Thought-Pourri: Much Ado About Mucha

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.


The Monsters At The End Of The World

While we absorb last evening’s danse macabre between two monstrous Presidential candidates whom no one particularly likes, as well as the news that, perhaps all too appropriately, the leading contender for this year’s Turner Prize in Contemporary Art is a monstrously-sized sculpture of an arse, allow me to point to something rather more interesting, though equally monstrous and appropriate to the times: the “Apocalypse Tapestry”.

The oldest surviving set of French medieval tapestries to come down to us, the Apocalypse Tapestry is an enormous series of images depicting scenes from the Book of Revelation, and was woven in the 14th century to designs by the Franco-Flemish artist Jean de Bondol (c. 1340-1400). Originally composed of 90 scenes on 6 large panels, when it was completed it was probably between 430-470 feet long, which is taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza if laid on its side. Today 71 of the scenes and 328 feet of the Tapestry survive, and are on display at the Chateau d’Angers, itself the former principal residence of the Dukes of Anjou who commissioned it. The French Ministry of Culture has recently announced new conservation efforts, to determine whether it is safe to continue displaying the rather fragile and battered Tapestry as-is.

What is particularly interesting about the Tapestry is that it is both a spiritual and a political work of art, even though only the religious aspect of the imagery is familiar to most of us today. Below we see one of the scenes from the Tapestry, depicting the worship of the beast as described by St. John in his vision. The Evangelist himself appears as an observer on the left side of the panel, as he describes what is going on:

Then I saw a beast come out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads; on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard, but it had feet like a bear’s, and its mouth was like the mouth of a lion. To it the dragon gave its own power and throne, along with great authority…Fascinated, the whole world followed after the beast. They worshiped the dragon because it gave its authority to the beast; they also worshiped the beast and said, “Who can compare with the beast or who can fight against it?”

(Revelation 13: 1-4)

At the center of the image we see a group of people all kneeling in adoration of a large, feline-looking monster with seven heads and ten horns, and feet rather like a bear’s. He is depicted holding a scepter which bears a lily on top. Behind him stands the multi-headed dragon described earlier in Revelation, who represents Satan. The dragon is, in essence, backing up the monster that has come up out of the sea: he is the real power behind this infernal enthronement.

The persistence of war, plague, and famine was something which Medieval people thought heralded the imminent arrival of the end of the world, and works such as this no doubt reminded them to be vigilant against infernal monstrosities that would tempt them away from following Christ. However while the Tapestry seems like a fairly straightforward image of St. John’s vision, and a warning to the faithful to remain true to the Faith in times of trouble, all is not what it appears to be. For if you had lived in France in the 14th century, you would also have recognized that there was a subtle political message inserted into the depiction of this Biblical scene.

The Tapestry was created between 1377-1382, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France for control of the French throne. In 1376 Edward, the “Black Prince” of Wales, who had lead the English in many bloody battles against the French, died; the following year his father, King Edward III, also died. The Black Prince’s son, who became King Richard II, was a minor at the time, and a somewhat weak regency ruled on his behalf. Meanwhile, during the comparative lull in the hostilities, King Charles V was able to continue consolidating his holdings in France up until his death in 1380, and the subsequent ascent of his son Charles VI to the French throne. All of this was taking place during the creation of this work of art.

Keeping this political history in mind, you may know that the lion has long been used as a symbol for England, just as the lily (or “fleur de lis”) has long been used as a symbol for France. Look at this scene again in that light, and in light of the political machinations of the time, and we can see something more than an illustration of a Bible story. Here we have a lion-headed monster who – with the Devil’s backing – has come from the sea, and claimed a scepter that bears the heraldic symbol for France. In this light, it’s easy to see how this work of French religious art could also be understood as a political dig at the English.

To me, this is far more fascinating than either a sculpture of a giant behind, or watching two giant behinds farting at each other on a stage.