A lesson from Alphonse Mucha

zodiac-la-plumeAlphonse Mucha’s Zodiac is an artefact from a time in which graphic art was the preserve of real, classically trained artists – or rather, a time in which the world did not make the kind of distinction between the two that it does now.

Czech national Mucha (1860-1939) was a gifted draughtsman and painter who moved to France, becoming a player in the Art Nouveau movement. He took on commissions including posters and book covers, also developing building interiors, and his key breakthrough as a graphic, or decorative, artist came when he produced a series of show posters for the popular actress Sarah Bernhardt (three examples shown below).

Zodiac (right) is a lithograph that was produced in 1896 under a contract with the printer Champenois, to be used as the firm’s in-house calendar. Mucha includes the 12 astrological signs in the disc around the woman’s head, giving her allegorical figure a kind of halo.

He also evokes the side-on tradition of portraying women in early Renaissance portraiture, which is now attacked by feminists as a subjection to the “male gaze”.

I prefer to think of it as a nobbernhardtle or regal profile, an air that is heightened by the elaborate jewellery he adorns her with. In light of Mucha’s later Le Pater project, a book of prints offering an esoteric reading of the Lord’s Prayer through a series of texts, lithographs and paintings (examples below), she may even be considered a depiction of the divine feminine.

The play of vibrant colours adds depth to the piece and the curling strands of hair bridge the gap between the architectural framing and the evocation of the natural world in the equally flowing forms of the leaves and vines beyond, tying all of the image’s elements together.

le-paterPut simply, this is a rich visual feast of pattern, colour and symbolism that tugs deep at the European psyche, delivered with sublime skill.

Léon Deschamps, chief editor of the quarterly La Plume, which published poems, short stories, exhibition reviews and illustrations by avant-garde artists, was so impressed by the image he bought the rights to distribute it as his own magazine’s calendar in 1897.

It is rightly one of Mucha’s most popular creations and now stands as a poignant example of the kind of aesthetic and tradition of decorative craftsmanship, echoed by groups like the Arts and Crafts Movement, which was supplanted by the cult of modernism.