The Big, the Bold and the Beautiful East

Alphonse Mucha’s “Slav Epic” at the Veletrzni Palac

By Haley Houseman

When face-to-face with the “Slav Epic,” a series of twenty canvases outlining the legendary history of the Slav race, one first recognizes the grand scale of the canvases. The largest painting measures nearly 20 feet by 26 feet.  Each panel covers an entire wall, filling every surface of the warehouse-style gallery.

Then there is the rush of color. Mucha uses every hue in the dramatic Art Noveau palette to convey his version of an idealized Slav history.  The colors often signify particular themes and time periods, creating a narrative between the panels that is more than a chronological history. Notable too is each texture, every brushstroke of which is deliberate and highly visible.

Alphonse Mucha is the creator of “le style Mucha,” a decorative arts aesthetic that became synonymous with the Art Noveau movement in the early 20th century.  The native of Ivančice, Moravia first became well known for his posters promoting the actress Sarah Bernhardt, after which his method of using paneled compositions and vivid colors took over advertising, illustrating and fine arts in France and eventually much of Europe and the United States.

Prague Wandering Spring 2013 Issue Number 1 Mucha art exhibit

“The Slavs in their Original Homeland,” showcases Mucha’s signature bold colors and multilayer composition.
photo courtesy of the Mucha Foundation

The first panel in the cycle, “The Slavs in Their Original Homeland,” is a perfect introduction to Mucha’s unique adaptation of decorative art techniques on such a scale. Mucha carries its striking multi-field composition through most of the allegorical panels in the cycle.  The paintings alternately feature detailed historical scenes of battles and treaties, or imaginary and symbolic figures composed across a semi-fictional scene.

“The allegorical panels that combine multiple layers make for the most bracing compositions, with swirling delicate colors and beautiful figures.”

Mucha uses both allegorical and historical events to create a narrative that is often fictionalized in some aspects in order to create an arresting image of the Slav people.  He regularly moves the central figure to more picturesque landscapes than the historical record dictates, or composes several distinct time periods together in a unified composition.  The series presents a dreamy history of Slavic triumphs, with legends as inspiration. Panel two, “The Celebration of Svantovít,” combines both these approaches. Mucha chooses to focus on the festive pilgrims, oblivious to the gods above them who struggle in a metaphorical scene of the conquering of the Slavs.  Mucha employs his dramatic use of dark colors in unusual ways, juxtaposing deep blues and purples against the cream and gold of the pilgrims.

Many viewers, particularly tourists, are more likely to marvel at the sheer size of the project and Mucha’s attention to detail and color more than at his message of Slavic unity.  The images are striking in their romanticism and drama.  The allegorical panels that combine multiple layers make for the most bracing compositions, with swirling delicate colors and beautiful figures.

Amid controversy, the “Slav Epic” cycle has come to rest in Prague’s Veletrzni Palac. Formerly residing in Moravsky Krumlov, in the Southern Moravian region, the panels had been the primary source of tourism for the small town.  It will remain in Prague for two years while the Moravsky Krumlov château, where the canvases were displayed from 1963 until now, undergoes renovations.

The fate of the canvases remains undecided after the two year period, as Moravsky Krumlov would like to regain possession of the panels but apparently lacks the proper resources.  The space within Veletrzni Palac is possibly the only location in Prague that meets the physical exhibition requirements in terms of both size and environmental monitoring for temperature and humidity. Still, some conservationists continue to voice concerns.

After completing the work in 1928, Alphonse Mucha donated the cycle to the city of Prague under the condition that a special pavilion be constructed to house the work.  This particular condition has never been met, and Veletrzni Palac currently serves as a substitute.

The exhibition is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm.

The entrance fee is 90 crowns ($4.55) for students / 180 Crowns ($9.10) for adults.

The National Gallery, Veletrzni Palace – Dukelskych hrdinu 47, Prague 7

www.ngprague.cz/en/5/sekce/veletrzni-palace

Haley Houseman is in the NYU Gallatin’s Class of 2013. Her hometown is Beverley, Massachusetts.

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Categories: Culture, Spring 2013 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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  1. Long to Prague Wandering | Suitcase on the Sidewalk - March 22, 2013

    […] I have been writing for PW and editing as well.  I definitely recommend you check out the Slav Epic. […]

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