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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Alphonse Mucha at The Hyde Collecetion

Job, 1896, color lithograph on paper mounted on linen
All images courtesy of the Dhawan Collection
If you were ever in a dorm room in the 1970s, you know the artwork of Alphonse Mucha. The master of French Art Nouveau was a staple of the softer side of the counterculture, partly due to his irresistible, sensual style and partly due to his having been the creator of turn-of-the-century ads for Job cigarette papers, which remained the brand of choice for those rolling joints while listening to psychedelic music some 75 years later.

Cycles Perfecta, 1902, color lithograph on paper
The show currently on a tour stop at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls through March 18, aptly entitled Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau, amply demonstrates that you need neither be stoned nor under the influence of a pop culture trend to be dazzled by the work of this brilliantly skilled commercial artist, whose style is both perfectly emblematic of the movement he  represents and strikingly distinctive as his individual mode of expression.

The show is drawn from California's extensive private Dhawan Collection of Mucha's  art, comprised mainly of lithographic posters that advertised products and events, and augmented by a handful of original drawings, one oil on canvas, numerous illustrated books, and a few other objects, such as a perfume bottle and early Czech currency that Mucha designed. With 70 pieces in all, it is an impressive enough display that my friends who had recently visited the Mucha museum in Prague were suitably gratified by our trip to The Hyde.

The Slav Epic (Slovanska Epopei), 1928
color lithograph on paper mounted in linen
In addition to the pure enjoyment of viewing this trove of gorgeous graphics, the show provides historical insights into the artist behind them.  I was familiar with Mucha (and, yes, had a poster of his ad for Bieres de la Meuse on my dorm room wall), but had no idea he wasn't French. In fact, though he led the Paris-based iteration of this Europe-wide art movement (known variously as Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Glasgow Style, and Stile Liberty), Mucha also strongly identified with his Slavic roots, leading him to spend most of the last decades of his career painting a massive cycle of paintings commemorating that ethnic history, entitled The Slav Epic. One strong example of that project is in this show.

It was also instructive to discover that Mucha's career was entwined with that of Sarah Bernhardt, who gave him his first big break and for whom he designed many beautiful posters over the years. The centerpiece of Master of Art Nouveau is a set of three examples of the original advertising lithograph that Mucha made on short order for a Bernhardt show, thus earning her loyalty. These include a trial proof in red ink only; a trial proof in black; and the 7-foot-tall full-color litho, made unique by a clever pencil drawing (known as a "remarque") that depicts a reading dog (complete with spectacles), and shows off the deceptively easy-looking command of line that marks all of Mucha's work. Don't be fooled - this artist worked very hard so that we don't have to, allowing our eyes to rove effortlessly over the exquisitely rendered forms and textures of his subjects.

Gismonda with remarque by Mucha
1894 color lithograph on paper
mounted on linen
Art Nouveau is characterized by idealized female subjects, who are both sensual and strong, with sinuous lines, visually arresting graphic design, and lush natural features, usually floral. Mucha excelled at all these elements, combining stark outlining (often in black) with rich, seductive colors. These are the aspects of his work that make it both specifically of its time and timelessly appealing.

In Master of Art Nouveau, we are also treated to less developed works in the form of drawings and sketches, which provide a window into the artist's process and, in a few cases, onto his more personal side. Additionally, there are the original banknotes that reminded me of another time and place, when a nation would celebrate its most famous artist in the most public and intimate way imaginable. After all, wouldn't you like to have a Rothko or a Rockwell in your wallet?

It is also worth noting that The Hyde has a fresh installation of 20th-century art in its Feibes & Schmitt Gallery through May 6, and some fine examples of prints and photographs in a selection of recent acquisitions on view in the smaller Hoopes Gallery through April 1. Both exhibitions provide wonderful opportunities for lovers of modern art.

Praha-Parisi cover for 1900 World’s Fair, 1900, lithograph on paper