What you see: A circa 1930 poster by Alphonse Mucha for the Slav Epic Exhibition. Soulis Auctions estimates it at $8,000 to $10,000.
The expert: Dirk Soulis, founder, owner, and auctioneer at Soulis Auctions in Lone Jack, Missouri.
Who was Alphonse Mucha, and why is his work still important now, roughly a century after his heyday? He was an illustrator and artist of Czech/Slav origin. He’s still important because of the quality of his work. The work itself and the beauty of it makes it a classic, whether you know who the artist is or not.
What was the Slav Epic, and why was it important to Mucha? It was a series of 20 monumental paintings, allegories of the history of the Slavic peoples. In 1899, Mucha was commissioned by the Austro-Hungarian government to create murals for the Pavilion of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Researching the history and culture of those peoples inspired him to seek sponsorship and a platform for a similar project in his home country of Czechoslovakia.
Did Mucha intend to finish the Slav Epic by the 10th anniversary of the proclamation of the Slavic Republic, or did he start work and seize on that milestone as a deadline later on? I suspect that [the latter] is the case. He started the Slav Epic in 1910 and I’m not sure he had that [10th anniversary] goal in mind.
The poster is dated circa 1930. Did the Slav Epic open to the public in 1930? No. This poster is a little more unusual for that reason. The Slav Epic opened in Prague in 1928, and the majority of the posters are from 1928. In 1930, it opened in Brno, the second-largest city in Czechoslovakia. The image is the same for both posters.
The Slav Epic is a series of canvases. Mucha made his reputation with poster designs. Why did he make a poster for the Slav Epic? Did he need to advertise it in this way, or did he feel that people knew him best as a poster artist, and he ought to make a poster for the show? I suspect it’s a little of both. The organizers, including him, felt like a poster was in order. It was a familiar way to promote things.
Is this the only Slav Epic Mucha poster design, or did he do others to promote the show? As far as I know, this is the only poster design for the exhibition.
Do we have any notion of how many posters were printed for the 1928 and 1930 Slav Epic exhibitions, and how many survive? I think this would be difficult to accurately state. A few of his posters that are near life-size are printed in two pieces, and this is printed in two pieces, and the sheets are joined. The image is the same, and the lower portion, with the location and the date, changes.
Does this Slav Epic Mucha poster draw its imagery directly from a painting in the show, or is it a more abstract image that captures the show’s overall spirit? This is drawn from the 18th canvas. By drawn, I mean it’s based on the actual painting itself.
It’s a straight repetition? Yes.
Let’s talk about what’s going on in the Slav Epic Mucha poster. Who is the woman at the center? What instrument is she playing? Is that an incense burner at her feet, and does it have any special symbolic meaning here? She and the other figures in the original mural represented Slavic youth in the 1890s. Her garb is traditional and of that late 19th century period. She plays a semi-circle stringed lyre-like instrument with cockerel head surmount and, in the original mural, the face of a woman is at its base. I can’t comment on the metaphor of the censer and smoke.
Who is the figure in the back with more than one face? Is it a god? Yes, he is the three-faced Slavic pagan god Svantovit. He’s a figure of folklore, and he holds a cup representing plenty. Svantovit does not appear in the original mural.
Did Mucha use a live model for the young woman at the center of the poster? Yes, she’s his first born daughter, Jaroslava.
How often does this Slav Epic Mucha poster tend to come to auction? It’s not very common. It’s even more uncommon to find a nice example in good condition with good color. One or two come up every few years.
What is the world auction record for the poster? The highest price I know of is an example advertising the 1928 exhibition at $10,625. [It sold at Swann Auction Galleries in January 2017.]
As of November 19, 2019, the Slav Epic Mucha poster reflected a bid of $4,000. Is that at all meaningful with weeks to go before the sale? It’s always energizing and noteworthy, but in my experience, it’s not always meaningful. The real action doesn’t start until the live auction.
What’s the condition of this example of the Slav Epic Mucha poster? It’s in good to very fine condition. Again, the colors are very strong. It’s very clean, no visual issues or detractions. It’s properly mounted and has its margins. With this example, the text panel is framed separately. That’s how the collector displayed it in his home.
The Slav Epic Mucha poster is from the collection of the late Robert Allan Haas. Who was he, and how does his provenance make the poster more interesting to collectors? Haas was an artist and an illustrator, as Mucha was. He worked for Hallmark cards, and was based in Kansas City, Missouri. He studied at the Ringling College of Fine Art, and happened upon a Mucha illustration in a book and was taken with it. He credited it with teaching him about art and life.
And Haas became a Mucha expert? To some degree, based on his notes and the books we found. At times, he authenticated pieces for the Mucha family. They consulted with him, and he knew and corresponded with them.
To what extent can we credit Haas with the good condition of the Slav Epic Mucha poster? That’s kind of the luck of the draw. He was fortunate to find a fine example. He certainly did know and understand what must be done to conserve and display posters and works on paper.
How many Mucha works from Haas are in this auction? And does that number represent the entirety of his collection? About 60. There are another 50 lots, not counting his library. There will be a second session next year in 2020–we haven’t set the date yet–and that will be the whole collection.
What is the Slav Epic Mucha poster like in person? The colors are strong, with a lot of vibrant hues. The trailing plumes of gold-embossed smoke are really striking. It’s very intriguing in person.
Would the smoke be your favorite detail of the Slav Epic Mucha poster? That is it–the plume rising, the beauty of the flowing lines, and the way it sets up the composition.
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