Today is the 155th anniversary of Alfons Mucha’s birth. He was born in the town of Ivančice in the Moravian region of what is now the Czech Republic on July 24, 1860. I’m planning in the future to feature him in one of my artist spotlights, and I will at that time delve more into his biography and why he is such an iconic artist today, but today, in honor of his birthday, I will discuss one of his most iconic works, the four decorative panels on the arts he produced in 1896.
Before delving into imagery and style, I will first delve into their purpose. Mucha’s first successful work was in posters, and these works bear many similarities to his poster work, including the vertical format and compositions centered on single female figures. However, these are not posters. They advertise nothing and were never meant to hang in a public venue. Rather they are panneaux, decorative panels, meant to be luxury objects, printed using the lithographic process in large-format on silk or high-quality paper and hung in private rooms as decoration.
Since they served a decorative purpose, it’s easy to see them as just pretty images with little meaning or depth. But they do function, as pretty much all of Mucha’s panel art does, as allegories. Other series of panel arts he did include ones centering on flowers, precious stones, stars, and the times of day. However the Arts series is unique in two ways. One is the fact that its main subject, the Arts, are not aspects of nature but are human processes. The second quality that sets it apart is that it is a double allegory. While it is ostensibly about the arts, it also functions as a subtle ”times of day” series. So each panel has a dual sense. The Dance panel also functions as the morning panel, the Painting panel as day, the Poetry panel as evening, and the Music panel as night. The two themes feed into each other.
Stylistically the panels share the same style of linework. Shading is used sparingly and represented mostly by hatching. Mucha uses thicker linework outlining the female figure and the roundels, but most of the linework is very fine. Harder to discuss is the coloring, since different printings yield slightly different color schemes, but most printings show muted, pastel colors or warm colors. Composition-wise, the panels are strongly vertical. Space is carefully delineated by the roundels surrounding the figures, which also provide a seat for three of the figures. Background is barely suggested; perspective is non-existent. Flowers in the upper corners and arabesques lining the sides of the lower half of the panels add a highly ornamental effect.
Within the space of the roundels, half-delineated landscapes provide the sole suggestion that these panels inhabit any sort of reality. They give us visual clues as to what these panels depict. In Dance, leaves flutter beyond the confines of the roundel as the bare suggestion of trees evoke a landscape in the morning mist. In Painting, sunlight beams on a flower in stylized circles as the background depicts a noon sky. In Poetry, the most clearly depicted landscape shows the sun setting behind trees. In Music, branches laden with nighttime songbirds stand out darkly in front of the moon. The landscapes themselves have little perspective. The entire atmosphere is highly unnatural, almost mystical.
The female figures are central to the images. Not Symbolist femme fatales, not modernistic Parisian beauties, they have sexual appeal but are hardly acting in a manner one would consider seductive. Like in most of his panel art, they seem to function as allegorical spirits. Their poses are highly stylized, as if they are intentionally presenting themselves. None of them are clearly moving, but seem rather to be in poses suggesting movement. Even Dance stands surprisingly straight considering she represents an art form defined by activity. In fact all these panels would be incredibly still, in fact even uninteresting, were it not for the complex flow of fabric, hair, and arabesques that provide an extra layer to the composition as well as visual interest. Visual interest is provided also by the details of the highly fantastic clothing which further divorce the images from any clear culture or reality, and the unusual details of the roundels.
Beyond the relative lack of motion in the figures themselves is also the curious fact that none of them is participating in the art they represent. Even Dance does not dance but instead holds an impossible pose that no dancer would naturally be able to get into, get out of, or hold. Instead they seem to be caught in acts of inspiration. Dance stands and arcs her back against the breeze blowing against her. Painting watches the sunlight reflect off the flower she holds and seems to trace with her loose hand its outline. Poetry watches the landscape before her, musing on the evocative scene. Music listens to birds with her hands to her ears, while in the roundel around her a motif of a disembodied hand plucking stylized strings of starlight is repeated. That Mucha goes for such an unusual depiction of the arts invites further analysis. To me two messages are readily apparent.
One is the emphasis on the idea that all art has ultimately natural inspiration. To the Art Nouveau designer, this is a given. Mucha worked in the age that saw the triumph of nature as artistic inspiration. There was never such a time when artists and designers were so influenced by natural world. Indeed the focus here on the way nature inspires the arts not only emphasizes the importance of natural inspiration but also emphasizes it over the physical process of creating. The artist is placed in the passive position of spectator of the natural world instead of a creator. Ultimately, Mucha seems to say it is better for that artist not to think of oneself not as a creator, but as a transcriber and translator of the already-created. That Mucha depicts the artists of these scenes as women connects them to already established tradition in Symbolist art of using women to depict nature herself and the forces that control it. So Mucha’s artists are both separate from nature, in other words spectators of it, and representative of it, an actor of nature demonstrating its power as much as the dancing leaves or the singing birds. There is thus interwoven in this idea of natural inspiration the idea that the artistic process is a continuation of the natural processes that influence it.
The second and final message I feel this work conveys is the idea that art is primarily a mental process. In the time of Mucha, the idea that artists and designers were essentially nothing more than craftsmen was already outdated. Already in this period artists were seen as thinkers and philosophers, and their work were seen as valuable because they embodied concepts of truth. As the modern era has played out to now, the idea has continued to take hold that art derives value more from the concepts behind it than from the virtuosic skill used to make it. Mucha’s panels make a subtle commentary on this, considering that only a few years later cubism would throw these ideas into the spotlight. I would not go so far as to call these works masterpieces of conceptualism. But Mucha, by showing no final product nor depicting any of his figures actively making one, puts all the emphasis in this allegory of art on the thought, the inspiration, the mentality of creation.
It should be noted the most detailed part of the work is in the upper parts of the images and in the figures themselves. One’s eyes are focused almost entirely on the space within the roundels, where reality is most fully fleshed out, and where we are forced to confront both the figures and their inspiration. Music and Dance make eye contact with us, perhaps reflecting the immediate and involving naturre of their art forms, while Painting and Poetry are lost in thought. Beyond the roundels everything melts into nothing. It is possible even that what is in the roundels are not real, that the women are imagining everything around them, or remembering hazily something they already saw, meaning that beyond the figures, the whole image is the depiction of their mental process. The landscapes, which seem before the most real part of the background, may be no more real than the arabesques.
Because the world of the images is so stylized, the viewer is made to reflect on the artifice of the work. In the end wondering whether the figures are observing or imagining is unimportant, as the figures and everything around them are already the product of someone’s imagination and mental process, lovingly made and beautiful to look at. Mucha’s work later in his life would indulge more and more in heavy-handed allegory, but this is perhaps his only work that tries to allegorize the artistic process. That he does it in this way, that plays so much with our understanding of thought and inspiration’s role in art, and our understanding of when nature ends and art begins, shows himself as an artist willing to play with heady, intellectual concepts even where you would not expect them.
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I felt compelled to make another one because while I love the original, it only focuses on the main 2 characters and I want to expand a bit to dedicate one poster to the Autumn Elves. I may yet make another one for the summer elves and an individual one for the Winter Elves but I may not. We’ll see.