Amidst the bronze sculptures and marble busts, at the Philadelphia PA, Rodin Museum, something unusual captured my attention. There behind one of the glass casings was a signature I would recognize anywhere. The name “Mucha” was sketched on the bottom of a small cast figure. The plaque underneath the figure did not confirm my suspicions. The plaque read “Damned Women,” accompanied by the dates of the original clay mold, but revealed nothing about the name carved into it.
There is little known about Czech Art Nouveau artist, Alfons Mucha, and Auguste Rodin’s relationship. However, we know that the two met and developed a friendship in Paris, France where Mucha was under a six-year contract as actress Sarah Bernhardt’s costume, set, and poster designer. In 1902 Mucha accompanied Rodin to the city of Prague on the occasion of Rodin’s exhibition at Jan Kotera’s Mánes Pavillion. Several years after their travels, Rodin presented Mucha with a small bronze cast of “Les Damnées,” otherwise known as the “Damned Women.”
The primitive and lusty figures of two women caught in the moment, feverishly embracing each other on a bed of stone, captures what was considered a capital sin during Rodin’s time. Art critics speculate that the figure is a result of several of the artists’ influences including Dante’s “Inferno,” “The Metamorphoses” of Ovid,” and the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. The condemnation of lesbian passion is revisited in other areas on Rodin’s “The Gates of Hell,” like “The Caryatid” and the “Condemned Fauness.” This theme has taken many shapes in Rodin’s work. The “Damned Women” gifted to Mucha, was an adaptation of one of the early versions of the figure, visible on the right pilaster of “The Gates of Hell”, molded in clay in 1885.
It is suggested that Rodin, and Auguste Seysses encouraged Mucha’s 1898 experimentation with sculpture. This is evident in Mucha’s “Nude on Rock,” the sculpture shows “A young woman gazing down to admire her reflection in the water below the rock on which she is seated.” The figure resembles both Rodin’s technique and style. “Nude on Rock” incorporates a more narrative driven and idealistic approach, similar to Rodin’s philosophy, and in contrast to the neoclassical and impressionistic trends of their time. But Like many artists Mucha’s work evolved.
After Mucha’s permanent return to (what was then) Czechoslovakia from Paris in 1910, he focused on capturing Czech nationalism. Mucha’s cycle, “The Slav Epic”, consists of 20 murals depicting the history of Czechs, and took the artist nearly two decades to create. The passion and dedication Mucha possessed while painting, what he considered his life’s fine art masterpiece, paralleled that of Rodin’s to “The Gates of Hell.”
The subjects in “The Slav Epic” are astoundingly reminiscent of Rodin’s sculptures. The forms Mucha paints capture character and expression. They are colorful and elaborate, yet some what removed from decorative beauty. The murals lack a specific focal point and challenge previous conceptions of the purpose and intention of a grand scale piece. Mucha captures historic moments, yet “draws on long-established symbolism and sterotypes, such as … characterization of the peace-loving and artistic Slav and… vision of the aggressive Germanic enemy.” One can say Rodin, also, toyed with symbolisms and stereotypes. For example, The Three Shades represent a variation of the Adam from the Hebrew story of creation. In the same sense, “The Thinker” epitomizes the intellectual or the poet.
Regardless of the fact that there is little information about the relationship between Alfons Mucha and Auguste Rodin, the influence of Rodin’s style and philosophy is visible in Mucha’s sculptures and paintings. Rodin was” not a realist in the sense that the Impressionists, his exact contemporaries, were…, his subjects were literary, romantic, and philosophical, often taken from mythology and history and steeped in the language of allegory and symbol.” And though Mucha chose a different subject matter, the comparisons between the work they created is unavoidable. I guess you never know what you’ll find when you pay attention to the details. Even in big institutions, like the Rodin Museum, there are always new discoveries to be found.
Amanda V. Wagner is a junior English Major at Drexel University and the student editor of the Cultural Passport. Follow Amanda on twitter at @amandavwagner
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.