Mucha’s work: where does art stop and commercialisation begin?

Perhaps one of the most renowned figures in Czech history, painter Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) lived a lengthy life fulfilling his passion for art. Born in Ivancice, Moravia (today a region of the Czech Republic), Mucha worked several decorative painting and design jobs, resulting in experience in a variety of art forms. From paintings and illustrations, to book covers and postcards, Mucha is an adaptable artist with work accessible and consequently recognisable to a wider audience.

Princess Hyacinth, 1911

Mucha adopted the famous ‘Art Nouveau’ style of the late 1800s to mid-1930s. Favouring natural forms and structures, the movement was an attempt to modernise designs from the 19th century’s historic and ‘cluttered’ eclectic styles. Mucha’s most famous pieces offer these vibrant and elegant styles, seen through his most notable ‘The Slav Epic’ collection as well as his iconic tendency to draw beautiful women sporting robes (such as ‘Princess Hyacinth’ and ‘Monaco Monte Carlo’, 1897).

Adaptability has followed Mucha and his work throughout and after his life, as he himself produced art for various platforms, and today they are constantly and widely embedded on different products. For example, Mucha collaborated with French magazine ‘Cocorico’ to create a series of ‘new art’ covers, such as the original cover No. 4 published in 1899. Today, this same piece is distributed widely as postcards, t-shirts, and numerous other forms of merchandise. A bag adapting No. 4 is available in the Mucha Museum Gift Shop, Prague.

No. 4 issue of Cocorico

Yet despite his widespread success and numerous other artists finding inspiration in his Art Nouveau style, Mucha became frustrated at his fame through commercial art, deeming that ‘his paintings came purely from within and Czech art’. It seems that Mucha found difficulty balancing accessibility with remaining non-commercial. When compared with famous Czech novelist Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whose literary success accelerated after his death when friend Max Brod refused to destroy his unfinished novels, instead publishing them to become the influential pieces they are today, Mucha’s art can be considered highly commercialised.

Kafka’s work only became adapted into alternative mediums recently, for example Swanton’s film adaptation of ‘The Metamorphosis’ in 2012, while Mucha’s art had been captured into various products and forms both during and after his life.

A bag of No. 4 from the Mucha Museum Gift Shop, Prague

So it must be questioned; where does art stop and commercialisation begin? Is it at the point of adaptation?

It can be said that Mucha’s pieces have become instantly recognisable to the eyes of art enthusiasts, perhaps even residents of Prague. Others may even recognise Mucha’s art before knowing Mucha himself. But does this automatically mean it has stopped serving its high-brow cultural purpose, and transitioned into mere consumer products?

While views will differ, I personally believe that Mucha’s popularity and adaptability make him an ever more accessible artist. Culture and art is ever evolving, and just because a particular piece of art or literature is earning more capital, does not mean it has stopped serving its cultural purpose. If anything, adaptations are a means of encouraging more people to adopt interests in topics otherwise considered too ‘difficult’ and ‘unappealing’. I know many friends who have found interest in literary classics due to their modern day interpretations, including the ‘Bridget Jones’ adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and the ’10 Things I Hate About You’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. Other ‘iconic’ and ‘commercialised’ artworks like da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ and van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’ have also encouraged wider ‘common’ interests in finding out about what these pieces mean, the people who have painted them, and the history of its origins.

Hence, despite adaptations and high popularity, Mucha’s art continues to encourage intellectual stimulation. Whether learning more about Art Nouveau, Mucha, Prague, or anything related to his work, people seeing a notebook cover or piece of accessory containing ‘The Slavs in their Homeland’ in public can inspire interest, continuing to increase the importance of arts and literature.

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