“On your day off, we are going to Bournemouth, to the Russell Cotes Museum” I announced – giving Bob no choice in the matter. I knew that the Mucha exhibition at R-C was about to close, and I really thought we should go and see it. Back in the 1970’s, in our student days, we both liked Art Nouveau, and the prints of the Czech artist, Alphonse Mucha.
Back then, the paintings and posters were ubiquitous [and found also on mirrors, and even reproduced on shirts and curtains]
Merton Russell Cotes was a very wealthy Victorian, who was truly uxorious – he loved his wife Annie so much that he built an amazing house for her on the cliff top overlooking the sea, surrounded by beautiful gardens and filled with beautiful art and exotic treasures. They added an extension, a purpose built art gallery – then bequeathed it to the people of Bournemouth in 1916.
We spent ages looking round the house itself, with its wonderful Victorian rooms, panelled and richly decorated – stuffed with statuary and paintings. Everything so luxurious – this toilet is known as Lily Langtry’s Loo – “because the famous actress from Jersey visited frequently” said the Guide [did she have bladder problems? I wondered –Tena Lady Langtry…] It was a large suite, with sumptuous tiles, elegant porcelain and a large mirror.
But “In the Quest of Beauty” – the Mucha Exhibition itself was fabulous – we loved looking at all the pictures, and learning all about the man himself. Mucha [1860 - 1939] was born in Czechoslovakia and began studying art in his teens. Mucha moved to Paris in 1887, and continued his studies while also producing magazine and advertising illustrations. Around Christmas 1894, Mucha happened to drop into a print shop where there was a sudden, unexpected demand for a new poster to advertise a play starring Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress in Paris.
He volunteered to produce a poster within two weeks, and on 1 January 1895, the advertisement for the play Gismonda appeared on the streets of the city. It was an overnight sensation and announced the new artistic style and its creator to the citizens of Paris. Bernhardt was so satisfied with the success of that first poster that she entered into a 6 years contract with Mucha.
He spent many years working on what he considered his fine art masterpiece, The Slav Epic, twenty huge paintings depicting the history of the Slavic peoples in general, bestowed to the city of Prague in 1928. He had dreamt of completing a series such as this, since he was young.
But the rising tide of fascism in the late 1930s led to his works, and his Slavic nationalism, being denounced as 'reactionary'. When German troops marched into Czechoslovakia in 1939, Mucha was one of the first to be arrested by the Gestapo. During the interrogation he fell ill with pneumonia. Though eventually released, he never recovered from the strain of this event, or seeing his home invaded. He died in Prague on July 14, 1939. He once said
The purpose of my work was never to destroy but always to create, to construct bridges, because we must live in the hope that humankind will draw together and that the better we understand each other the easier this will become.
It was a wonderful way to spend a morning revelling in the glorious pictures – the beautiful theatrical posters of Sarah Bernhardt, and the thought-provoking paintings of the Slavic peoples with their history full of tragedy and joy. The Exhibition finishes in Bournemouth this weekend, but will be on display later in the year – from 6th November through to 20th March 2016, you can catch it at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich [I think I might try and see it again over Christmas!]