Monday, November 14, 2011

THE SLAV EPIC



I spent the past week in Prague where I was working on the World Forum on Governance.  Away from my books and art materials, I resigned myself to skipping this week's post.

However, the cultural attache at the embassy shared with me the happy news that Alphonse Mucha's masterpiece, the Slav Epic, will go on display in Prague next year, just 84 years after Mucha donated it to the city.

For those who only know Mucha for his art nouveau posters, the Slav Epic was Mucha's most important and meaningful work: 20 huge patriotic murals of key moments from the history of the Slavic people.

Mucha posing in front of two of his murals

In times of trouble and uncertainty, Mucha "wanted to talk in my own way to the soul of the nation," reminding them of their proud heritage and the heroism and sacrifice of their ancestors.

The origin of the Slavic homeland around 200 - 300 AD: peaceful Slav farmers flee invading Goths (seen galloping away from the burning village with their loot).  As the young Adam and Eve of the Slavs escape, a holy man with outstretched arms implores the gods for mercy.

Mucha's reference photo for the holy man

"The Celebration of Svantovit: When Gods Are At War, Salvation Is In The Arts."  The earliest Slavic center of civilization from 700-900 AD was centered around the shrine of Svantovit (later destroyed by Danish warriors in the 12th century)  
The Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy: Praise The Lord in Your Native Tongue 

"After the Battle of Grunwald: The Solidarity of the Northern Slavs." Here we see the first great defeat of the previously invincible Teutonic Knights, demonstrating the rising power of the Slavic empire. 
"After the Battle of Vitkov: God Represents Truth, Not Power"

"Peter Chelcicky at Vodnany: Do Not Repay Evil With Evil." A famous Slavic pacifist implores the victims of a Hussite raid not to become too caught up in revenge. 
"The Defense of Sziget by Nikola Zrinski: The Shield of Christendom"

Mucha presented his murals to the city of Prague in 1928, but some criticized them as old fashioned and nationalistic.  By 1933 the canvases were rolled up and placed in storage, and Mucha's hopes for his native land seemed farther and farther away.  In 1939 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia and the gestapo arrested the aging artist.  He died shortly after his release.  The Slav Epic murals were stored away in a basement that flooded, damaging the paintings.  After many years, the canvases were retrieved and restored, and were put on display in 1968 in southern Moravia.  In 2012, these lovely works will return to Prague where they will be displayed with the honor and dignity they deserve.

"The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia: Work in Freedom is the Foundation of a State"

I think Mucha's accomplishment was an act of courage comparable to the accomplishments he was celebrating.  He put aside his commercially successful decorative art to make a lasting statement about the spirit of his country. He originally planned to make each painting approximately 20' x 26' but war, political repression and economic hardship repeatedly forced him to change his plans.  After his first few paintings, the Belgian factory which manufactured the oversized linen was occupied by the German army and converted to military use.  Mucha switched to painting on sailcloth from Scotland, and later was forced to reduce the size of the last murals.  Still, he persisted.  The Czech avant garde artistic community ridiculed his work as a "monstrosity of spurious artistic and allegorical pathos which, if exhibited permanently could harm the taste of the public."  His murals were nearly confiscated during World War I for their "Czech patriotic content" and he made plans to bury them in the woods to protect them.  The work was frowned upon by Nazis in World War II and by communist occupiers in the postwar era. 

Time and again, Mucha was presented with obstacles but he persisted and left behind an important work of art.

"Jan Amos Komensky: A Flicker of Hope."  A religious exile dies in his chair by the sea, looking out at eternity and thinking about returning to his beloved homeland.


38 Comments:

Blogger etc, etc said...

David,
I love this post. Assuming you got to see the murals, I'd be interested to hear (more correctly read I suppose) your gut-level aesthetic response to them.

11/14/2011 11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see the avant garde artists took the same view as the Nazis and the Communists.

JSL

11/14/2011 11:45 AM  
Blogger JF said...

