Alphonse Mucha masterpieces on display exclusively at NSW Art Gallery

Alphonse Mucha masterpieces on display exclusively at NSW Art Gallery
Image: Photo credit: © Mucha Trust 2024

Legendary Czech artist Alphonse Mucha is one of the foremost figures of the art nouveau movement – his unique stylistic language became synonymous with late 19th-century Paris, earning him the title of ‘greatest decorative artist in the world’ at that time.  

Many of his works are well-known to audiences, particularly his numerous paintings of actress Sarah Bernhardt. Yet, there’s much more to Mucha than his most popular work – a fact that Alphonse Mucha: Spirit of Art Nouveau, a new winter exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, is looking to highlight. 

In collaboration with Prague’s Mucha Foundation, the Art Gallery of NSW brings Australia’s biggest solo exhibition of Mucha’s works to Sydney with over 200 of the great artist’s works displayed in the new Naala Badu building. 

Head of the Mucha Foundation and the artist’s great-grandson Marcus Mucha took the praise even further ahead of the official launch: “From our point of view, this is the best presentation of Mucha’s works that’s been shown anywhere in the world.” 

“The Art Gallery of NSW is really extraordinary, and the team here have done an incredible job displaying Mucha’s work in the space and showing it in its best light.”

Chronicling Mucha’s expansive career, Spirit of Art Nouveau starts with a showcase of his work in Paris as a bohemian. Then, it moves towards his rise to art nouveau prominence with paintings of Bernhardt and stunning conceptual artworks, his more philosophical and spiritual middle period before concluding with his late-life contributions to Czech culture and independence through art. 

Self-portrait with posters for Sarah Bernhardt © Mucha Trust 2024

The lesser-known works of Mucha

The exhibition features iconic works like Gismonda, Princess Hyacinth and The Seasons series, but also features many lesser known Mucha masterpieces. Of particular note are the stunning digital projections of The Slav Epic at the end of the gallery, the work Mucha considered to be his most important that did not gain widespread international recognition for many years. 

Marcus told CityHub why many of these later pieces are not widely known: “Because of the history of the 20th century and the Iron Curtain falling across Europe, a lot of his work was hidden away from the gaze of Western art history for a good 50 years. 

“And so the great privilege that we have is to reintroduce these aspects of his art to audiences around the world,” he continued. “I think what’s really special about this show is it’s not just the beautiful decorative artwork in Paris, there’s a deeper exploration of him as a philosopher, as a utopian.

“My great-grandfather was someone who believed that we were all moving towards a better world where we can live in peace and harmony, and you can see that in all of his works, be it the spiritual works he did in Paris or The Slav Epic.”

Photo: © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Diana Panuccio

Curating the exhibition 

Putting together a huge display of works by a great artist is no easy feat, explains AGNSW senior curator Jackie Dunn: “It’s quite a challenge. We’ll be fascinated to see how people pick up on this show. He’s in some respects hugely popular, and in others hugely unknown.”

Dunn, who co-curated the exhibit with Mucha Foundation curator Tomoko Sato, explained the process behind the way pieces have been placed throughout the exhibit. “I think the pacing is crucial here. We need to have an introduction to those earlier works, and then we have lots of moments to build understanding of his practice,” she says. 

“We designed the show to bridge the contemporary and the period of art nouveau. So there are hints of that, hints of the Belle Époque era so that people can see the relationship between the here and now, and what was produced back then.” 

Alphonse Mucha: Spirit of Art Nouveau is the latest solo exhibition that AGNSW have hosted that focuses on a specific artist, having highlighted Kandinsky and Bourgeois last year. Dunn tells CityHub: “I think people have a great desire to really get to know significant artists, and why art historians consider them to be significant.” 

“This is somebody who was momentarily neglected over a period of some decades, and is now resurrected to be part of our psyche. We understand these images to be what represents the art nouveau moment, so I think people love to know why and how these kinds of things happened.” 

Alphonse Mucha: Spirit of Art Nouveau
Art Gallery of NSW, June 15-22 September

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