Monday, 17 May 2010

Mucha's Slav Epic in Moravský Krumlov

Most foreign visitors to the Czech Republic will come to recognize the artwork of Alfons Mucha from the many postcards and posters on sale around the centre of Prague and other Bohemian tourist precincts.

Mucha's masterpiece though is not printed on a calendar, a set of beer coasters or a bookmark. It's not even in the Mucha Museum on Prague's Panská ulice. The works of art to which the artist dedicated the best part of his later life are at the other end of the country, in the dim ballrooms and ceremonial halls of the crumbling Moravský Krumlov chateau, just a few kilometres from Mucha's hometown of Ivančice.

Born in July 1860, the young Alfons Mucha soon showed natural talent for music and art. He completed high school in Brno but was refused admittance to Prague's Academy of Art for apparent lack of talent. After moving to Vienna his skills were quickly appreciated and he progressed to a school of graphic arts in Munich and then to Paris, eventually finishing his studies in 1889.

1890's Paris was the epicentre of the art nouveau movement and Mucha's elegant theatre posters and designs earned wide respect. Despite his renown, Mucha left Paris for lack of money and travelled to the United States where he taught painting and sculpture, married, and gained the enduring patronage of wealthy Slavophile Charles Crane.

With Crane's support, Mucha returned to his homeland in 1910, set up studio in a chateau and spent the best part of the next two decades visually recounting the history of the Slavic peoples. Mucha's sublime brushwork follows the Slavic peoples from their original homeland beside the Goths and Huns, through the major stages of their early history, right up to events occurring in his lifetime. The 20th Century collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire brought the independence of Slavic nations like the Serbs, Slovaks, Bohemians and Mucha's own Moravians and forms the subject for the final canvas of the epic series.

The aging Mucha bequeathed the Slav Epic to the Czechoslovakian people and their capital city at the time, Prague, on the condition that an adequate home was found of them and they were accessible to the public. The canvasses were exhibited briefly after their completion, but during the Nazi occupation were hidden in several locations and suffered damage from dampness. Mucha died in Prague on 14th July 1939 from the results of an interrogation by the Gestapo.

In the 1950's the canvasses were brought to the chateau at Moravský Krumlov and restored by a team including Mucha's daughter Jaroslava. From 1963 to 1967 the paintings were progressively returned to public exhibition in the chateau halls and there they have stayed.

In recent years Prague's bureaucrats seem to have remembered the Slav Epic and comprehended the potential it holds for their city's tourism industry. The few abortive attempts at finding a home for the Slav Epic in the city so far have been characterized by treatment of the great artwork as a commodity and a laughable lack of results.

Unfortunately there was no time limit in the artist's will, but my guess is that he didn't intend for his masterpiece to be ignored for the best part of a century and then shuffled into the capital at the first chance of making a quick buck. Mucha's descendants apparently intend to launch legal action to determine the true owner of the canvasses, in light of the fact that the city of Prague has (for seven decades) failed to fulfill the stipulations for ownership of the artworks. Whether the family's intention is to pressure for the city to finally take some action or actually gain ownership for themselves is unclear.

As the situation stands now, the Slav Epic remains in South Moravia on a year-by year basis, which makes it difficult for the chateau authorities to finance repairs and improvements while their only source of income could evaporate at any moment.

The Slav Epic in the chateau at Moravský Krumlov is open to the public from April through October but closes for an hour at lunchtime and all day on Mondays. By public transport, Moravský Krumlov is four hours from Prague, three from Vienna and an hour or less from either Brno or Znojmo. There's accommodation in Krumlov itself, but given the choice I'd prompt for spending the night in nearby Znojmo.

A visit to the Slav Epic is quite a special thing and the only people who go are those who really want to see it. Somehow I don't think it's going to be the same when it gets to the big city.

Related posts: Daytrips from Brno

Znojmo accommodation: Hotels Hostels

Show support: for keeping the Slav Epic in M. Krumlov (on Facebook)


tuckova said...

