoted almost 20 years of his life to this grandiose work and went down in history as a brilliant master of monumental painting.

Alphonse Maria Mucha is a Czech painter, theater artist, illustrator, jewelry designer and poster artist

Alfons Maria Mucha (1860 - 1939) - Czech painter, theater artist, illustrator, jewelry designer and poster artist, one of the most prominent representatives of the Art Nouveau style. He was a famous modern painter of the 19th-20th centuries, who is called his own by both the Czech Republic and France. He became famous all over the world for his original posters depicting beautiful women and exquisite floral ornaments. He has also inscribed his name in the history of jewelry and interior design.

The life path and creative career of Alphonse Maria Mucha is striking in its richness and scope. He comes from a poor family of a petty official, who has come a long way from an office clerk to an internationally recognized artist. He is truly an amazing and versatile master who managed to manifest himself in many areas of fine art and left behind a huge legacy that has entered the world treasury of painting.

You can learn more about some facts from the biography and work of the painter from the publication: The luxurious “women of Alphonse Mucha”: masterpieces of the Czech modernist artist, creator of “art for all”.

Prehistory of the creation of the monumental cycle "Slav Epic"

20 canvases included in the cycle "Slav Epic". Artist Alphonse Mucha

At the turn of the century, dramatic changes took place in the mind of the master. He clearly understood that his previous work had exhausted itself and that the deafening triumph and the title of the main decorator of the world no longer satisfied him. And the artist began to mature the idea of ​​creating something monumental, which would glorify him for centuries.

For the first time, Mucha seriously thought about his national roots when in 1900 he designed the pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the World Exhibition in Paris. It was then that the key idea came to him, and he began to formulate the idea of ​​creating a picturesque history of the Slavic world of Europe in a grandiose cycle of paintings. The artist became seriously interested in the history of the Slavs, which later led to the creation of a series of paintings "Slav Epic".

Self-portrait. Alphonse Mucha in his workshop while working on "The Slav Epic"

However, not everything was as simple as it seemed at first glance. Of course, the grandiose idea demanded a lot of money. But, this time Alphonse was helped by a chance to realize his dream: in 1906 the American Society of Illustrators invited the artist to the USA for cooperation. And he, without hesitation, went overseas with his family, where he lived and worked until 1910. It should be noted that there, too, the Czech artist gained fame as an excellent master of the portrait genre and the author of the covers of illustrated magazines. In addition to creativity, Mucha taught at the Art Institute of Chicago, and in 1908, having signed a contract, he created sets for the German Theater in New York in his extraordinary style …

"Introduction of the Slavic Liturgy in Moravia", 1912. (From the cycle "Slavic Epic") Artist: Alfons Mucha

In the United States, Alphonse Mucha was considered the greatest painter of our time.However, despite the resounding success, fame and good earnings, life in America burdened the artist with its "commercialism". Living in a foreign land, he constantly cherished the hope of returning to his homeland. His aspirations were compounded by an irresistible desire, which became an obsession - to create a grand cycle of epic paintings dedicated to the history of the Slavs.

"Slavs in the original homeland: between the Turanian whip and the Gothic sword", 1912. (From the cycle "Slavic Epic"). Canvas, oil. 610 x 810 cm. Prague City Gallery. Artist: Alphonse Mucha

And it so happened that in 1909, Mucha, having met the American industrialist and diplomat Charles Crane, shared his old idea, which immediately found a response in the soul of an entrepreneur. Charles was a staunch socialist who had his own business in Russia. The American was in love with Russian culture in general and Leo Tolstoy in particular. He was also convinced that Western civilization had grown old and outdated, and the future would now be determined by the Slavic world, namely Russia. Apparently from these considerations, the American millionaire decided to sponsor the expensive project conceived by the artist. Therefore, having signed a contract with Crane, Mucha immediately went to Europe.

Work on the "Epic"

"Printing of the Kralitskaya Bible in Ivančice", 1914. (From the series "Slav Epic"). Artist: Alphonse Mucha

Having settled in the huge Crystal Hall of the Zbiroh Castle, which is not far from Prague, the artist with great enthusiasm set about preparing for the creative process. And over the next eighteen years from under his brush came out twenty monumental canvases of an allegorical nature, depicting turning points in the history of the Slavic peoples. It was this work that Alphonse Mucha considered the main business of his whole life.

It is worth noting that, starting to work on the cycle, the painter radically changed his usual decorative and linear Art Nouveau style to symbolism, and typical bright local colors - to a more muted gray-blue and gray-pink palette. It was completely new and unusual in his work.

In addition, most of the Epic's canvases, painted on huge canvases measuring 6 x 8 meters, looked like a stunning spectacle, mesmerizing in its scale and scope. Therefore, looking at this creation of the master, for sure, everyone thought about the artist's incredible ability to work and envied his fantastic perseverance.

"Sermon by Jan Hus in the Bethlehem Chapel", 1916. (From the cycle "Slavic Epic"). Artist: Alphonse Mucha

There is a legend that at the preparatory stage for the multi-figured compositions, almost the inhabitants of entire villages posed for the artist. The master initially prescribed large-scale scenery, against which he photographed costumed crowd scenes and the main characters, in order to later capture them on his canvases. Curiously, the artist was also an excellent photographer. After his death, about 1,500 photographs were found in his archive, which he used in his work.