I'm taking a figure drawing class and our instructor has been bringing in books to show the "kids." Mostly all familiar to me, and I thought I knew Mucha, but as he thumbed through the book and went beyond the poster work which I've seen too many times I started to see Mucha's painting, which I have never seen. The Slav Epic is mind-blowing, beautiful. It's amazing that there were decades when his work was out of style. The volume, physical scale and impact of his late work is fantastic.

11/14/2011 11:47 AM  
Blogger Matthew Harwood said...

Wow, when I see images like these I wish my computer screen was bigger.

Prague has been on my list of beautiful cities to visit for a while now. I particularly like the images I’ve seen of the City under snow. With the Mucha paintings soon to be made public, I think Prague has moved up a few spots.

11/14/2011 12:14 PM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

"God Represents Truth, Not Power" ~ Amen

11/14/2011 12:19 PM  
Blogger Julia Lundman said...

Thank you for your detailed research and information regarding the Slav Epic. Mucha remains one of the most influential artists today; this important work should be seen the way it was intended. It's amazing it survived at all.

Amazing.

11/14/2011 4:10 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc-- I am one of those who is deeply impressed by Mucha's sense of design and color. He was one of nature's songbirds, and everything he touched, from small rough studies to big murals, seemed to benefit from that great gift.

I suspect his murals ran into trouble with the Czech cultural intelligentsia because the sun was setting on the era of songbirds, and people began to prefer owls. Was Mucha's work sufficiently "smart" in that smug 20th century conceptual sense? I suppose I'd have to understand more about Slavic history and Mucha's symbolism to give you a real opinion, but my "gut level aesthetic response" is that Mucha's paintings are beautiful and I would far rather have one of them than the work of any Czech avant garde artist I know.

JSL-- Well, they all share totalitarian tendencies, but they would all tell you it's for your own good.

JF-- I agree. I'm glad to hear that his work is currently being taught in art schools.

11/14/2011 4:45 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Matthew Harwood-- Yes, I could use a 20' x 26' color monitor right about now. Too bad Steve Jobs died before he had a chance to work on one.

अर्जुन-- That awful Norman Jewison version of Jesus Christ Superstar reminds me that there was a period when smart, talented directors looked over their shoulders and realized that they were born too early and missed out on the 1960s era of free love and the Age of Aquarius. Although Jewison directed mature work such as "Moonstruck" or "The Thomas Crown Affair," in this movie he has his nose pressed to the glass, an outsider with absolutely no clue as to what was going on. The same with Jewison's contemporary Stanley Donen, who directed insightful, adult relationships in films such as "Two For The Road" or "Charade," but later surrendered all of his intelligence and taste to the superiority of firm young flesh in the trashy "Blame It On Rio." You look at these works and you just feel sorry for these talented men embarrassing themselves. The rest of us should look at their example and try to maintain some sense of dignity as we age.

Julia Lundman-- Thanks very much, it's good to hear from you.

11/14/2011 5:08 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

Interesting post David.

One imagines Mucha to have been making these things surrounded by the adoring movers and shakers of the time and caught up in the delicious self importance that crucified Sargent in the Boston Murals.

But that, it seems, wasn’t so and he is almost a martyred patron saint of our beleaguered art.

I saw a picture in this week’s edition of the Radio Times of Grayson Perry (The British Post Modernist Dipshit of the graffiti pots) standing by his teddybear-carrying motorcycle.
The Mandarins of taste that support this fool and his kind are the heirs of those who rolled up the canvases of Mucha just a few years after they were exhibited.
At least Mucha’s banner was allowed to be unfurled, if only briefly in his lifetime. Today such dreams are little more than virtual battle cries.

11/14/2011 7:26 PM  
Blogger Donald Pittenger said...

Do you know the what/where regarding the display site?

The Mucha museum is much too small and the municipal building where can be found other mural work of his might not have appropriate wall space.

A special building for the murals alone would be best, but a new structure in the older, central areas of Prague would not fit in.

Perhaps an Art Nouveau building someplace in the Josefov area north of the old town square?

11/14/2011 7:28 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

A couple of works that highlight the diverse and decorative nature of Mucha's oeuvre:

1.

