Czech art gets new home

Slav Epic by Czech Art Nouveau artist Alfons Mucha is a cycle of 20 allegories tracing the history of the Slavic people and inspired in part by mythology.
Slav Epic by Czech Art Nouveau artist Alfons Mucha is a cycle of 20 allegories tracing the history of the Slavic people and inspired in part by mythology.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Painter Alfons Mucha's Slav Epic series will be housed permanently in Prague's Lapidarium

PRAGUE • The giant Slav Epic series by Czech Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha has finally secured a permanent home after 90 years in temporary depositories, including a hiding place from the Nazis under a pile of coal.

Mucha (1860-1939) said in his testament that he wanted the allegoric cycle of 20 paintings depicting Slav myths exhibited in Prague on condition that the city would build a home for the work.

Prague became the owner of the canvases - which range in size from 20 to 50 sq m - in 1928, but it has so far failed to meet the wish of the painter famous also for his floral posters of actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Last Thursday, City Hall voted to secure a home for the work that Mucha considered his masterpiece.

"I see this as an overdue debt that we owe Alfons Mucha," said Prague mayor Adriana Krnacova.

The new exhibition hall will be located inside Prague's Lapidarium, a 19th-century Art Nouveau building that has been abandoned for decades. Prague believes its reconstruction will help revitalise the area, which has the potential to draw tourists and locals.

Art Nouveau was characterised by intricate linear designs and flowing curves based on natural forms. The movement was popular from the 1890s until its decline after World War I.

"The advantage of this solution is that this grandiose work could have a home within 21/2 years," says Ms Krnacova.

"This is the best solution for the Slav Epic," said Mr Jan Wolf, Prague councillor in charge of culture, adding that the building could also host other works by Mucha.

Prague puts the cost of the project at 580 million koruna (S$35.3 million).

According to a 1913 contract, the work was commissioned by an American Slavophile, Mr Charles Crane, with the intention to donate it to Prague.

Mucha began the Slav Epic in 1910 and completed it in 1928, 10 years after the former Czechoslovakia became independent following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

In the same year, the cycle was exhibited for the first time at Prague's sprawling Trade Fair Palace.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the canvases were placed in a depository, then hidden under a pile of coal from the Nazis, who considered Mucha a freemason and Jewish sympathiser.

Mucha died in 1939 shortly after being interrogated by the Gestapo.

The post-war communist regime in turn denounced the painter as a decadent bourgeois.

It was only in the 1960s that the collection was taken out of obscurity and put on display at the Moravsky Krumlov castle in the Czech countryside, near Mucha's birthplace of Ivancice.

In 2012, the paintings were moved to Prague as castle conditions deteriorated.

But the work, which drew 660,000 people during an exhibition in Japan last year, still had no permanent home.

Over the years, more than a dozen places were suggested for the Slav Epic amid disputes between Prague and Mucha's family.

Pending its installation at the Lapidarium, the entire work will be exhibited at the city hall, itself an Art Nouveau building, to mark the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia's birth.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2018, with the headline 'Czech art gets new home'. Print Edition | Subscribe