Mucha, the 1900 spirit

Mucha, the 1900 spirit

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  • Fragments of the flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina frieze

    MUCHA Alfons (1860 - 1939)

  • Austria

    MUCHA Alfons (1860 - 1939)

Fragments of the flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina frieze

© Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

© BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Knud Petersen

Publication date: October 2020

Historical context

From Prague to Paris: Alphonse Mucha

Omnipresent on the site of the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900, Art Nouveau and Czech illustrator Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) experienced a form of climax there. Born in the early 1890s in the rejection of classicism in favor of curves and inspired by the study of flora and fauna, the artistic movement conquered many fields - notably illustration and architecture - and many countries: Spain, Belgium, France and Central Europe in particular. The Exhibition jury awarded him a silver medal for the frescoes in the pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina designed by the architect Karel Panek (1860-).

Image Analysis

Stylized nations

The fragments of the frieze made by Mucha which are kept at the Orsay Museum are part of the cycle of Bosnian folk legends. The band runs through the entire volume on the upper part, while the history of the Bosnian nation unfolds more fully in the middle part of the walls, and the lower frieze is adorned with repeated floral motifs. While the artist used a wide palette for his large frescoes (Bosnia offering its products at the Exhibition for example), he opts for shades of blue enhanced by painted arcades dominated by warm colors (red and orange) and geometric patterns. If the line which delimits the flat areas of color is simple, almost naive, and if the decoration consists of vegetable shapes in sfumato, Mucha is on the verge of preciousness when it comes to drawing drapes or women's hair [ detail 2]. In this cycle, the male characters with their hieratic gaze [detail 1] and their rough bodies contrast sharply with the lascivious poses and the curvaceous silhouettes of the female characters.

If Mucha made posters for the Bosnian pavilion and its restaurant, he also received a commission from the Double Monarchy to advertise the Austrian pavilion. In both cases, he decided on brown tones with highlights of matte red or faded yellow and reproduced the long-used split in the direction of height. On the left, a female figure with downcast eyes and tight lips serves as the emblem of the Austrian nation. Her costume seems to borrow less from national tradition than from the costumes worn on stage by the artist's absolute model: Sarah Bernhardt. Unlike many other women drawn by Mucha, this one does not have lush hair and remains smartly dressed. Against the background of her halo, a recurring pattern, we can make out in the shadows a woman erotically revealing her bare armpit and shoulder, staring at the viewer. She seems to invite her to unveil the mystery of this allegory which modestly holds her dress with her clenched fingers, but does not prevent her left breast from sticking out between the fabrics. In the right half of the poster, Mucha classically presents the main Austro-Hungarian attractions offered to visitors to the Exhibition: if the imperial pavilion displays a classicism with some concessions to Modern Styl, the Viennese restaurant offers a perfect image of the use of curves and light by Art Nouveau architects. The reproduction of a Tyrolean mansion, the hall of honor or the workers' houses of Siemens-Halske [detail 1] and Krupp oppose this fantasy with a form of utilitarian rigor.


Art Nouveau and Propaganda

Although emigrated for a long time, Mucha kept contacts in Vienna where he spent some time in 1879. His fame on the continent and the will of the Double Monarchy to demonstrate openness, humanism and progress lead to solicit Mucha alongside another Czech, Adolf Kaufmann (1848-1916), to decorate the flag of Bosnia. If the structure of the empire justifies the Habsburgs building a separate pavilion in Paris for Austria and Hungary, the choice of Bosnia may come as a surprise. This was in fact the last imperial conquest, carried out in 1878, which stopped the Serbian momentum in the Balkans. The authorities wish to offer international opinion a model of their policy of administrative and socio-economic modernization. Austria-Hungary makes a significant financial effort (30,000 crowns for Mucha) and deploys rather intense propaganda. Their curatorial office publishes a twelve-volume catalog on the achievements of the empire, and a guide booklet for browsing the Exhibition in French and German, which is considered the most comprehensive. They crisscross the Exhibition with the Tyrolean mansion built at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, the Viennese restaurant enthroned on the Esplanade des Invalides and the Krupp convalescent home [detail 2] presented in the annex of Vincennes, according to the original from Bernsdorf, Austria.

The production of the poster and the covers of the Austrian publications shows that Mucha always gladly accepts commercial orders. He appeals to his Viennese patrons by desexualizing the allegory of Austria, contrary to his usual style. He seems to have found in the cycle of frescoes an opportunity to develop another facet of his art. Working in his studio with many models, then reproducing on a scale and a tempera on canvases, he tackles the theme of Slavic civilization which will be at the heart of his work of the interwar period. Commissioner Henri Moser (1844-1923) and the governor of Bosnia Béni Kállay (1839-1903) paid him a trip to Vienna, Sarajevo and its museum; they also provided him as a model The Tales of Bosnia (1898), a plagiarism of La Guzla by Prosper Mérimée, signed by the pseudonym Mathilde Colonna. In exchange for his collaboration in the exaltation of Austrian work in Bosnia, Mucha was able to present himself in his new face as a herald, promoter of Pan-Slavism as a vector of peace. He did not completely ignore the stakes of his involvement: in the frieze, many figures appear asleep or dead. These legends belong to the kingdom of night and shadows: popular oral memory is the tragic side of the heroic epic of the Bosnian people unfolding just below.

  • Art Nouveau
  • Universal exhibitions
  • 1900 universal exhibition
  • Austria-Hungary
  • Balkans
  • Habsburg
  • Krupp
  • Bernhardt (Sarah)


Ann Bridges, Alphonse Mucha: The Complete Graphic Works, New York, Harmony Books, 1980

Pascal Ory, The Universal Exhibitions of Paris, Ramsay, 1982.

Paul Pasteur, History of Austria: from the multinational empire to the Austrian nation (18th - 20th centuries), Paris, Armand Colin, coll. "U", 2011.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Mucha, the spirit of 1900"


  • Double monarchy: When two separate kingdoms are ruled by the same monarch, this regime is called Double monarchy. This term is particularly used to designate Austria-Hungary, a double monarchy having existed from 1867 to 1918.
  • Panslavism: Political movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth century based on the feeling of a historical heritage common to all Slavic peoples and wishing to restore a Slavic nation.
  • Modern styl: Synonymous with Art Nouveau
  • Art Nouveau: Style that developed from the end of the 19th century, first in Belgium and France. He thrives in architecture and the decorative arts. The search for functionality is one of the concerns of its architects and designers. Art Nouveau is characterized by forms inspired by nature, where the curve dominates.

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