Friday, January 23, 2015

His Greatest Work

Mucha advertising art for Job cigarette papers
Copyright © Edward Riojas

An old tale has an inquisitive person asking the artist, “Which is your greatest piece?” The artist responds, “My next one.”

Yeah, it’s a bit schmaltzy, but there is a grain of truth in that worn-out anecdote. It’s not often that an artist feels as if he’s already done his best, that nothing greater can happen and it’s time to hang up the old brushes. I know because I am an artist. Sure, artists all have personal faves in which everything seemed to gel. That somehow doesn’t cause us to stop doing what we love. There is always a new idea so great that we feel obliged to flush it out of our brain and wrestle it onto a canvas or a sheet of paper or a block of stone. That next piece is a siren we cannot ignore.

Unfortunately, the choosing of an artist’s greatest work in not up to the artist. That label of “his  greatest work” is always foisted on the artist, most often after his death, by either the stupid art world or the fawning masses. It doesn’t matter what the artist feels about his choice. At all.
"The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia," from "The Slav Epic"

An interesting case in point is the work of the Czech painter Alphonse Mucha, who produced work 100 years ago. His name is well known among artists today, and his art is familiar to the public even if his name isn’t. One might even call his images “iconic,” as they are closely related to Art Nouveau and the decorative arts, and in some ways define the styles. His pieces are almost always figurative and feature alluring women of his day. Their wispy gowns flow in imagined breezes and are accentuated by formal arabesque design and opulent decoration. The pieces take us to the brink of sensory overload. But those pieces were eye candy intended to sway the purchasing power of consumers. They were advertising art. And they weren’t Alphonse’s faves.

The artist actually disdained the Art Nouveau style, and the latter part of Mucha’s life was devoted to a far-different project – a cycle of 20 monstrous paintings based on the struggle of the Slavic people, of which he claimed ancestry.  The cycle is known as “The Slav Epic.” It is jarring when looking at these images for the first time, especially after having Mucha’s advertising work engrained in our pea brains. The ‘Epic’ is as overlaid with realistic imagery as the artist’s advertising art is embellished with decoration. Diaphanous forms hover over layers of historical, mythological, and allegorical figures, all theatrically arranged in moody color. The depth of space and time pull the viewer deep into each overwhelming scene of tragedy and triumph. These are not the kind of paintings in which the viewer looks at them once and declares, “Meh.”

It is hard to put “The Slav Epic” into an artistic niche, mainly because Mucha wanted to paint as he saw fit without conforming to the style of his day. The cycle is certainly classical, but one can see connections – whether real or imagined – to other artists of his era and beyond, from the Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse to the fantasy book cover illustrator Frank Frazetta.

Even without understanding Mucha’s passion for the history of his forebears, it is clear why the artist favored this ambitious body of work. But history is not always kind. Both the Nazis and subsequent Communist regimes did not hold Mucha with high regard, and “The Slav Epic,” which was supposed to be enshrined in a special pavilion upon completion, was first hidden from the authorities and then left to stagnate in storage for decades. The cycle finally came into the public light, but even now is haggled over by competing towns and institutions bent on permanently displaying the work that demands serious space. Perhaps once the lingering battles cease and the dust settles, the art world and the pedestrian masses will finally change opinions over which Mucha piece was the greatest. Then again, perhaps not.

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