2.

11/14/2011 8:39 PM  
Blogger Matthew Harwood said...

Wikipedia:
"On 1 January 2010, [Mucha's] published works went out of copyright and entered the public domain."

His legacy lives on.

11/15/2011 1:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was a very nice documentary a number of years ago on Mucha, it featured his son (grandson?). I can't seem to locate it now, anyone have an idea what it was and where it could be found now?

11/15/2011 2:56 AM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

'That awful…'
Keep digging. I love the film Jesus Christ Superstar, though I vacillate between the O.S.T. and the original rock album. Looking at Jewison's oeuvre, a great director that made a lot of bland films. My favorites: J.C.S., The Thomas Crown Affair, Rollerball, The Cincinnati Kid, Send Me No Flowers.

Stanley Donen: Two For the Road, Charade, Bedazzled, Funny Face, Singin' in the Rain, On The Town. (Compared to him most anybody is a piker.)


D.A., sometime back you posted a Robert Fawcett piece done for a 1935 Cashmere Bouquet ad, do you have a tear sheet scan that you could post? Was it his only work for that campaign?

11/15/2011 4:53 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- I think your notion of Mucha as an adored artist was true for his earlier art nouveau work. He was wildly popular. But I like the fact that he took his earlier success and re-invested it in a new, different kind of work that was more meaningful to him later in life.

Donald Pittenger-- Sounds like you know your way around Prague. Current plans are for the Epic to be installed at the Veletrzni Palace, the former exhibition hall which is now serving as the National Gallery's modern art wing. (Something poetic about that.) The mayor of Prague has also apparently suggested installing the series at the main railway station, but that seems doubtful for now.

Etc, etc-- Agreed. In that sense, Mucha was similar to Brangwyn who worked tirelessly and applied his aesthetic to ceramics, jewelry, architecture and anything else that came within view.

11/15/2011 6:01 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Matthew Harwood-- if I wanted reliable information on the Mucha copyrights, I'm not sure I would turn to wikipedia (which by its nature is a proletarian / grass roots / anti-copyright enterprise). I assume some anonymous contributor did a rough calculation and concluded that after "the life of the author plus 70 years" they are safe to use Mucha's images. If you want a real opinion, ask the Mucha Trust (which I believe owns the copyrights) how they construe the law, and then contrast their answer with wikipedia's position and make up your own mind.

Anonymous-- I don't know the answer but I would like to see it.

अर्जुन-- I agree with you about the great Stanley Donen, but how do you explain "Blame It On Rio" except as an older man looking wistfully at how freely the younger generation has sex?

I also like a number of the songs from Jesus Christ Superstar (some as a relic of their era, some as just plain good music). But I think you'll find that the vast majority of the civilized world shares my opinion of the movie. Synchronized gogo dancing in the middle of the desert to the strains of an invisible orchestra just makes me laugh. Jewison seems clueless about the hippie culture (Everybody sing: "Something is happening here but you don't know what it is....")

The next thing I know, you'll be telling me you really like Rah, Rah Rasputin.

That Fawcett Cashmere Bouquet illustration came from an Art Director's annual (without the surrounding ad) but I think I may know where to get the full tearsheet.

11/15/2011 6:49 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Bedazzled

That was so cool!

I was surprised to hear such a highly pronounced flanging audio effect and wondered if this was one of the first occasions it was used; according to Wikipedia the effect was invented in 1966 so this was very cutting edge.

11/15/2011 9:02 AM  
Blogger Matthew Harwood said...

David the lawyer – May I ask you for some free copyright advice?

I noticed Wikipedia uses the term “published works” above. Recently, I was told by an art consultant that Google retains the rights to all images published on Blogger. Is this true? If so, would you advise artists to stop posting images of original artwork on Blogger?

Thanks for your help.

11/15/2011 11:28 AM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

D.A., you are the only person I know that is obsessed with "Blame It On Rio"!

"The next thing I know, you'll be telling me you really like Rah, Rah Rasputin." ~ keep throwing stones, I can take it. I may be stupid but I'm a survivor.


