The Slav Epic
Changing professions can be
a scary proposition for anyone.
The stability of a successful
career can be a hard thing to
turn your back on. But when
an artist feels called in a new
direction, there is no way to
stop the artistic urges that
lurk in the recesses of our
Heroic Dinner Preface
The evening before we (The Prague Workshop) went to see Alphonse Mucha’s the Slav Epic, we had some heroics of our own. Back in New York, dinner time is a utilitarian affair most of the week. On the weekends my girlfriend and I cook or go out to longer feasts. But in a workshop, with our regular lives behind us, everyone loves to take at least one evening to cut loose and give Henry VIII a run for his money, or belly. At a lovely little restaurant called Divinis, we grabbed a table at 7:30pm for a light meal. Seven hours later we finally surrendered after Eva, our waitress, left us with the bottle of grappa on the table. We did not expect to close the place down at 3:30am! We were over fed, over served and over joyed.
In the morning, everyone was a few steps slower than normal, but that worked out perfectly. After three days of continuous shooting, we were headed to see a painting show, more precisely Mucha’s Slav Epic. Alphonse Mucha, for those of you who do not know him was mostly known as a commercial painter, draftsmen, and occasional interior designer working in Paris. But after years of making fancy labels for French and Italian liqueurs, Mucha wanted to create a serious body of work.
During the last twenty years of his life, he embarked on a exercise that makes most painting series look like doodles on post-its. He traded his Parisian studio for a Czech castle. It was the only place large enough to house the paintings which exceed twenty feet in length. How big is a twenty foot painting really?!
Well to put it in NYC terms, lets think of it this way. Da Vinci recommends a viewing distance of 3x the height of a subject. So if the painting is 20 feet tall, the viewing distance would be 60 feet. A typical NYC townhouse is somewhere between 45-60 feet in depth. So if the painting was hanging in someone’s living room, not only would it be as wide as a house, you would also have to stand in the back yard to get a good view of the work. In a word…these pieces are epic. Their scale, design complexity, color control and unity is…well how should I put this…insane.
While there are other painters around Europe who attract more attention, Mucha is marginalized because he did not have famous patrons, reached the height of his career just before WW2 when everything moved the the US, and because he was Czech. Its a sad and unfortunate truth that a handful of incredible artists were plenty talented but their timing and connections were awful. This is the case with Mucha.
Over the years, I have made trips to see works by Fiorentino, Michelangelo, Mantegna, Degas, Piazzetta and a number of other well regarded masters. Each time I enter the room with a master work that is new to my eyes, my heart still skips a beat. I assure you Mucha was just as impressive as all the heavy hitters from the Renaissance to the Impressionists.
A point to consider
As an artist who straddles both the art and photo worlds, one question that I get all the time is why art is more expensive than photography? While I won’t get into all of the nuances, Mucha’s Slav Epic answered this question quite easily. In all measurable aspects a good painting beats the life out of a good photograph.
The undertaking of making a series of paintings that took twenty years to produce, versus a photography series that took twenty years to produce are absolutely incomparable. Photography, even at its very finest in scale and magnitude, usually contains one to three vignettes in a frame. Which means, at best, if a photo were cut into pieces, it might have a composition complex enough that portions of the photograph could stand on their own. And I this is something that applies to everyone, myself included. Usually if we get a single scene that works we are giddy.
But with Mucha, there are at least ten complete scenes that could exist in any one painting. You could cut those canvases up into a ten pieces, at least, and if you never knew that the section was part of a greater whole, the pieces would work on their own. His designs are so cohesive and layered that it really makes some of photography’s grandest efforts look like childish. (All of the photographs in the article, with the exception of the first one are only portions of the paintings.)
In my last B&H talk, one of the topics was “Choosing your Mentors wisely.” A big problem is that people spend time looking UP to photographers they should just be looking AT. As much as I love photography its short history is riddled with more examples of mediocre accomplishments, mistaken for genius than any other art form (except maybe performance art.) While this matters little to the auction world, it matters a great deal to the growth of photography in the future. If we surround ourselves with less than amazing images, our eyes become educated to a rather low level of expectations. I wont mention names here, but if you have ever walked into a museum and wondered, “Why is that photo hanging?” my guess is that 9 times out of 10 your gut reaction is right.
If we are going to draw inspiration from art around us, why not seek out exceptional work? Mucha may not appeal to everyone’s tastes, but regardless of our preferences there are a number of useful lessons we can take away from his work. If you have a chance to pass through Prague, make some time to check out the Slav Epic. It will make any iMac screen look like a thumbnail and keep in perspective how big we can really go!
Join me for the next entry where we arrange to photograph two Czech models to see if Mucha’s images reflected something that was distinctly Czech. Here is a preview of one of the models Lucie.