From the Baltics and Poland I went further down to the south towards Brno on my way towards Vienna. Brno is supposed to be the second cultural city of the Czech Republic and as I already went to Prague a couple of times, it seemed more interesting to go to a new city. When you enter the Czech Republic you also enter the history of the Habsburgers and the Soviet. I expected in Brno to also experience some part of the Revolution against the Soviet regime, the moment that Central Europe became part of our vocabulary. Though the tour guide helped me out by explaining that revolutions happens in the capital and not in the second biggest city. Well I must say that I did not run into even one monument on the revolution so I guess he was right in a certain way. But there was an exhibition of the work of Alfons Mucha, ‘The Slav Epic’. The exhibition in honour of this artist is really important for the remembrance of the Slav culture and the independence of the Baltic nations.
'Two worlds' his commercial Slavic posters and the Slav Epic
The exhibition is at the congress center of Brno which is one of the weirdest places I have been in a while. If you climb the hill in Brno and you look over the city you can see the history of the city mirrored by the rings of the buildings. The center as the historic old town, the ring just outside of the old town when the Habsburgers came in with their architecture and the last ring features the Soviet blocks. The congress center is just inside the third ring, the Soviet area. Because it is just outside of the city center the area is a little bit more quiet and not many tourists walk up there. Which already makes you wonder if that is the ultimate place for an exhibition. Brno is known for its many galleries, museums and exhibition spaces. To pick this one for the main exhibition wonders me.
The congress center is a huge area / square with many buildings, halls, offices. That though does not mean that it is crowded, while I was walking towards the exhibition space I did not run into anyone, I really started questioning if I was at the right place. Lucky for me there were two most generous men who offered to give me a lift to the right building. Once inside three youngsters sat at the desk which seemed quite a lot to me as I was the only one at the building.
Before I entered I hadn't looked up anything on Alfons Mucha, so it was actually just luck that I decided to go to this specific exhibition that turned out to be very interesting and important for the Slav culture. He was born in Monrovia which was back then still Austria-Hungarian, studied in Brno, lived in Munich, went to study arts in Paris, and in 1890 he started his career as an illustrator for advertisements. At the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, he had his first success with interior design for the Bosnia and Herzegovina pavilion. This success is seen as the beginning of his plan to create a series of large canvases with themes from Czech and Slavic history. He wanted to promote solidarity among the Slavs and the Czechs and strengthen their sense of pride and national awareness.
The canvases are huge and are painted in Jugendstil style. The first part shows the history of the Czechs and the second of the Slavs. It was a gift to the city of Prague but nowadays his canvases travel around, mostly in the Slavic area.
Mucha earned his money by making advertisements for big brands like Monet & Chandon also in Jugendstil style. He became more and more famous which resulted in a strong network within the wealthiest parts of Paris. It is through this network that he managed to find funds for the Slavic Epic and that he could realize his aspiration.
Together with his wife, he traveled through the Slav area to find inspiration for his canvases. He did not want to illustrate history but make a symbolic message on the Slav nations. After the years of occupation, he wanted to show the power of the Slav nations and Identity. It is no surprise that he chose to highlight the moments of struggle against other nations. It shows their efforts for independence and resistance against other cultures. We can conclude that he was part of the pan-Slavic movement and part of the reappreciation of the Slavic identity.
In the end, I think we need to nuance the comment of the tour guide. This exhibition was borrowed from Prague but in the end, it was a painter from Monrovia and Brno is the capital of Monrovia. The canvases may date before the revolution time but were part of establishing the identity and the narrative for the revolution. At the same time, his life and his style are connected with Western Europe. The 'Two Worlds' Exhibition shows the two sides of this artist. On the one side his commercial side that he learned and exploited in Paris, and his other Slavic and artistic side that he found in his cultural identity. The exhibition highlighted the differences between both these works but at the same time, it also showed how both slowly intervened as his last works focused on Slavic tradition, symbols, fashion etcetera without losing his Jugendstil style.
When I told my family and friends in Amsterdam about my plans for this trip, most asked me about my ideas on European identity, if I think it exists and if there is something that binds Europe. Honestly, I must say that I do not yet have a solid answer to these questions, I'm also not sure that I will ever have answers to these questions. My trip is part of trying to find some answers on European cohesion and what makes us European. Some may call this naive of me, to think that there is something that makes us European, but I do think that there are some examples of people, organizations, events, historic moments, or stories that make us or some of us European. For all these reasons I would like to nominate Alfons Mucha as a 'True European'.