"Abolition of serfdom in Russia", 1914. (From the cycle "Slavic Epic"). Artist: Alphonse Mucha

So, having conceived a work dedicated to the abolition of serfdom in Russia, in 1913 the artist went to Moscow and St. Petersburg, taking a camera with him. During this trip, Mucha made many sketches and photographs. He was especially impressed by the Trinity-Sergius Lavra and Red Square, which, as a result, was chosen as a background subject for the painting "The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia."

"Peter Khelchitsky", 1918. (From the cycle "Slavic Epic"). Artist: Alphonse Mucha

Working on the "Slav Epic", the artist survived the First World War relatively cloudlessly. And in 1918, Czechoslovakia became independent, and Alphonse Mucha met with enthusiasm the new government, which needed its own stamps, money, letterheads for official documents, envelopes and postcards. And Fly again was in business. Who else but him, the best decorator in the world, had a hand in the design of all this.

"After the Battle of Grunwald", 1924. (From the cycle "Slav Epic"). Artist: Alphonse Mucha

By 1919, the first 11 paintings of the cycle were ready, which were exhibited in Prague's Clementinum, one of the largest complexes of baroque buildings in Europe. But the expected furor did not take place. The exhibition did not impress the inhabitants of Prague, because even at that time not everyone accepted the idea of ​​a community of Slavs. Mucha was criticized a lot, especially in his native Czech Republic. And only in America, where in 1921 the artist presented a part of his grandiose "Epic", it was received warmly and enthusiastically.

Coronation of the Serbian king Stefan Uros IV Dusan as Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (1926). (From the cycle "Slav Epic"). Artist: Alphonse Mucha

We must pay tribute to the great master, who, despite criticism and open disapproval, did not stop work on the cycle, but continued it. By 1928 he finished his work and all 20 canvases Mucha donated to the city of Prague. But, since there was no gallery in the capital before the war where the whole cycle could be placed, the paintings were partially exhibited in the Exhibition Palace, then they were sent to the province, to the castle of the town of Moravsky Krumlov.

A few words about the key plot

Holy Mount Athos (1926). (From the cycle "Slav Epic"). Artist: Alphonse Mucha

Show the unity of the Slavs, tell about important milestones in their history and mythology was the main goal of the artist. For this, the author chose important cultural, religious, historical and military events that took place in the Slavic world, starting from pagan times. And also historical episodes from the life of Czechs, Russians, Poles, Bulgarians, showing their common roots. Here you can see the abolition of serfdom in Russia, and the sermon of Jan Hus in the Prague Bethlehem chapel, and the reign of Tsar Simeon I the Great in Bulgaria, and the teachings of the Czech humanist educator Jan Amos Comenius and many more outstanding personalities and significant events.

"Tsar Simeon of Bulgaria", 1926-1928. (From the cycle "Slav Epic"). Artist: Alphonse Mucha

Today, only historians remember some of the events presented, so the meaning laid down by the author in the "Slav Epic", unfortunately, is not entirely clear to an ordinary viewer, even a Slav.

"Oath of the Omladin Society", 1926-1928. (From the cycle "Slav Epic"). Artist: Alphonse Mucha

It is also worth noting that most of the canvases of the cycle are connected, by and large, only with the history of the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Moravia. Without knowing her, it is difficult to understand what the author wanted to say. It was for this that Alphonse Mucha was criticized during his lifetime, and the grandiose cycle he created was recognized as a purely patriotic work.

Mont Athos, 1926-1928. (From the cycle "Slav Epic"). Artist: Alphonse Mucha

The last years of the life of the great modernist and the fate of his "Epic"

By the 1930s, the former glory of Alphonse Mucha had faded, and he found himself in the role of a living classic. Although the 70-year-old painter was respected, admiring his past merits, they no longer expected anything interesting from him. And a completely new time has come, other idols and objects of imitation have appeared.

When the Nazis entered Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Alphonse Mucha, being a patriot of his country and an adherent of the idea of ​​Pan-Slavism, did not hesitate in speaking out about the political crime of Germany. The aged artist was already in his late eighties, and of course, he did not pose a real threat to the Nazis. Nevertheless, Alfons Mucha was officially recognized as an enemy of the Third Reich, he was arrested several times and interrogated by the Gestapo. After one of the arrests, the artist fell ill with pneumonia and died on July 14, 1939.

"The Apotheosis of the History of Slavism", 1926-1928. (From the cycle "Slav Epic"). Artist: Alphonse Mucha

Fortunately, the "Slav Epic", unlike its author, did not suffer during the war and, since 1963, has been decorating the Moravian-Krumlov Castle. And only in the 2000s it was recognized as a cultural monument. And in May 2012, after a long dispute with the authorities of the city of Moravsky Krumlov, by the decision of a special commission of the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, the paintings returned to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.

Continuing the theme of the grandiose canvases dedicated to Slavism and Christianity, I would also like to recall the large-scale canvas by Ilya Glazunov: "Eternal Russia" (1988) - dedicated to the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus.

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