Just last week I heard some heavy flanging that made me wonder what year the song was from, but of course all I can now recall is the effect. I'll keep my ears open.

Flanging, the timeless power of quality music, and to quote the D.A. "The rest of us should look at their example and try to maintain some sense of dignity as we age."

11/16/2011 2:44 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

survivor

Hehe. The Japanese spawn of Rob Halford and the Village People.

Your second example sounds like a wah-wah with chorus. I suppose one needs to be a guitar player and have experimented with various stomp pedals to discern the difference.

11/16/2011 7:01 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Matthew Harwood-- Google, Facebook, and all of the other corporations handing out free chewing gum on the internet are like the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

It should not surprise anyone that as part of their secret plans to monetize the eyes they have attracted, they have numerous clauses buried in their Terms of Service that are designed to keep their options open. Nobody knows, when these companies take off, what the winning economic model will be so they lace the Terms of Service with provisions that have at least the potential to make money for the company. They keep adding/revising provisions as the economic landscape becomes clearer.

It is not clear that all or even most of these provisions will turn out to be legally binding, but crafty lawyers insert them in the fine print just to keep the option open, and give the corporation a fighting chance to claim a right.

Which brings me to your question. A number of image sharing sites (such as Twitpic) bury language in their Terms of Service that give the owners of the site some rights in the content that is posted. Those rights differ from company to company. Some companies have tried to claim ownership of your pictures (and have been beaten back by vigilant users) but I think many (or even most) now say that you own the picture, but they have a royalty free license to use the image if they want.

This language may turn out to be unenforceable in some circumstances. For example, you can't give Blogger more rights than you own yourself. If you post someone else's copyrighted image (and it is legally permissible to do so because it falls within the "fair use" exemption to the copyright laws) the fact that you may have signed an agreement giving Blogger a license does NOT make it so. They have no license to use that image.

As for whether artists should stop posting original images on Blogger (or flickr, or twitpic, or tumblr), that's a choice every person has to make for themselves, just as they have to decide whether they want to give facebook the right to rummage around in their underwear drawer. I am guessing that most artists who post art on Blogger would generally be pleased to have the publicity from Blogger using their art in some commercial context. I am also guessing that if Blogger is looking to exploit images posted there, they are looking for that one viral photo of a news event, or those childhood picture of Justin Bieber, or some other image that has real and immediate economic value. In 99.99% of the cases, I doubt there is going to be much economic value for Blogger in selling books or posters of images posted on blogs. But I could be wrong.

11/16/2011 8:09 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन wrote: "You are the only person I know that is obsessed with 'Blame It On Rio'!"

Surely you jest. Plato was so obsessed with Blame It On Rio that he invented a word, "antithesis" for it-- the thing that causes you to reconsider your original thesis about Donen's reputation. Henry David Thoreau also had an expression for the movie; he called it "The trout in the milk." Dr. Jonas Salk used the word "contraindication" for such phenomena. For computer scientists and statisticians, "Blame It On Rio" is what they call an "outlier." In fact, when Sir Francis Bacon articulated the scientific method for understanding the nature of things, he said that scientists must affirmatively "look for ye contrary examples that call into question your assumptions, such as Blame It on Rio."

So I am hardly alone in wondering about that movie. But if it is any consolation, I understand why you would want to do the great Stanley Donen the favor of averting your eyes.

11/16/2011 8:35 AM  
Blogger Matthew Harwood said...

David -- I found this tag on another Wiki site selling Mucha prints. This echoes what you wrote about Wikipedia above.

"The author of this artwork died more than 70 years ago. According to U.S. Copyright Law, copyright expires 70 years after the author's death. In other countries, legislation may differ. More…

Wikipaintings.org allows unlimited copying, distributing and displaying of the images of public domain artworks solely. We use here Copyright term based on authors' deaths according to U.S. Copyright Law, that is 70 years. In other countries, the duration of copyright term may differ. Please check here copyright length according to your country's legislation before you consider reproducing images borrowed from Wikipaintings.org

Artworks protected by copyright are supposed to be used only for contemplation. Images of that type of artworks are prohibited for copying, printing, or any kind of reproducing and communicating to public since these activities may be considered copyright infringement."

