Exhibitions Conservation Czech Republic

Mucha’s “Slav Epic” moved to Prague without approval

Conservationists and art historians warn temporary venue could damage the paintings

Part of Mucha’s “Slave Epic” was moved to Prague’s Veletrzni Palac last year

The remaining 15 canvases of the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha’s “Slav Epic” cycle have been removed without approval from the Moravian town of Moravsky Krumlov and taken to Prague, according to the Alphonse Mucha Foundation. The canvases will be reunited with the five other parts and the entire series of 20 canvases is due to go on show at Prague’s Veletrzni Palac (Trade Fair Palace). But leading conservationists and art historians say this venue could cause severe damage to the paintings, which Mucha considered his masterpiece. “It’s a very serious mistake,” says Petr Kuthan, the head of restoration at the Czech National Gallery in Prague.

The foundation wants the monumental work, which depicts the history of the Slavic people, to be housed in Prague’s main train station. “We have issued a formal letter of intent, signed by us, the Czech railways and the Italian developer overhauling the station,” says John Mucha, the artist’s grandson and the president of the foundation.

Part of the work was returned to Prague last year after a compromise was reached with Moravsky Krumlov, where the canvases were taken in 1950 having surived the Second World War in Prague. After Communism fell in 1989, Prague City Council considered “repatriating” the paintings, sparking a long dispute between Prague and the town near Mucha’s birthplace. Under the arrangement, the “Slav Epic” is due to be exhibited for two years in Prague from 2011, and the Moravsky Krumlov château, where the canvases were displayed from 1963, is due to undergo renovation.

The cycle will be reunited next month in the Great Hall of the Veletrzni Palac. “It’s perhaps the only accessible space meeting the exhibition requirements of these huge canvases,” says Michaela Mouckova of the City Gallery Prague, which leases the space from the Czech National Gallery. She says that temperature and humidity are constantly monitored. “The paintings are under the supervision of restorers, who are working on the light and climatic conditions to guarantee the best conditions during the exhibition.”

But most experts, including Kuthan, regard the Veletrzni Palac as completely unsuitable, citing humidity and temperature issues among others. “In spring and autumn, when large differences in outside temperatures occur, there are huge changes in day and night temperatures inside the room. This is one of the serious factors negatively influencing the stability of the huge canvases,” he adds, noting that much of the damage would occur gradually. Restorers also argue that while the Moravsky Krumlov château needs repair, it is a better environment than the Veletrzni Palac, including in terms of temperature.

The Mucha Foundation says that Prague’s main railway station is the best permanent home for the paintings. John Mucha says that the foundation is in negotiations with the council about the plans. “Everyone’s pulling in the same direction,” he says. “If we all manage to keep this momentum, the ‘Slav Epic’ should be unveiled [there] in spring 2014.” When describing the suitability of the venue, John Mucha says that the train noise can be screened, and appropriately the art nouveau station was designed by Josef Fanta, a friend of Alphonse Mucha. “It’s also critically important that wherever the ‘Slav Epic’ is exhibited, it must be according to the artist’s plans. He spent years working on them,” says John Mucha.

Alphonse Mucha was equally specific about the future of the paintings. The cycle was donated to Prague by the artist when he finished the work in 1928 (having started on it in 1910), stipulating that the city build a special pavilion for the series, but this condition was never met.


Panels from Mucha’s “Slave Epic” being installed in Prague’s Veletrzni Palac
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Comments

18 Sep 12
16:58 CET

DAVID LUCKHURST, DEAL KENT ENGLAND

During my recent visit to Prague I was looking forward immensely to seeing the Slav Epic and was in no way disappointed. I felt the location, lighting and dimensions of the display gallery all contributed to a wonderful atmosphere and made me enjoy the experience greatly.Thank you for a memorable afternoon.

11 Sep 12
15:58 CET

CHARLES BROUGH, CRYSTAL RIVER FL

One might think these great paintings are copyrighted! I have yet to find any of them displayed on the internet!

21 Jun 12
15:23 CET

PAULETTE WILL, MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA

I just visited my Croatian mother's birthplace in Bosnia and felt that it would be meaningful to see the Slav Epic in Praha. I observed Mucha's subtle colors and brushstrokes particularly in the Croatian piece. The day I visited the Slav Epic there was a school group and their guide asked if anyone knew the English meaning of the word Slav. My Czech friend correctly responded, "slave." I've visited several travelling exhibits of Vatican treasures, the King Tut exhibit, the Diana exhibit all with priceless artifacts and antiquities with temporary conditions in the Mall of America and the Minnesota History Center. With all due respect to the Czech art conservators, the Veletrzni Palac has gifted world travellers and Czech school children with a great opportunity. The Veletrzni Palac venue should be considered as a travelling exhibit with conditions equal to the priceless treasure on exhibit. Seeing the Slav Epic was an epic day for me. Dekuji, Veletrzni Palac & Praha.

4 Jun 12
15:52 CET

JASON V, VANCOUVER

I have just returned from Prague, and seeing this exhibit was one of the highlights of my trip! Truly astonishing in scale, subject matter, and detail! I also noted multiple large scale dehumidifiers running throughout the hall. Given the fact that Mucha's one condition for creating this amazing body of work was to gift it to the city of Prague, it seems wrong to continue the delay of their exhibition here indefinitely. The reality is, the paintings have ALREADY been damaged and restored over the years, largely because they've been carted here and there, without a suitable permanent home. Yes, they were saved by Moravsky Krumlov from political destruction, but times have changed. How much better is Moravsky Krumlov for the paintings? I'm not convinced this is purely an art conservation argument. And showing the work in a restored Prague train station seems like an even loftier logistical pipe dream, although it does sound romantically appealing.

10 Apr 12
14:36 CET

LISE, AMSTERDAM

Dear Terence, I am a conservator, and what you must realize that it is not anyone hoping to with-hold these works from the public, the whole discussion revolves around the fact that conservators don't think the paintings ARE safe. There is more than one way to ruin a painting. The wrong relative humidity and temperature can be equivalent to slashing it with a knife (actually far worse as the paint can delaminate completely from the substrate). The damage occurred even with just short exposure to a unstable environment can cause irreparable damage that will only become visible later on. I'm happy that more people will get to see them, but there must be a more stable environment in Prague to exhibit them.

5 Apr 12
19:33 CET

TERENCE CULKIN, CO DURHAM, UK

As long as the works are safe it is about time people of the world were able to see them. I tried to see them 9 years ago but was unable to travel from the UK to Moravsky Krumlov or even when in Prague find a suitable way to travel from there. I wait eagerly with a group of friends who all want to visit Prague to see this amazing work, if and when it finally goes on show. I would love an email update from someone if that is possible.

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