Art book review: Alfonse Mucha / Thomas Negovan – Le Pater
This was the first crowdfunded project I backed, back in 2016. I knew that there was more than meets the eye when it comes to Alfonse Mucha. I wanted to see what he had up his sleeve besides the obvious ornamental style he is universally known for and, much like Gustav Klimt and his famous gold-leaf era, I sensed that there was more draftsmanship and inner passion than a superficial glance could prejudice. In Mucha’s case, Le Pater, Mucha’s mystical interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer first published in 1899 is THE answer.
Originally planned for a 2017 release, the book took a few more years to be completed as new additions and improvements delayed the process quite a bit. The book landed mid-2019, much bigger in size and scope than originally announced. Flipping through it makes it evident where the years of hard work went. This is a labour of love, like all releases from Century Guild. The quality of the images, especially of archival nature, is stunning. Photographs from 1900 are restored in all their splendor and warm sepia tones. Besides, how many editors ornate their cardboard boxes specifically for the book it contains?
My copy had the cover attached upside down and upon enquiry the publisher sent me a replacement copy, free of charge. Huge thanks to Century Guild for such a generous gesture. Let’s open the book!
The text is printed very large, which can give it a coffee table look at times, yet makes it infinitely more pleasant to read than many oversized book with consequential texts. Either way, I am happy to have a laptop stand for a pleasant read of such a magnificent volume.
I do have a few things to say about the text. I will go into a bit of tough love here for two reasons: the first one is that the expectations for such a special release are high from a buyer’s perspective, and the second is Mucha’s own injunction « Pense, et lis » [“Think and read”]. Given the stakes, I really want to share a few comments. This concerns only the first half of the book, so if you are only interested in the core chapter regarding Le Pater, you can skip this section and scroll down.
The Lineage of Mysticism
The first half of the book is spent contextualizing Le Pater, and does so in a semi-satisfying way. The first and second chapter in particular, devoted respectively to Spirituality and the advent of the Symbolist movement were an impossible task simply because these are much too large -and too vague- topics to ever be satisfyingly summarized.
Instead of narrowing it down to what concerned Mucha directly, such as Theosophy who only gets a passing mention in the very beginning, we are getting very wide strokes joining the dots between Albrech Dürer, Robert Fludd, Jacob Böhme, William Blake, the Rosicrucians and many others classic figures of Western Esotericism.
However laudable the idea behind the ‘The Evolution of Spirituality’ was, the overarching logic is a but blurry, safe for the need for a chronology as well as the early appearance of Masonic symbols that Mucha fully understood (we learn that he designed some of the ceremonial objects and garments).
The addition of the emblemata (allegorical illustrations of morals and maxims that were popular in the 16th and 17th century) is quite interesting. In the context of the book it would have been relevant to add the fitting proverb Ex litterarum studiis immortalitatem acquiri [Immortality won through literary pursuits].
The relationship with the Salon de la Rose+Croix and Joséphin Péladan is unclear. Did the latter ever meet Mucha? The same goes with Carlos Schwabe, whose intriguing drawings clearly show that there is a connection besides the obvious interest in spirituality, yet we won’t know of which nature.
The section on Art Nouveau is beautifully illustrated, and rich in epoch photographs. Here again the text is very generalist despite a solid overview of the era, and I am left wanting for more details regarding the motives of the artists. Do we need two pages of pottery, which is pure functionalism and aesthetics, in a book that attempts precisely to demonstrate that Art Nouveau could be much more than elegant fluff?
Mucha is presented as a universalist, notably “against nationalism.” I understand that this is seen in the context of the spiritual but we cannot disregard the staunch Czesh ethno-nationalist, who not only produced the Slav Epic, but is also regarded as the herald of Czesh identity and went as far as stating that the Slavic people where more spiritually attuned than any other ethnicities.
Mucha evidently loved plants and flowers, yet there are no visible research that pertains to the theme in this publication. For all the talk about his knowledge of flora, when is the last time one saw an actual Mucha flower study? (Here’s one) Moreover, since he stated himself his disdain for all the advertisement work he did, why not use this fantastic opportunity to show everything else than a Dom Benedictine poster (p.71)? How did he perceive the divine through nature? Was he a panentheist, or a pantheist much like Spinoza and Bruno?
Lastly, what should we make of his highly decorative Flowers series? We have to wait until the page 103 to see a mention of aesthetics, a topic quite on the nose when discussing this artist’s work.
Let’s remember that this was merely an introduction. The real content is, after all, the full reproduction of Le Pater and boy, did it shut my mouth. For we are entering the realm of the sacred and from here onwards one can only turn pages with reverence and respect.
In spiritual matters, the first injunction is almost always to be receptive. Whether through silence, cleansing or contemplation, we enter a certain threshold ritualistically. This is the meaning of Pense, et Lis.
Here comes the absolutely exceptional part. My turbulent mind stopped as I reverently went through the seven sections. Suddenly the text becomes matter-of-factly.
The greatest strength of editor Thomas Negovan is that he wants you to see what he sees, and that perhaps explains the numerous sidetracking into beautiful yet not always relevant visuals of the prevous sections. To quote Pinhead: “We have such sights to show you!”
Much of the energy and time spent making this book, according to the foreword and the numerous emails that were sent during the process, have been spent on researching preliminary material pertaining to the work as well as on the painstakingly delicate scan and restauration process. The result speak for itself- This section is treated with the maximum of devotion one could imagine.
The Lord’s Prayer [latin: Pater Noster] is arguably the most well-known Christian prayer out there. It appears with small variations in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4 and can be divided in seven petitions.
In Le Pater, each of these petitions are calligraphed in Latin and French, followed by a poetic explanation in French in a decorative design reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts (of which Mucha was fond of). The text is followed by a large drawing, here dissected further with preparatory sketches and tonal studies.
I really appreciate the full images both for the study and the final image. I do not wish to spoil the content with my own clumsy views- you must see, too.
This is where the book is at its best. No words are needed, the captions are matter-of-factly. The sublime shines through.
Mucha’s studies are perfectly reproduced, as if we could smear the carbon off the paper. Not that we should ever do that!
These details are what I came here for. With sketches the artist’s mind is naked and the thought is revealed. Every single bit of Le Pater is displayed in all its glory. The line between content and intent is blurred.
The book doesn’t end here, though. It follows the aftermath of the publication (1899) and how it was subltly reworked for the more traditional catholic Czesh audience. There is an overview of the Slav Epic with equally grandiose photographs. The book ends with the legacy of Mucha in the Pravda Vinezi Lodge, in the form of Masonic jewerly and ornaments.
In conclusion, this is an exquisite art book and the new insurpassable reference when closer study of Mucha’s esoteric masterpiece is needed, whether for art history or humble contemplation. It is not really exhaustive when it comes to contextualisation or critical analysis, nor does it have the pretension to do so, safe for the rich factual retelling of Mucha’s life both before and after the making of Le Pater.
I find that Mucha’s drawings contain so much more intensity and honesty than any of his finished print, and no other book displays these in such detail. In addition to this book, I would recommend grabbing Dover’s Drawings of Mucha, an inexpensive paperback containing exactly what the title advertises. I know that the image quality of Dover publications is sometimes lackluster, but in this case it is pretty satisfying and enough to study with, if nowhere near the outstanding quality of the images in Le Pater.
Get the book directly from Century Guild
The books reviewed are from my personal collection and fully paid for.
- Posted by Paul Takahashi
- On February 4, 2020
- 1 Comments