Nearly 100 years after its completion, Alfons Mucha’s Slav Epic has not yet found a permanent exhibition place. It may, however, have found momentary relief from being carried around from one museum to another. Part of the Czech artist’s iconic 20-painting series, retracing Slavic history and mythology through the ages, will be exhibited in Prague’s Obecní dům (Municipal house), from the 19th of July 2018 to the 13th of January 2019. Nine of the Slav Epic’s largest canvases, along with some of Mucha’s posters, are, in the meantime, shown to the public in Brno’s Exhibition centre until the end of the year.
What, exactly, is the Slav Epic?
Born in Ivančice, Moravia, in 1860, Alfons Maria Mucha is one of the leading figures of the Art Nouveau movement and has reached worldwide fame with his paintings, decorative posters and illustrations. It seems pretty safe to describe him as one of the most famous Czech artists in history.
After an early education in Brno, Mucha pursued his training in Vienna, Prague and Munich, before travelling to Paris at the end of the 1880’s.
Initially living off small jobs, his first breakthrough came when he was recruited as an illustrator for one of France’s major publishing houses, Armand Colin. Soon after, he started working in the theatre and entertainment industry. As the story goes, when Sarah Bernhardt came to the studio he was then working in to commission the poster for her upcoming show, Mucha, the only employee present at that moment, took the order. Designed in a single week, Gismonda’s poster received unanimous praise and acclaim from Paris’ artistic scene. His renown grew with every new painting and illustration, while Mucha’s style, most notably his strongly sensual yet highly symbolic portrayal of female figures, was quickly acknowledged as utterly unique and avant-garde.
In 1899, Mucha was commissioned to design the interior design of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Pavilion for the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition. This is where he got the initial idea to create a wide-ranging artwork retracing the history of Slavic countries through the centuries. As Mucha further travelled in the Balkans and Eastern European countries, the project slowly took shape, but lacked financing. This is where Charles Crane, a wealthy Chicago industrialist and Slavophile with close ties to Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (whose son, Jan, married his daughter), comes in. When the two men met during one of Mucha’s trips to the United States, Crane agreed to finance the artist’s ambitious project. It took him no less than eighteen years (1910-1928) to complete this work, which was shown for the first time in Prague to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia.
Despite having spent most of his life abroad, Mucha’s work and sensitivity are deeply rooted in his native country. The Slav Epic is, of course, a good example. But not the only one. After the foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Mucha contributed, the way he knows best, to the young nation-state’s blossoming identity: he decorated landmark Prague buildings like the St. Vitus Cathedral or the National Theatre and designed the country’s new banknotes and stamps, among other things. An important actor of the country’s revival, Mucha also witnessed first-hand its demise after Nazi Germany’s takeover: a few days after being interrogated by the Gestapo, Mucha died in Prague in July 1939.
A decades-long search for the Slav Epic‘s permanent home
Regardless of its incredible artistic value, the Slav Epic’s fame also derives from the controversy regarding where it should be exhibited. When Mucha bestowed the 20 painting to Prague, he did so on the condition the city built a permanent exhibition place at its own expense. As you can guess, such a place was never built. Due to lack of adequate premises, the Slav Epic was, until 2012, part of a permanent exhibition in Moravský Krumlov’s castle, in South Moravia. After years of dispute and legal battles opposing the cities of Prague, Moravský Krumlov and Mucha’s grandson, the work was finally moved to Prague’s Veletržní Palace and remained there until 2016.
Going, once again, against the advice of experts, worried about the damages that could result from moving the canvases around, the Slav Epic was exhibited in Tokyo in 2017 as part of the Year of Czech Culture in Japan. The success was immense: around 700.000 visitors came to admire the Moravian artist’s masterpiece.
And what now? As we said, half of the paintings are currently on display in Prague, and the other half in Brno. Progress has, however, been made: Prague’s city council recently approved, after commissioning the Institute of Planning and Development to find a suitable location, the renovation of the Lapidarium site of Výstaviště, as well as the construction of a new modern building to host the Slav Epic. “I see it as the long-standing debt that the city owes to Alfons Mucha”, said Prague Mayor Adriana Krnáčová. “The Slav Epic is a magnificent work and should have its own dignified home.”
It certainly should. The renovation and construction may however take more than 2 years. Let’s just hope the Slav Epic finds peace and tranquility before its 100th birthday…