May 202012

Visual DNA

Gaining perspective on our

own work is a challenge.  The

two hardest questions for any

artist to answer are “What are

you doing?” and “Why are you

doing it?”  In times of trouble

we can look at older artists

for their advice.


Jaroslava Mucha’s Daughter by Alphonse Mucha

Looking for Answers

Last Thursday I was digging through Myron Barnstone’s library.  His books represent over sixty years of artistic education.  Perfectly distilled, they have almost every answer an artists could need from antiquity to today.  The challenge, as the bindings look back at me, is figuring out “Who” has the answer to my question. On that morning, I was in search of an artist who was clear on their motivations for making art.  I find that artists who write manifestos or proclaim a greater purpose for their art, often fail.  They tend to be overly political, forced messages that usually lack artistic merit.  In short, the message is much better than the art.  But there must be an artists who understood what they were doing and why they were doing it.

A portrait of Alphonse Mucha. photographer unknown

Has anyone ever asked you what type of pictures you take?  Do you ever feel like you give them a good answer?  If you feel at a loss for words, maybe its time to consider why you use a camera?  Sounds easy enough right?

Most great artists simply make work.  They have a strong sense of purpose and never question where or why the motivation was born.  In many cases it does not matter.  As their careers progress the body of work eventually speaks for itself.  But this is the exception rather than the rule.  As a photographer or artist, most of you life will be spent answering these questions:

  • What type of work do you make?

  • What is the point of your art?

  • Why should I buy it?

Mucha transitioned from poor art student to successful illustrator when he left Prague for Paris.

These simple questions, which any first year marketing student could answer, will stump an artist for a lifetime.  The problem is that as artists and photographers we are not trained to answer for themselves.  The translation from the Visual Language to the Linguistic Language is complex.  The conversation about catering to a market, commoditizing one’s work, or selling out overshadow a very useful exercise.  We might benefit from a few hours in front of the mirror which would allow us to communicate, in simple terms, why we chose to be artists and photographers.

Advertising has taken a long fall since the days of Mucha’s champagne ads.

As you can imagine, this article is not going to solve all of your artistic problems.  But while I was in Myron’s library, I did find a quote by the 19th Century painter Alphonse Mucha.  He broke art making down to three components: Realistic, Stylized, & Abstract.  By combining the world we know (Realistic), our personal touches which are unique to our combined life experience (Stylized), & the underlying concepts ranging from philosophy to geometry (Abstract) we create pieces which are suited for the visual language.

Mucha often used photographic references in his work. This photo is from his personal collection.

We can see that while Mucha uses photography, he brings a world of new information to his finished art.

In his lectures on art Alphonse Mucha suggested:

“Exterior form is a language which appeals to the senses

as the art of music, which to give pleasure, should be

harmoniously directed to the different nerves of hearing,

avoiding all combinations of sound that tire these organs.  

Similarly the arts of painting sculpture and architecture,

being addressed to the eyes, should fulfill the conditions

which are most agreeable to them.”


Sarah Bernhardt by Mucha

What is Mucha saying to us?

Mucha was a painter, illustrator, occasional architect and jewelry designer.  He was not a writer.  Even in his lectures, he speaks is long, complicated sentences that could have benefited from an edit or two.  But in the mess of words exists a clear message.  We, artists and photographers, deal primarily in objects for the eyes.  It would be to our advantage to understand the lessons artists accumulated over 50,000 years of visual history.  If we understand the DNA of the visual language we stand a fighting chance of using it to produce something worth looking at.   Mucha knew how the eyes can be swung around a canvas.  Any of his images demonstrate an artist who uses visual tools to engage the viewer.

After a successful career in Paris, Mucha returned to the Czec Republic to work on his “Slavic Epic” which took nearly 20 years to complete. The canvases each measure 24′x30′. He died in 1939 shortly after being questioned by the Gestapo.

On this lazy Sunday, let us consider Mucha together.  As we prepare for the week ahead, spend a few minutes looking into the genetic frame work of our images, our motivations and desires.  We may not reach any breakthrough conclusions today, but when we initiate the ideas, we will eventually reach a greater understanding of ourselves, our connection to an artistic past, and an appreciation for those who came before us.

To learn more about Alphonse Mucha check out the Mucha Foundation.

Best-Adam Marelli

  14 Responses to “Alphonse Mucha”

  1. Hi Adam,
    a new reader on your blog and I love Mucha. Great presentation and a thoughtful questions. Thanks.

    All the best,

    • Hi Sergey,

      Mucha is wonderful. He seems to be underrated for some reason. I find both sketches, commercial work and Slavic series all wonderful in their own right. Its also very helpful that he left an archive of photographs. The images allow us to see how photography was just the start of the process. The finished product develops much further than any single photographic image.


  2. Hello Adam,
    I’ve been reading your blog for a few months and find it very interesting and mature.
    Thank you for sharing!



    • Hi Julio,

      Very nice to hear from you. Thank you for reading and commenting in the articles.

      I am happy to share the knowledge with you all.


  3. Alphonse Mucha is one of the best Art Nouveau painters!

  4. decouverte formidable ce dimanche merci jean garelli

  5. I love how you always challenge us to create intelligent art. Thank you!

  6. This past week my wife and I attended a huge Mucha exhibition at the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. With more than 250 posters, painting and photographs, it took more than two hours to move through the exhibit and that wasn’t time enough.

    You would have loved his street photography — a series of photos taken in 1913 in Red Square. He used glass plates until the Kodak No. 9 camera came out.

    • Hey Ben,

      AHHHHH I wish I could have seen that show. His work is incredible and wildly underrated due to his commercial career. And not only is the work good, his lectures are quite fascinating too.

      Glad you enjoyed it and I will dig around for his street photos. All I have ever seen are his studio photographs which are quite good too.

      Looking up the exhibit now. Thanks so much for the heads up.


  7. By any chance do you know the name of the model or the title 6th photograph/drawing
    (We can see that while Mucha uses photography, he brings a world of new information to his finished art)

    Thank You,

    • Hi K,

      No I dont know her name off the top of my head. I know there was a book on his photography…though I have only seen in in Czech. Though it might be easy enough to track down for her name. I would start there.


  8. Thank you so much for responding.
    I’ve been trying to find out the names of the models for some time.
    Have a great weekend.

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