I hope they stay in Moravsky Krumlov. You have to be really interested Mucha or Czech history to schedule the trip, and if you do, it's worth it. I've loved being the only or nearly the only person in the room, getting up close to one incredible detail and then standing back to take the whole thing in. I'm generally a big fan of art being accessible to the maximum number of people, but there's lots of Mucha available in Prague for the casual fan. I like the special-ness of it where it is now.

tuckova said...

p.s. Are you going to write about the election, or about the advertising this year? I'm impressed by the degree of negative that ODS has been willing to go, and how that contrasts with the Hallmark softness of the CSSD ads- the trains these days are almost overwhelming, like being in the midst of a shouting match. I don't feel quite knowledgeable enough to write about it, and I've been hoping to read your opinion.

Captain Oddsocks said...

hi tuckova,

That's exactly the sentiment I was trying to get across with my hastily added last paragraph. (Great editing ;-))

I think I'll leave the election to others, but I might have a shot at the floods if it doesn't stop raining soon...

Francie said...

The Slav Epic is a spectacular masterpiece that has had a lasting effect upon me personally since I first saw it several years ago. I think it deserves to become a pilgrimage site and not just another tick on the tourist check-list.

Keep it in Mucha's homeland, I say. If it was properly supported there, it could give the local people something really special to offer the world, rather than have the artworks fighting for attention in Prague.

If the 'Czechoslovakian people' want to see these amazing paintings, let them travel through their own country, amid their own people to find it, just like Mucha did.

jay said...

Is the chateau a good place for the paintings to be with regards to environment? Temperature etc?

Captain Oddsocks said...

That's a good question Jay. It's not an issue that's been mentioned in anything I've read, either from supporters of preserving the current location or supporters of moving them to a new environment at the other end of the country.

I know in some places historic artworks have their visitor numbers restricted through fear of damaging the artworks; I'm not sure if that would be an issue with a move to the centre of Prague. I'll see what I can find out.

The most common reason given for moving the paintings is so that a larger quantity of people can see them. Tuckova and Francie have a good point though that current visitors to the Slav Epic represent a certain quality, and I wonder which is more worth striving for, really?

Anonymous said...

I appreciate that the Epic has been looked after in MK while it's been ignored by Prague but when I visited, a little kid went up to one of the canvases and scratched it. The place at least needs investment to protect the canvases. Also the paintings are not in the intended order, they are just displayed where there is space. They deserve to be displayed and lit properly.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Thanks for your comment Anna.

When did you visit? I was there most recently in September and didn't notice problems with lighting or the paintings being displayed out of order.

It's a shame to hear that even with the small number and higher quality of current visitors a poorly supervised child has scratched a canvas. I shudder to think what might happen if/when they are moved to Prague.

I agree that the chateau could use some investment, but it's not going to happen while Prague prevaricates.

They need to either find the will to take proper ownership of the canvasses or give up their claims so that Moravský Krumlov gets a proper chance.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Here's a link to Anna's article about the Slav Epic from the expat paper in Prague.

Amazing that the tourism official quoted has never bothered to go and see the Epic for herself!

Anonymous said...

I visited in summer 2008. They weren't badly lit but the lower room seemed a bit cramped. The paintings would just be amazing if they had more space. Still I imagine it would be so crowded if they were displayed in Prague. I'm glad I saw them when and where I did. Thanks for linking my article. It quickly became out of date after the fire at the Industrial Palace in November that year!

Ryan Feeley said...

Thanks for the great article, and tip mentioning Znojmo! We just came back. The epic was EPIC, but sadly state of the chateau where the pieces are housed is in shockingly bad condition. This was definitely worth the trip, but it is also really far out of the way in a big ugly town. Glad we stayed in Znojmo!

Captain Oddsocks said...

Glad you found it useful Ryan.

Captain Oddsocks said...

It looks like this Thursday, July 15 is the day that the Slav Epic will be taken off to Prague.

There will be a protest/commemoration at the chateau through the day.

Let's hope the Prazaci take better care of it this time around. Sad day.