11/16/2011 11:53 AM  
Blogger Matthew Harwood said...

David- FYI

Hollywood is planning to make a sequel to Blame It On Rio. In this version, Michael Cane’s character succumbs to the sexual charms of his granddaughter’s best friend. The working title is Blame It On Viagra and Sophocles is being considered as the director.

11/16/2011 1:26 PM  
Blogger Kay said...

I love Mucha. And Prague was my favorite place when I made my first trek to Europe in 2008..looks like it will be time to go back so I can see the murals!!!

11/16/2011 4:25 PM  
Blogger Nick Jainschigg said...

David--
Thanks so much for this. I've been hunting down and buying books with decent reproductions of these for years, and was on the verge of visiting Prague to check them out when I found that they weren't in fact at the Mucha museum. Now I guess I'll just have to reschedule ;-) I'm not a rich globetrotter by occupation, it's just worth the expense to me to see the real thing. I hope you got an eyeful!

11/16/2011 9:28 PM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

So you're in good company…big deal.

11/17/2011 1:19 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Matthew Harwood-- I heard it was the younger sister of his grand daughter's best friend...

Kay-- a wise choice. I hope to go back too. When you go, make a point of seeing the villa of artist Frantisek Bilek. Another off-the-beaten-path marvel. He famously designed his studio after a field of wheat.

Nick Jainschigg-- I'm glad that you like this work so much (just as I do). It turns out that the Mucha Museum in Prague is mostly reproductions you can see anywhere. Better to hold out for the real deal.

11/18/2011 12:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe the film Anonymous has seen is a german one produced by NDR in 2004. I saw it on ARTE the French German TV network and I recorded part of it. It's mostly about the Slav Epic. Geraldine Mucha a scottish composer, Mucha's daughter in law and Victor Arwas, the art nouveau specialist and other ones intervene quite interestingly. You can see excerpts of it on "you tube"
Patrick Chatelin
France

11/19/2011 5:43 AM  
Blogger StimmeDesHerzens said...

Apatoff is my songbird.
Apatoff for President!
g!B

11/19/2011 4:52 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

Bless you...

11/21/2011 2:33 PM  
Blogger Mellie said...

The colours in these paintings are gorgeous. And yet the content is gibberish. I can't stand that mystical nationalism crap.

11/22/2011 2:16 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Patrick Chatelin-- Thanks, that's a big help.

chris bennett-- ...and you too!

Mellie-- Well... nationalism has its good points and bad. If it's a drum you bang to motivate citizens to invade their neighbors, I agree it is not good. On the other hand, if your country has been invaded by bad people and you want to inspire oppressed citizens to remain brave and loyal and true by reminding them of the previous generations that have sacrificed for their sake, I think it's a pretty positive thing.

StimmeDesHerzens-- That's an incredibly sweet thing to say but you'd better not let your neighbors know or they'll start to look at you funny.

11/23/2011 8:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

apparently you can find that DVD only in Germany - I found it at : www.filmsortiment.de . The site is only in german but they understand english when you call them.
All the best. Bravo for your own site.
Patrick Chatelin

11/24/2011 4:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow...I was not even aware this work existed! I know Mucha from what most people probably know him from...and this stuff is just amazing! Thanks...I am gonna have to look at this very closely now.

Ken Meyer Jr.

11/24/2011 7:49 PM  
Blogger Jeanette Pabon said...

Thank you for posting this!!!!

12/12/2011 8:30 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Ken Meyer Jr.-- It's a side of Mucha that not many people know, despite the fact that it's his magnum opus.

Jeanette-- Thank you for reading this!

12/12/2011 10:26 PM  
Anonymous Oil Paintings said...

Thanks so much for this.The colours in these paintings are gorgeous.I love this post. All paintings awesome.Thanks sharing..

1/19/2012 2:27 AM  

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