Mucha is probably best known for his distinctive Art Nouveau illustrations, advertisements and posters, sometimes unfairly perceived as “pretty” or “chocolate boxy”. But Mucha was a painter who combined both skill and complexity.
Since 2012, the Epic has been on display within the city of Prague, at a temporary exhibition space in the National Gallery’s Veletržní Palace, where the canvases were first viewed back in 1928. When I saw the paintings in 2007, however, there was considerable travelling involved, with a 4 hour “fast train” to the small town of Moravský Krumlov and a 5 hour return trip via Brno. It’s about 200km South-East of Prague in the South Moravia region, almost halfway to Budapest in Hungary, and closer to Vienna than to Prague. For almost 50 years the gigantic rooms of a dilapidated chateau in the heart of the town were home to the Slav Epic. The chateau itself had an air of unworldliness about it that reminded me of the Beast’s house in La Belle et la Bête by Jean Cocteau. The location itself is just 10km away from the town of Ivančice, Mucha’s birthplace.
The first thing that strikes the visitor about the paintings is how truly monumental they are, both in scale and realisation. Seeing them in the flesh is almost like being up close to a cinema screen, yet the closer you stand the more enticing and richly textured the surface becomes, with all its different hues and details becoming more clearly focused. As a young man Mucha had worked as an assistant in the workshop of the Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt Company in Vienna for two years, painting theatre stage-sets after failing to get into the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. He must have witnessed for himself the impact great pictorial scenes could have on an audience. The largest of the canvases (numbers 1 to 7), measure an astounding 8.10 X 6.10 metres – reminiscent in scale of a theatrical backdrop. The rest of the twenty are slightly smaller, though still massive by most standards, varying between 4 x 4 and 6 x 4 metres.
Mucha used egg tempera mostly, only employing oil for finer details. I sometimes wonder how many eggs Mucha must have cracked open to complete the Epic. The paintings have a very matt finish, common to tempera, which allows for a clear view of all the detail and texture across the surface, unobscured by the glossiness that might have resulted from oils. The canvases were imported from Brussels, where the material was originally produced for ship’s sails.
The idea for a cycle celebrating the history of the Slavs came to Mucha sometime at the end of the 19th Century, driven by a desire to show the Bohemian people their cultural origins. The last two paintings in the cycle have a distinctly political, even nationalistic feel, and it’s worth remembering that Czechoslovakia was still a young democratic republic when the paintings were completed. Mucha had been born in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it was only in 1918 when Mucha was 58 years old that Czechoslovakia became a sovereign state. A rich patron from the USA, Charles Crane, agreed to pay for all of Mucha’s expenses connected with producing the works and the French historian Ernest Denis, with his specialism in Slav history, offered Mucha his vast knowledge of the subject.
Mucha left the entire Slav Epic to the city of Prague in his will, on condition that a special pavilion was designed to display it. Unfortunately, this condition was not fulfilled after his death.
On 15th March 1939, German troops marched into Prague and took control of Bohemia and Moravia. Within six months the Second World War began in Europe. To prevent the Nazis either acquiring or destroying them, the Slav Epic canvases were rolled up and hidden. The 79 year-old Mucha was one of the first well-known public figures in Prague to be interrogated by the Gestapo, perhaps because he had become such a popular symbol and exponent of Czech democracy. While these gruelling interrogations took place, Mucha fell ill with pneumonia. He died from a lung infection a few months later in July 1939.
In 1954 the Slav Epic was brought to Moravský Krumlov, but not put on display to the public until 1963. The communist government in Prague had little interest in building a special pavilion for the paintings, and Mucha’s work was considered petit bourgeois and old-fashioned. The epic remained in Moravský Krumlov until 2012, only returned to Prague after a fierce argument and a controversial legal battle over where the paintings should reside.
The town of Moravský Krumlov had taken legal action to ban the relocation of the paintings on the grounds that Prague had no rights to do so after failing for so long to fulfil the artist’s conditions. Despite this resistance, along with Mucha’s surviving descendants and the Mucha Foundation raising concerns about the suitability of the exhibition arrangements in Prague, the collection was moved. Over a thousand local residents and art students turned out to protest and demonstrate in Moravský Krumlov, while the paintings were packed for transportation.
The Slav Epic is currently still on display at the National Gallery’s Veletržní Palace until December 2016, after which it may be travelling for exhibitions in Japan and China. Alfons Mucha’s wish that the epic be housed permanently in its own dedicated pavilion in the capital has still not been realised, and the future of the paintings is far from certain.
There is nothing quite like the Slav Epic anywhere else in the world; it is a magnificent achievement. Perhaps one day these incredible paintings will finally benefit from the kind of gallery their creator hoped for.