I started paying more attention to the Art Nouveau movement in Hokkaido, of all places. The glass pieces on display at the Art Glass Nouveau Museum in Nitori Otaru Art Base were beautiful – in particular, I was drawn to the icy aesthetics and defined contours of the “Polar Bear” vase by Emile Gallé. Being a pottery trimmer myself, I knew how difficult it could be carving realistic images on a curved surface – to complicate things further, cameo glass artists of the era worked with multiple layers of different coloured glass. The lady at the front desk of Nitori Otaru Art Base kindly showed me other works from the period; I was in awe of the artists’ skills and admired the beauty in the nature-inspired designs.
I soon realised I had been exposed to Art Nouveau many times before – the metro signs in Paris and the prints by Alfons Mucha (“Mucha”) were all characteristic of the style. The images on my computer screen were not doing the originals justice and I was greedy for more Art Nouveau in person.
Hence, I jumped at the chance to see Mucha’s exhibition in Tokyo. All I knew about the artist was that he shot to fame after designing a poster for a play (Gismonda) – Parisiens fell in love with his unique (then) style. I was expecting to see whimsical prints of beautiful women against a backdrop of colorful plant motifs and Byzantine-inspired mosaics at the exhibition. Instead, I found myself standing in front of “The Slavs in their Original Homeland – Between the Turanian Whip and the Sword of Goths“. The size (6.1m x 8.1m) itself was astounding, but the scene, full of emotion, mystique, and history, was all the more captivating. It is set in the Sarmatian plain between the 3rd to 6th century A.D., when Slavs still believed their fates were tied to stars and pagan priests were notable figures with exclusive access to the divine. Two Slavs engulfed by fear and grief hover in the foreground as they hide from nomadic Turanians and Goths raiding their homeland. In contrast, the Pagan priest flies high among the stars and dominates the battlefield, showing strength as he looks to the heavens to bring peace. “The Slavs in their Original Homeland – Between the Turanian Whip and the Sword of Goths” is first in chronological order and sets the scene for other paintings in The Slav Epic.
The Slav Epic is a series of 20 paintings that portray the mythology and history of Slavic peoples. Mucha devoted close to two decades to completing the cycle and it is regarded as his masterpiece. The differences, both aesthetically and symbolically, between The Slav Epic and his earlier works were obvious – I couldn’t help but think his earlier works were, frankly, merely commissions. While some artworks are aesthetically beautiful or technically difficult to create, others are able to evoke emotion, encourage reflection, and even spur one’s imagination – the pieces in The Slav Epic are the latter.
Despite being ignorant of Slavic culture and history, The Slav Epic struck a chord with me. I was particularly moved by “The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia”. The scene depicts a crowd of Russian peasants gathered in Red Square, Moscow on a cold winter day in 1861. The peasants in the crowd had just heard the news that serfs had, constitutionally, regained freedom. Ironically, instead of celebrating and expressing their joy, their facial expressions showed confusion and anxiety. They simply didn’t know life outside of feudalism and were probably struggling to comprehend what a life of freedom would be like. Nineteenth century serfdom in Russia came with many restrictions: serfs were tied to the land they tended and thus, could not move freely, marriage to people from different estates required pre-approval and were generally frowned upon, and serfs were required to work a set number of days for a landowner or pay penalties. I can’t even begin to imagine what life as a serf would be like. Mucha, too, was surprised when he visited Russia in 1913 to do research for “The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia”. He regarded Russia as a great Slavic nation, so he was taken aback by the undeveloped state of the country and how commonplace poverty was.
Perhaps that’s why Mucha devoted so much time and energy to The Slav Epic – it allows a wider range of people to see Slavic history from a different perspective (“history is written by the victors” ).
The cycle is currently on show in Tokyo and will tour China in 2018.