Volume 21, Issue 1 | Spring 2022

Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary

Reviewed by Kaylee P. Alexander

Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh and the Mucha Foundation, Prague
October 23, 2021–January 23, 2022

Tomoko Sato and Michele L. Frederick,
Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary.
Raleigh: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2021.
144 pp.; 165 color and b&w illus.; artists’ biographies; select bibliography; chronology.
$40.00 (softcover)
ISBN: 978–0–88259–910–6

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Fig. 1, Entrance to Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary. Photo © North Carolina Museum of Art.

Organized by the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) and the Mucha Foundation, Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary takes a refreshing look at the artist’s prolific career through the lens of his Moravian identity and contributions to material and visual culture at the turn of the twentieth century (fig. 1). The first major US exhibition of the Mucha Trust Collection in twenty years, the NCMA’s show features over one hundred objects—from Mucha’s iconic posters to perfume bottles, biscuit boxes, calendars, and photographs—documenting the artist’s rise to prominence in Paris during the 1890s to his completion of The Slav Epic in 1928.‍[1] The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated and comprehensive, yet accessible and unusually digestible catalogue by the exhibition’s co-curators, Tomoko Sato (Curator, Mucha Foundation) and Michele L. Frederick (Associate Curator of European Art, NCMA).

The exhibition is constructed chronologically over four key themes—1) “Women: Icons and Muses,” 2) “Le Style Mucha: A Language of Beauty,” 3) “Paris in 1900: The World at a Crossroads,” and 4) “Beauty: The Power of Inspiration”—that promote engagement with Mucha’s oeuvre as a product of his Slavic identity and advocacy rather than one indebted to his professional success in Paris. In doing so, the curators frame his largely commercial body of work as a test site for experimenting with visual forms of communication that would serve his ultimate goal of promoting Czech independence and social reform through art.

The show opens with Mucha’s 1894 poster for Gismonda (fig. 2), featuring Sarah Bernhardt in the title role. As the work that launched the artist’s career as one of Paris’s premier advertising designers, this first set of galleries—“Women: Icons and Muses”—introduces visitors to a very familiar Mucha: one who epitomizes widespread conceptions about Art Nouveau in Paris. Here we follow in Mucha’s footsteps, tracing his roughly two-year rise to prominence from his first posters for the Théatre de la Renaissance to his invitation to join the Salon des Cents in 1896. The works included in this section also highlight the artist’s innovative contributions to contemporary marketing and graphic design practices, producing coordinating advertising and product packaging. The installation of these galleries—with their wide array of travel and product posters, preparatory sketches in varying stages of finish, and original packaging for Lefèvre-Utile (LU) biscuits and intact Lance perfume bottles (fig. 3)—inserts the audience into the material and visual world of the Fin-de-Siècle.

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Fig. 2, View of gallery featuring Mucha’s Gismonda, 1894, from Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary. Photo © North Carolina Museum of Art.
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Fig. 3, Installation view of Lance perfume bottles and LU biscuit tins from Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary. Photograph © Kaylee P. Alexander.

The subsequent three sections of the exhibition reveal lesser-known aspects of Mucha’s artistic and professional development. In the second part, “Le Style Mucha: A Language of Beauty,” attendees are pushed to rethink the origins of Mucha’s iconic style not only through the lens of his own Moravian heritage, but also through that of his visual explorations of other ethnic minorities in Europe. Here the galleries highlight Mucha’s interest in historical and ethnically diverse forms of ornament that the artist reinterpreted and incorporated into the geometric designs that surrounded his idealized women. Although Mucha’s special focus on influences from Moravian folk traditions is apparent, the exhibition also emphasizes the artist’s regular visits to Brittany in the 1890s and the affinity for Breton motifs—suns, hearts, etc.—that appears in his work produced during this time. Honing in on Mucha’s realization of the spiritual connections between the Czech Celts and the Gauls (62–65), the curators make a compelling case that the Bretons, for Mucha, represented a successful preservation of ethnic heritage that contrasted with the experiences of Slavic peoples under Austro-Hungarian rule. At this point, the exhibition also makes clear that Mucha’s theorizing of how beautiful forms could be used in advertising was inherently linked to his interests in making beautiful—and therefore palatable, publicly accessible, and desirable—Slavic heritage to “sell” the idea of a Slavic cultural preservation to the Empire in the same way that he sold consumer goods to the masses. Here, too, Mucha’s interest in “art for the people” and his involvement in the Société Populaire des Beaux-Arts appropriately marks the transition into the third part of the exhibition: “Paris in 1900: The World at a Crossroads.”

This penultimate section signals a watershed in Mucha’s career as well as spiritual and political interests, aptly coinciding with the Exposition Universelle of 1900. Mucha participated in the Exposition both as an official representative of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and as a designer for Parisian exhibitors. It was during this time that Mucha, according to the exhibition text, first conceived of the project that would ultimately become The Slav Epic: a seventeen-year project representing a thousand years of Slavic culture and revealing the oppression that Slavic peoples were experiencing under Austro-Hungarian rule. Stressing the potential conflict between the artist’s commercial success in Paris and his ultimate goal of artmaking in the service of his people, the 1900 Exposition is positioned as the turning point in Mucha’s career that would culminate in his return to Moravia in 1911. These galleries also cover the artist’s collaborations with Georges Fouquet, for whom he designed and decorated a new jewelry shop in 1901, and Rodin, for whom he would help organize the 1902 Prague exhibition with the Mánes Union of Artists. Here the NCMA draws on its own substantial collection of Rodin bronzes to complement the discussion of the two artists’ relationship (fig. 4).‍[2]

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Fig. 4, Installation view of August Rodin’s Eve, modeled 1883, from Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary. Photograph © Kaylee P. Alexander.
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Fig. 5, Installation view of Mucha’s Le Pater, published 1889, from Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary. Photograph © Kaylee P. Alexander.

