Alfons Mucha was left-handed, but he drew with both left and right hands. His drawing talent was evident from childhood, as soon as he was very small, he drew where he could with a pencil tied around his neck. In addition to his artistic talent, he had a beautiful voice, loved music and saw his future in painting. He was just different, and not just because he was left-handed.
The environment in which he grew up (the Muchas lived in the back wing of the courthouse in Ivančice next to Šatlava), the Sunday mass and the flickering light of the candles, reflected in the golden glow of the chalice, the perfume flowers, the majestic sound of the organ and the figure of the suffering Christ, everything had to work after beauty like a mysterious mystery.
Mucha was a charismatic personality – he had beautiful teeth, golden skin, auburn blond hair, a beard and charm.
However, his path to painting is difficult. The opportunity did not arise until 1879 with the Viennese company Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt, which produced theatrical decorations. When the Ringtheater burned down in December 1881, it was fired. He went to Mikulov, where he portrayed local fees. The owner of the Mikulov estate, Count Khuen-Bellasi, noticed him there. He offered her his first major commission – the repair of the paintings in Emmahof Castle, and then recommended her to his brother, Count Egon Khuen, who decided to support Alfonso’s talent. Mucha enrolls in the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, and the Count pays him a fairly decent privilege.
The beginnings of Paris
After graduating from Munich, Mucha went to Paris. It was the fall of 1887. After Vienna and Munich, Paris was like light champagne. She breathed, pulsed, just lived. The old buildings have disappeared, the medieval streets have taken over, many historic buildings have disappeared. A new Paris developed with wide boulevards, electric lighting, an opera, horse-drawn omnibuses and trams. The Eiffel Tower was built. The atmosphere at the time was captivating, as was Mucha. At the Academy, Julian meets Marold and a German. It was a time of association, regrouping, messianism, pioneering, enthusiasm and invention. Mucha had no influence.
Alfons Mucha: Self-Portrait (1899). Source: Mucha Foundation
He was a strange man. He would have had beautiful teeth, golden skin, auburn blond hair, a beard and charm. He was apparently a charismatic figure. Not too tall, courteous, in a scabbard with a sash around the waist, as we know from vintage photographs, undoubtedly appealed to women. His relationship with them was a bit strange, but he hadn’t paid attention to them yet. Julien transferred from the Academy Colarossi from the Academy. The academy that reigned in Julien, based on the observance of canons from the ancient art, no longer suited him at the time. And he also moved. The colorful kaleidoscope of the Latin Quarter was fascinating. Fairgrounds, the rhythm of the cancan, the victory of La Goulue forever immortalized on the Toulouse-Lautrec poster and the books of the Bukinistes, it was all Paris in the fall of 1888. However, the beginning of 1889 was tragic for the “Misha”, as the French call it. The count finished his appanage. No preparation, no warning. He didn’t know why. His world collapsed.
When it comes to life
Alfonso was almost twenty-nine. He was penniless, unable to study and did not know how to proceed. Paris had no mercy. He fed on lentils for several weeks, occasionally eating for debt in Father Michaud’s small restaurant and visiting the painter’s friend Vácha, who depicted people from higher social backgrounds. But it didn’t last forever. It was cold, he had nothing to drown, nothing to pay the rent, he was hungry. He received nothing for the drawings he sent to Czech newspapers. He fell ill, did not leave the house, was at the bottom. And just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, the card flipped. Was it a coincidence, or his lucky star, or was it fate? Mucha, then living on rue Bara, received a visit from Henri Bourrelier, editor-in-chief of Armand Colin, and offered him an illustration job in the Petit Français Illustrée edition. Mucha’s sky has cleared.
The end of 1894 was fatal for Mucha – actress Sara Bernhardt was born.
Mucha needed to see himself from another angle, he needed to continue learning, but differently from the Julien Academy, which looked too much like Munich. Maybe Khuen didn’t care that Mucha didn’t inform him of his decision to transfer to Colarros, so he stopped Mucha’s apprehension. Who knows. Mucha became a great painter who skipped a step, but that has nothing to do with Mucha’s famous awakening thesis about Sara Bernhardt’s poster. Mucha’s situation has improved markedly.
By detaching himself from Khuen, Mucha somehow freed himself. He wasn’t bound by anyone, he didn’t have to confess to anyone, and as an illustrator he became popular. He had the first advertising and calendar master from Charles Lorillrus comp. He moved to rue la Grande Chaumière with Madame Chalotte, where he met Gauguin, who later, on his return from Tahiti without a penny, gave him refuge. A photograph of Gauguin seated near a harmonium is also known from this time. Mucha respected him, but he was too loud for his liking. The end of 1894 is approaching and a fateful milestone for Mucha. Actress Sara Bernhardt came into her life and created her first poster.
Destiny wand Sarah Bernhardt
Gismond’s poster was not a one-night miracle. Mucha did not work by chance, although chance played a very important role in his life. She was part of it. On January 4, 1895, Gismond was to have a hundred rehearsals, and Sarah wanted a new New Year’s poster that would sufficiently advertise this event. She commissioned the printer from Lemercière to execute it. But it was Christmas, and at that time there was no Afishiste in Paris to whom such work could be entrusted. There was only Mucha. Director Brunoff had no choice but to turn to Mucha. It was a coincidence, but she didn’t catch him off guard. He had drawn her before, so he agreed and went to the theater to see her performance.
Mucha knew not only the outer appearance but also the inner appearance of Sarah Bernhardt. The lovers were probably not there, but they were bound by mutual admiration and tender friendships.
The first proposal was appreciated. Mucha launches into a colorful model and Brunoff leaves Paris. When he returned to the jump, the poster was already hanging on the wall. Brunoff, on the other hand, paled because “it’s not done like that”. Sarah was anxiously awaiting the poster, a desperate Brunoff was waiting to be fired, and Mucha was eagerly awaiting the printer’s verdict. Then the phone rang. “They called from the theater for me to come immediately. Járka, it’s bad now! But I went. They took me to Sarah’s dressing room, and there I saw her face to face for the first time My poster hung on the wall, with Sarah standing in front of it, unable to take her eyes off it. When she saw me, she came up to me, hugged me, and showered me with praise. Anyway, no shame, but success, a great success,” recalls Alfons Mucha.
Alfons Mucha: “Gismonda” poster (1894). Source: Mucha Foundation
He worked with Sarah for six years until he left for America in 1901. But even after that he was in Paris. What was so revolutionary about Mucha’s conception of the Sarah poster? How was it so different from other productions? Mainly because it had a different format. It was narrow, long, and the figure was captured almost life-size. And then the colors. Instead of the fashionable tinsel at that time, soft to translucent tones breathed into it. Perhaps it wasn’t just the concept art that fascinated Sarah, nor the form it captured in a single line. The poster exudes an eerie charm, as if Sarah’s soul is cursed in Gismonda.
That’s why they had to meet. To catch her once and for all. They went together, they were tuned on the same string, but were they lovers? On the contrary, they probably knew that they could be, and that the conscience could please them. They both lived in dreams. A step into reality could undo the spell. Sarah was fifty years old when Mucha recognized her. Much was only thirty-four, but age didn’t matter. Sarah wasn’t really beautiful until she was fifty. Mucha was a sensitive observer. From his portraits one can sense how intimately he knew not only his outer appearance but also his inner appearance. Mutual admiration and tender friendship could be called the relationship between Sarah Bernhardt and Alfonso Mucha. It is said that Sarah made Mucha the king of Art Nouveau Paris, but he would have become so without her, albeit on other trips and later – who knows.
photo: Mucha Foundation, source: New Phoenix