It was the eve of Christmas in 1894 when Alphonse Mucha’s career really took off. Sarah Bernhardt, a famed French theater actress at the time, was in dire need of an artwork to promote her new production of Gismonda. Unfortunately, all her artist contacts were on holiday and as a result, she turned to Mucha. Without any prior experience in designing a poster, Mucha took the job and created what later was to become a sensation on its own.
Now, 122 years after Mucha’s era marking commission, The Seoul Art Center presents Alphonse Mucha: Pioneer of Modern Graphic Art. The goal of it, as the second Mucha exhibition in Korea, is to highlight Mucha’s more commercial pursuits, unlike the first which showcased Mucha as a painter and illustrator. Interestingly, the show ends with how his style and methodologies are relevant to this day in the field of graphic art, long after the end of Art Nouveau (unofficially known to some as The Mucha Style), the art movement that he is much credited for.
The exhibition begins with a vast collection of items that influenced Mucha to develop his signature style. Of the select items, a few seem oddly placed in a European context; prior to Art Nouveau was a hugely influential movement called Japonisme, which began with Europe’s high demand and interest in Asian craftworks (including Korea, China and Japan). Another item that stands out is an elaborate white Czech robe, which reflects the motifs constantly observed in his graphics and throughout the exhibition.
The first half of the exhibition contains many experimental sketches and photographs created by Mucha reflecting his dedication in storytelling. These include elegant black and white nude photographs and sketches which, as a collection, demonstrate the development of typography and composition of a magazine cover. As you progress further into the exhibition, you can observe the evolution of Mucha’s technique in storytelling, as it becomes an important aspect of Mucha’s works. Whether a magazine cover, a poster design, or even an advertisement (like the one for Manaco-Monte-Carlo commissioned in 1897), Mucha’s characteristic style can be observed. He usually begins by alluring the viewer with an image of a beautiful woman, glorified by a surrounding halo. Next, you will notice his line techniques that expose the dynamic movements that occur and help us naturally navigate our eyes throughout his visual graphics. This technique allows the viewer to capture both details and overall meaning of each piece. These motifs and techniques becomes part of defining Mucha unique style.
After an extensive viewing of Mucha’s commercial works, you will end up in a room that, at first glance, seems way out of context—of all possibilities, what are laid out for us to see here are illustrations done by some of the most well-known comic artists in Korea and Japan. However, once you take a closer look, you will notice a thing or 2: the astounding similarities in styles, line usage, and composition found in the Asian comic art and Mucha's works showing that, in a distant world and time, Mucha’s style is indeed much alive, inspiring artists across fields and media to this day.