The final galleries of “Paris in 1900: The World at a Crossroads,” which lead into the final section—“Beauty: The Power of Inspiration”—examine Mucha’s Le Pater (fig. 5), which, published in 1899, was heavily influenced by the artist’s interests in spiritualism and was exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1900 alongside the original drawings for the volume. Placing Le Pater in the context of Mucha’s initiation as a Freemason in 1898, the curators establish the artist’s acceptance of Freemason ideals—the betterment of humanity through charity, solidarity, and intellectual, moral, and spiritual values—as yet another push towards his political activism through artistic practice.

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Fig. 6, View of gallery featuring Mucha’s poster for the Moravian Teachers’ Choir, 1911, from Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary. Photo © North Carolina Museum of Art.

As we enter into the final set of galleries—“Beauty: The Power of Inspiration”—the focus shifts entirely to Mucha’s visual activism, as it culminated in The Slav Epic of 1928. Drawing heavily on the artist’s belief in the power of art to inspire social change, wall text accompanying Mucha’s 1911 poster for the Moravian Teachers’ Choir (fig. 6) draws direct links to contemporary expressions of artistic activism such as Shepard Fairey’s 2008 poster, Hope, and artwork produced in the context of the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements. Here, despite the best of intentions to draw meaningful connections between contemporary issues and Mucha’s own visual activism, the exhibition text treads dangerously close to pandering to the general public, particularly as this idea receives no further elaboration in the catalogue. In the final gallery, visitors are met with original photographs and video footage of Mucha working on The Slav Epic, accompanied by the work of Scottish composer Geraldine Mucha, the artist’s daughter-in-law.

Aside from the curators’ careful attention to Mucha’s life and work, the exhibition represents a highly successful connection not only to the NCMA’s permanent collection, but also to local history and culture. A recurring design thread in the exhibition space is a series of wallpapers (figs. 7­, 8), custom-made for the show, that represents local, North Carolinian flora found in the surrounding Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park—the Virginia iris, columbine, rattlesnake master, and southern maidenhair fern—transformed into Mucha’s iconic, Art Nouveau style. One of the central galleries also incorporates three works by local artists who were commissioned by the NCMA to each create a work inspired by Mucha’s style and responding to the question, “What is beauty today?” The works are displayed along a wall equipped with a message board, encouraging visitors to leave notes on their interpretation of what beauty means to them (fig. 9). What is further to be praised within the NCMA’s exhibition design is its interactivity, which shows an awareness of how to involve audiences without trivializing content. For example, kaleidoscope lenses are made available for viewers to experiment alongside Mucha in viewing selected plates from his 1901 volume, Combinaisons ornementales se multipliant à l’infini à l’aide du miroir (Ornamental combinations multiplying to infinity with the help of a mirror; fig. 10), and a QR code for an official Spotify playlist equipped with Debussy, Satie, and Fauré compositions is displayed for those interested in deepening the experience of Mucha’s world.‍[3] These clever integrations of the local arts, environment, and audience serve the multidimensional purpose of provoking meaningful reflection; mirroring one of the primary themes of the exhibition by asserting North Carolina’s identity through the exhibition as Mucha asserted his Moravian heritage through his creative output; and upholding the NCMA’s mission to “inspire creativity by connecting [their] diverse communities to cultural and natural resources.”‍[4]

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Fig.7, NCMA’s original wallpaper design from Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary. Photograph © Kaylee P. Alexander.
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Fig. 8, Installation view showing use of the NCMA’s original wallpaper design in Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary. Photograph © Kaylee P. Alexander.
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Fig. 9, “What is Beauty Today?” installation featuring works by Alisha Locklear Monroe (left), Tori ‘FNoRD’ Carpenter (center), and Lakeshia T. Reid (right) from Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary. Photo © North Carolina Museum of Art.
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Fig. 10, Visitor viewing plates from Mucha’s Combinaisons ornementales se multipliant à l’infini à l’aide du miroir (Ornamental combinations multiplying to infinity with the help of a mirror), 1901, through a kaleidoscopic lens at Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary. Photograph © Kaylee P. Alexander.

The success of Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary lies not only in its scholarly content, but also in its achievement of a synthesis of the arts that captures the spirit of the era it covers. This synthesis appears not only in the range of Mucha’s own work on display, but also in the NCMA’s period musical pairings, original wallpaper and font designs, and audience engagement with regional artistic output. All of these elements together make for an exhibition that skillfully mimics in its design the historical themes explored in the works shown, creating a nuanced immersive experience for experts and non-experts alike.


[1] Between 1998 and 2000, Alphonse Mucha: The Spirit of Art Nouveau, organized by Art Services International and the Mucha Foundation traveled to eight museums in the United States, including the North Carolina Museum of Art in 1999. At the time, it was the first major exhibition of Mucha’s work since 1921. That exhibition was accompanied by a substantial, 352-page catalogue. See: “Alphonse Mucha: The Spirit of Art Nouveau,” Past Exhibitions, Mucha Foundation, accessed January 15, 2022, http://www.muchafoundation.org/.

[2] The North Carolina Museum of Art is home to a collection of over thirty works by Auguste Rodin, most of which were donated to the museum by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation in 2009.

[3] “The Official Mucha Exhibition Playlist,” accessed January 18, 2022, https://open.spotify.com/.

[4] See: “Mission,” About, North Carolina Museum of Art, accessed January 15, 2022, https://ncartmuseum.org/.