10 October 2016 Malcolm McGonigle
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Argyle Street, Glasgow
Exhibition running until February 19, 2017
Open daily 10am – 5pm, except Fri & Sun 11am – 5pm
The first image to grab the eye on entering this fabulous exhibition is the famous Gismonda, its powerful oblong composition hosting a noble statuesque figure almost shimmering in a golden sheen and practically bursting out of the frame. Its drama, poise and style still raises a few goose bumps 120 years after its creation.
Mucha, who strived for a beauty that engaged the masses, certainly achieved his aim when he took up the offer to design the famous Theatre de Renaissance poster of Sarah Bernhardt. The print was so beautiful that people tore it down to hang in their homes. He subverted the popular print techniques of the time, forsaking brash, eye-catching colours for a more harmonious palette to highlight his bold ornamental, almost embroidered motifs. He didn’t invent Art Nouveau but his stunning creations popularised the movement throughout Paris and the world.
Pippa Stephenson, curator of European art at Kelvingrove Art Gallery has done a superb job mixing Mucha’s sensuous images with occasional works from the museum’s archives to illustrate the cross-fertilisation that went on throughout Europe and Scotland – equating influences and composition elements that inspired our home grown stylists. Seeing a Rennie Mackintosh lithograph for the Scottish Musical Review hanging next to Mucha’s La Trappistine, it’s easy to spot design parallels in the stretched figures, stylised moon shapes and distilled floral lines. Tomoko Sato, who curates for the Mucha Foundation, emphasises the technical skill that underpins the fierce punchiness of Mucha’s images. ‘The challenge of creating a new graphic poster brought all of his interests together: a deep understanding of new print technology, his theories about harmonious composition, his fascination with detail, his desire to get the most from the dimensions of the frame and his love of beauty. It all comes together almost in an instant’.
But Mucha is much more than the lithographs and the exhibition explores his work as a teacher, keen on spreading his concepts through text books and lecturing (He created a book which featured ready to use designs and notes on how to stylise flowers and other motifs which became essential study for artists across the world). He was also thrilled by new technology and embraced photography, creating some fabulous theatrical images as blueprints for paintings and murals – these are also on display alongside some of his later works.
Mucha believed that art must always be a few steps ahead of humanity and this exhibition demonstrates he was light years ahead. There’s even weird correlations between these animated lively figures leaping from their boundaries and contemporary graphic novel art or even Japanese manga comics. In Quest of Beauty is a captivating exhibition that explores the spirituality and complexity of Mucha’s thinking, re-connecting Art Nouveau’s golden boy to his Slavic roots. And, with echoes of the Glasgow Boys alongside ‘The Four’s’ sinewy designs, it twangs a good few Scottish heartstrings too. Highly recommended.