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slavs in their original homeland (1912), mucha

Artist: Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939)

Technique: Egg tempera on canvas

Dimensions: 610 x 810 cm

Year: 1912

Location of creation: Zbiroh Castle, Czech Republic

Current Location: Prague, Czech Republic

Movements: Japonism, Art Nouveau

Theme: Historic painting

Subject: Battle scene with hiding couple, levitating priest and divine

entities.

general description

In the painting we can see a landscape below a night and starry sky, where a couple is hiding down below, while a silhouette of a riding horse is running from the fire burning in the horizon, at the left. A figure appears rising on the right in grand scale, accompanied by two figures on each side, a woman in white and blue on the right and a figure wearing a mask in red and yellow shades on the left. Behind them is set a battleground, where a multitude of figures aggregate with swords in motion.

Mucha chose to begin this narrative with a burning village, somewhere around the 4th and 6th century, in early medieval times, when the Slav tribes were simple agriculture communities with no political structure. This lack of organization of society made for their vulnerability against the Germanic attack tribes, who burned their town and stole their livestock. In this painting, a couple is seen hiding in the foreground bushes in terror, as they survived the fire burning in the horizon. The people are being slaughtered, even miles away from the burning village, and a flock of sheep is visible in the middle of all of this. In front of this, there’s a pagan priest accompanied by two divine entities, one on each side, representing a cosmic duality between good and evil, peace and war.

The artist had a deeper goal with this final purely artistic work, not only to raise awareness towards the story of Slav people and civilization, but to unite all of these nations in a higher spiritual setting. In this cycle called The Slav Epic, all of these paintings contain a higher spiritual and religious connection, always presenting symbolic or literal elements of it, exploring, in a pictorial manner, the triumphs and losses of the Slavs, and his own nation.

This cycle of 20 monumental Slav paintings, took Mucha around fourteen years to complete (1912-1926). The Slav Epic (Slovanská epopej) was conceived as a monument for all the Slavs, for all of its different regions. The artist got the idea in 1899, upon the designing the Bosnia-Herzegovina pavilion for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, and devoted the final years of his life to realize his vision. This complex work would end up being sponsored by Charles Richard Crane (1858-1939), an american businessman interested in Eastern Europe politics and in Slavonic culture. He paid for the painting supplies and covered the studio expenses in the Zbiroh Castle. The artist’s ultimate goal was to leave a final meaningful work for humanity, something unifying and inspiring for his contemporaries and future generations. The artist’s intention was to donate it to the city of Prague, something that happened in 1928, and coincide with the 10th Anniversary of its independence.

content analysis

Emotion of Fear and Vulnerability: The feeling expressed by the hiding crouching peasant couple, in the middle of the dark bushes and fleeing flock transpose to the viewer this horror and fear felt by these.

Hellish Feeling of Destruction: The battle scene, the running horseman from the fire, and the fire itself make the viewer realize the complete devastation these tribes were victims of, and the literal hell they went through.

Spirituality: The divine presence indicated by the levitating priest and the mysterious entities on both sides, convey a higher power to the narrative.

Cosmic Duality: These two entities represent war and peace, the peace and freedom that would later resulted from the war. These may also be representations of Belobg (“White God”) and Chernobog (“Black God”), or Tiarnoglofi (“Black Mind”), symbolising the femininity and the earthly, the masculinity and the heavenly, as seen by Slavonic ancient mythology, and, so, a duality connected to femininity being linked with peace, and masculinity being linked with war.

Night Sky and Predominace of Purple: The colour purple is a symbol of the magical and the mystical. The night symbolizes the death and loss of faith, as battle runs through days and nights, as well as the spirituality connected to the celestial forces. Finally, the stars represent divine guidance, while providing the light in the dark, acting as a protection symbol. They are also linked to the mystery of the cosmos, representing both past and present, and, in its turn, the destiny of the universe. So, the purple starry night sky echoed in the whole composition, adds to this mystical and cosmic deeper meaning of the image, which indicates as a premonition, the goal of freedom and glory of the Slavs at the far distance, that feels intangible at this time.

Battle Scene: This is a representation of many attacks the early Slav tribes were targeted since the early medieval times. As Germanic tribes usually did, here, they burnt the village, slaughtered the people, and stole their sheep. This is also a premonition of many horrors this people would encounter in the future.

Sheep: The flock represents the innocent, the helpless and the vulnerable. A symbol often linked to sacrifice, here, the sheep are symbolic of the first sacrifice towards the freedom of the Slav people.

Structure: The image is composed of three juxtaposed planes – the first where the couple is hiding, circled by the bushes, the second, where we see the foreground of the battle, and the third one at the horizon, where the fire is burning.

Tension Lines: Tension Lines and Midpoint: Most of the composition is developed below the horizontal line at the middle (that divides the heavenly from the earthly). The diagonals – across the entities and defining the battle’s composition in both directions – indicate the midpoint at the center as a focal point, where we can see a flock of sheep fleeing the battle scene. There is also another line that connects the burning fire, the running horse and the hiding couple.

Scale: The different scales of the composition’s elements suggest variations of the near and far. The divine entities appear on a larger scale, then the hiding couple and the vegetation around them are presented in a smaller size, the foreground of the battle shows an agglomeration of people even smaller and less defined, and towards the far horizon, the figures of the battle diminish into silhouetted shapes.

Shape and Surface: The foreground figures are painted in fields of colour, while the rest of the composition – vegetation and battle ground – is mostly silhouetted. The sky is painted with a slightly grainy texture to represent the deepness of the starry night sky.

Line: Here, only the foreground figures are defined by line.

Colour: The colours of the composition are not very saturated. There is a clear predominance of dark purple hues, contrasted by warm orange, yellow and red tones.

Light: Most of the composition is dark, especially the battle scene. The crouching figures in the front are more illuminated, perhaps by the moon outside the visual canvas, presenting more contrast than the rest of the composition.

Study and Preparation: In order to transmit his political ideals of unity of all the Slav nations, Mucha started his extensive research two decades earlier, traveling to south Slav regions (communities annexed to Austria-Hungary, in the Balkans region, and other regions), and speaking to numerous renowned historians, in search for stories from Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, Croatia, and others.

Studio Location: Mucha rented a studio in the Zbiroh Castle, in Czech Republic, so he would have enough of a spacious room and be able to paint these monumental images, besides having the peace and quiet of this secluded space.

Influence of Japonism: The intricate craftsmanship  and overall aesthetic is evidently linked to the Japanese influences. The same treatment of the figures, with flat planes of color, sculptured treatment of light (with no gradient) and frivolous use of contour, specially visible in the divine entities (and their kimono-like dresses) and the peasant couple.

Classical Undertone: Modern spin on the classical painting guides, using egg tempera on monumental canvas and complying to compositional rules (rule of thirds).

Painting Cycle The Slav Epic: The ultimate goal of the artist with this series of paintings was, not only  to raise awareness towards the story of Slav people, but also to connect them in a more spiritual spectrum, according with his political ideals, of making the world a better place. Mucha believed in the ideals of Pan-Slavism, a political movement that believes in the integrity and unity of the Slavs, and the artist paid most attention to the Czech nation, his home country. The patriotic and utopian vision for the Slav society, accompanied with such an overwhelming symbolism, did not provide for the best reaction upon its exhibition, as it was not as well received and understood as Mucha would expect.

painting details

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