If you’re at all familiar with the work of the Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), it’s probably from his posters of languid maidens and nymphs with impossibly tangled tresses of hair, which were used to advertise everything from champagne to chocolate at the turn of the previous century. What is less known, at least to most American audiences, is the series of colossal paintings which he executed between 1910 and 1928 collectively known as “The Slav Epic”, illustrating the history of the Slavs from their origin stories through the end of the 19th century. The smallest of these truly epic canvases measures about 13 feet by 15 feet; the largest, about 26 feet by 20 feet. I’ve always been fascinated by them, as they are perhaps the most monumental Art Nouveau works of art ever created – certainly on canvas.
The seed money for the project came from a Chicago philanthropist, Charles Crane (1858-1939), whose father become a millionaire following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 as a result of manufacturing the thousands of feet of pipe needed to provide steam heat for the gigantic towers that began to sprout over the city. Because of its sheer size (there are twenty giant canvases in all) displaying Mucha’s masterpiece has always been a significant challenge. For many decades, “The Slav Epic” was housed in an old castle about 130 miles from Prague, making it difficult for all but the most dedicated devotees of the artist’s work to see the cycle, and its history has been as tangled as the hair of a Mucha beauty.
Mucha died shortly after being interrogated by the Gestapo, and his work was hidden from the Nazis, who wanted to stamp out Slavic culture in favor of a Teutonic narrative. With the arrival of Soviet domination, Mucha’s work was seen as too nationalistic, as the Russians wanted to stamp their brand of identity on the Czech people much as the Germans had attempted to do before them. After the fall of communism, legal disputes over ownership of “The Slav Epic” lasted for years, until the works were finally taken to Prague in a move which is still highly controversial within the Czech Republic.
Now, Prague is finally taking steps to do what both Mucha and Crane intended from the beginning, which is to create a permanent home for the paintings in the Czech capital. The Lapidarium, a rather grand museum of sculpture in need of significant restoration, will be modified to create a large gallery for “The Slav Epic”, with renovation work expected to cost over $27 million. While this amount may sound like a lot, I can practically guarantee that once the new gallery is opened, this will undoubtedly become one of the top tourist attractions in the Czech Republic, for art lovers, historians, and the curious alike, In the meantime, the paintings will go on display at Prague City Hall to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the former Czechoslovakia in October 1918.
And now, on to some other art news stories.
Nincompoops In Navarra
While it will probably not become the unintentional icon of contemporary society as the infamously botched “Ecce Homo” did in the town of Borja several years ago, another small church in Spain is now reeling from a terrible attempt at restoration. Rather than reach out to a professional conservator, the parish of San Miguel de Estella in the province of Navarra asked a local art teacher to tidy up a 500-year-old polychrome wooden statue of St. George that was looking its age. The end result, as you can see, is rather horrid; it reminds me a bit of Dirk the Daring from the classic early 80’s arcade video game “Dragon’s Lair”. The lesson here, kids, is that if you want to restore a work of art, you need to go to a professional restorer: don’t try this at home.
Homecoming At The Huntington
A story from last month that I’ve been waiting to read more about, but haven’t seen much else about to date, involves the reunification of three parts of a 15th century Italian Renaissance altarpiece at The Huntington Library in California. The work was created in about 1470 by the Florentine artist Cosimo Rosselli (1439–1507), master of the more well-known Florentine painter Fra Bartolomeo, but at some point in the past it was chopped into several pieces by an unscrupulous art dealer, so that the components could be sold off individually. The central image of the Madonna and Child has been in the Huntington family collection since the beginning of the 20th century, when collectors such as Mrs. Huntington, Isabella Stewart Gardner, J.P. Morgan, and others were importing art from Europe on a vast scale in order to decorate their luxury apartments and massive vacation homes. Now, the paintings which feature the figures of St. Anthony Abbot and St. Athanasius will be reunited, or more correctly, placed alongside, the main portion of Rosselli’s dismembered masterpiece.
Monsters At The Morgan
The Morgan Library in New York recently opened what looks to be an interesting exhibition, for those of you who, like me, find the world of fantastical beasts and dragons imagined by artists of the Middle Ages to be endlessly fascinating. “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders” looks at how these creatures were used to illustrate stories or concepts, enhance or detract from individuals and groups, and share supposed knowledge of unknown lands as a kind of warning to those who were curious about the world around them. There is a fairly comprehensive overview of the exhibition here, although I can’t say that I agree with all of the reviewer’s conclusions, and as is de rigueur these days, the show has a SJW political element, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay attention to the opinions of the curators in order to admire the art. The exhibition runs through September 23rd.