Foo Foo Fest '15: The Man Behind The Poster
To ask Dr. Patrick Rowe to pick his favorite work by Czech Art Nouveau painter and decorative graphic artist Alphonse Mucha is like asking him to pick between precious gems.
“It’s like Sophie’s choice,” he chuckled.
Rowe, with 122 pieces, has one of the largest personal collections of Mucha in the country, many of which are currently being shown at the Pensacola Museum of Art (PMA) as part of the “Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau” exhibit.
Rowe has lived and worked in Pensacola since 1983, teaching at PSC and UWF, and spending his summers in Italy teaching for FSU and co-directing an excavation south of Florence. In 2002, he stopped excavating in order to focus on putting together shows of his growing art collection.
Rowe began working on his Mucha show in 1999 and lending it to various museums shortly after. The current show at the PMA is special because on top of Rowe’s private collection, thanks to a grant from Foo Foo Fest, the museum was able to bring in pieces from the private collection of Jack Rennert in New York, as well as the Tampa Museum of Art and the Boca Raton Museum. Rowe partnered with the museums to create an entire Mucha experience that truly captures the trajectory of the artist’s career, as well as his relationships with contemporaries and influencers.
Mucha, now known as one of the major forerunners in the Art Nouveau period in Paris, was a fascinating man, and his work is imbued with a certain whimsy that is hard to dislike. While he started his career in the commercial arena, working on everything from magazine illustrations and advertisements to posters, menus, and post cards, his work is now considered to be fine art.
“Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau” starts off with a section of prints by the Japanese print artist Katsushki Hokusai, a major influence on Mucha as well as his contemporaries, including artists Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne.
“During the late 19th century, Japanese prints had a huge influence on the impressionists, post-impressionists, and art nouveau artists, as well, so I thought as an introduction it would be nice to have some Japanese prints…Mucha was in Paris, hanging out with artists like Gauguin and Rodin, they are all in Paris around the same time. They weren’t just aware of each other, they were friends, and they were definitely seeing these Japanese prints, especially ones by Hokusai.” There is even a picture of Paul Gauguin in the show cataloge, sitting in Mucha’s studio and playing the harmonium with no pants on.
Mucha got his big break after he moved to Paris and, by chance, was commissioned to do a poster for the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt.
“What happens is she is opening a play in Paris on January 1, 1895 and the theatre wants a poster to advertise the play, so they commission an artist to make one. Sarah Bernhardt looks at the poster and hates it, she just despises it. She says there is absolutely no way they can use it. But it’s Christmas Eve, all the artists are gone with their families, and the only artist around is Mucha. They go to Mucha and they are desperate. He agrees to make a poster, and she sees it and absolutely loves it. “
The poster hangs front and center in the show and depicts a sensuous Bernhardt in a costume of greens and blues and gold, staring off into the distance like a muse, reminiscent of a Greek goddess.
“Late 19th century, early 20th century there was no one more famous than Sarah Bernhardt. She was huge. “
With his benefactress lending him an exorbitant amount of visibility, Mucha’s career took off and, as an artist, he began to come into his signature style.
“I think he knew this was his big chance; that he was creating something for Sarah Bernhardt, and his genius all of a sudden comes out. He creates something amazing. This is one of the most famous posters in the history of the world. To have this in the show is a huge thing.”
While Mucha’s style is considered Art Nouveau, it is important to understand how broad the term is.
“Art Nouveau is complicated, because there were actually a number of Art Nouveau styles. It probably started in England. But (Mucha) created a vein of Art Nouveau that was very different than other Art Nouveau styles, which becomes very popular—all these people copy him.”
If copying is a sign of admiration, then Mucha certainly had a big set of admirers, enough so that they started their own genre of Art Nouveau, called “Le Style Mucha.” Mucha’s work is characterized by his use of pastel colors, decorative accents and recurring idealized female figures.
“He was a really devout Christian, but he loved to show the female figure in a really sensuous way, with flowing lines.”
“Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau” captures the work and life of Mucha in an extraordinary way, as well as the breadth of his work, including grand-scale posters alongside tiny stamps that Mucha, a staunch patriot, created for his native Czechoslovakia. His graphic art is stunning, and his influence is still widely seen today in the art world.
Dr. Rowe finds it hard to put into words where his devotion to Mucha comes from, but ultimately is quite succinct.
“It’s hard not to like Mucha. His stuff is so beautiful. It is kind of strange, but it doesn’t take a huge amount of thought or struggle to look at it and think ‘Wow…this is beautiful.’”
Artist Talk with Dr. Patrick M. Rowe and Walking Gallery Tour
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5
Where: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.
Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau
WHEN: On display now through Jan. 2.
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.
COST: General Admission: $7; Children (7-17) seniors and military $5; Members and children (6 and under) free