Alphonse Mucha’s lush Art Nouveau style comes to Cedar Rapids, Iowa

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Moravian Choir © Mucha Trust 2012

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In the cornfields of Iowa, a bounty of Slavic culture and beauty awaits.

Chances are you have seen Alphonse Mucha’s work without ever knowing who Alphonse Mucha was. His languid beauties, often portrayed with lush crowns of poppies and lilies in flowing hair blowing wild in an invisible wind, are synonymous with the Art Nouveau style their creator is so often credited with inventing.

At the dawn of the last century, they appeared in advertisements all over Paris for Moet & Chandon champagne and JOB tobacco, among other products. The famed actress Sarah Bernhardt, who took Paris by storm in the same era, commissioned Mucha to design the advertising posters for her performances - an arrangement that would last six years and immortalize her on both sides of the Atlantic in his iconic style. If you haven’t seen the product ads or Berhnardt’s posters, chances are you have seen one of the many series Mucha did in the same style articulating motifs such as the four seasons or precious stones.

However, Mucha’s work extended far beyond the lithographs that brought him the bulk of his mainstream notoriety, and it is this work that makes the exhibit currently on display at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, such a treasure to see.

“Alphonse Mucha: Inspirations of Art Nouveau” is the most comprehensive, extensive collection of Mucha’s work to be on display in the United States since 1999, and the first of its size and scope to ever come to the Midwest. Mucha was a prolific artist whose work also encompassed sculpture, jewelry, photography and interior design. The exhibit features a number of pieces in these varying disciplines, including a photograph taken by Mucha of the French painter Paul Gauguin sitting at the harmonium in Mucha’s Paris studio, clad in a nightshirt and sports coat but notably lacking pants. (When you consider how long photography used to take, before the age of celluloid film, when an image was burned onto a glass plate, you have to wonder what provoked such an odd staging and what conversation must have ensued between the two artists.) Mucha’s wife, daughter and close friends frequently served as models in his work, and one of the most fascinating elements of the exhibit is seeing Mucha’s idea for one of his famed lithographs springing from a series of photographs using models in his studio.

Initially, one wonders why the Mucha Foundation would choose a small museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to host an exhibit of this size and scope. Surely, the Art Institute here in Chicago, or even the Milwaukee Art Museum, seem more likely venues for a display of something as popular as Art Nouveau pieces. However, Alphonse Mucha, who traveled and lived away from his Moravian homeland for a good portion of his life, never forgot where he came from. It is his Slavic heritage, and the themes born out of his native land, that tie all of the work together in this collection.

Mucha also very much believed that art should be accessible to all people - something clearly articulated by his success in commercial advertising and, later, also forcefully expressed in the series of murals he painted that would come to be known as the Slav Epic. These murals depict key moments in the historical development of his homeland. Upon completion, they went on display in Prague for the public to enjoy. They are still on display in the Czech Republic to this day. Mucha, of course, lived at a crossroads in history, when the national character of what would eventually be established as the modern Czech Republic was being shaped. His work - even his flower-clad ingénues - embodies elements of Slavic culture, decorative influence and nationalist nods. It is this influence and affinity that the Mucha Foundation sought to honor, by asking the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library to host this exhibit. The Museum recently moved into its new home at the heart of the Czech Village located in Cedar Rapids in a little district that offers visitors a charming variety of Slavic dining and shopping options as well.

If you’re a fan of Mucha’s lyrical commercial lithography or enraptured with the stylistic elements of Art Nouveau, the display at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library makes a day trip to Cedar Rapids worthwhile. Come for what you know, but be prepared to walk away from this exhibit moved and inspired by what you perhaps did not. Mucha’s deep love for his family and friends, his jubilant pride in his Moravian homeland and his fervent belief that art and beauty are for everyone to enjoy lend an especially touching and intimate air to this thoughtful exhibit.

“Alphonse Mucha: Inspirations of Art Nouveau” is on display at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa through Dec. 31, 2012.