Those who are familiar with Czech artist Alphonse Mucha know of the vivid works he created during his time abroad, but few know of what he considered his greatest work of all, the Slav Epic (or Slovanska Epopej).
Through the course of sixteen years, Mucha had created twenty large paintings displaying various moments in history of the Slavic people. Unfortunately this great collection of works had hardly been brought to the attention of the rest of the world as a number of unfortunate circumstances prevented Mucha from seeing his life’s greatest work receive the praise it deserved.
The Slav Epic had an ill-fated history. The series began in 1910 when Mucha had returned from Paris so that he may embark on the creation of what he saw would be his defining work. Before he began his work, Mucha had traveled across Russia, the Balkans, Poland, and the Orthodox monasteries on Mount Athos, consulting historians along the way to ensure accurate depictions of events in his works. Two years later, he received funding from Charles Richard Crane, a wealthy businessman who had held an interest in Eastern Europe and Slavic nationalism in particular. Over the course of seven years, Mucha had completed eleven works, which he presented in Prague, receiving much interest public from the public. Unfortunately, critics were quick to label the work as an expression of an outdated, nationalistic style. His full work had later been displayed in America and Czechoslovakia, although it received similar reactions.
In 1935, the Slav Epic had it’s final exhibition before the death of Mucha, after he had gifted the works to the city of Prague. Because the city was not able to provide a permanent place to display the works, the paintings were rolled up and placed in storage, although some say this was done in order to prevent confiscation from invading German forces. Four years later, Mucha was captured by German troops during the beginning of World War II and interrogated. Shortly after being released, the artist succumbed to a lung infection and died, disappointed that his greatest work had seen such an unfortunate fate. Up until 1950, the government refused to put the works on display again, in fact it would only be until 1967 when the full set of paintings would be displayed again after being brought to the city of Moravsky Krumlov by a group of patriots.
Currently the works are on display in the village of Moravsky Krumlov. The Slav Epic itself is deeply symbolic. With the Slav Epic, Mucha had sought to promote Slav unity and nationalism, expressing this through religion and hardships and at the same time, he saw it as a celebration of the Slavs and their shared history and culture. But what some say is the underlying theme of this work is Mucha’s views on how a group of people must develop, displaying this through the idea of Slavic Unity. Perhaps this is better explained in the artist’s own words:
“I am convinced that the development of every nation may proceed with success only if it grows organically and continuously from the nation’s own roots and that for the preservation of this continuity, knowledge of it’s historical past is indispensable.”
Indeed this may be something some governments should take heed to today. Nevertheless, this work remains a great achievement (and a tribute to an even greater culture), which is sadly, devoid of much praise. But today, I hope to bring the readership of this site all twenty of these tremendous works so that a different audience will be able to see these works and possibly appreciate them more than the previous had. Currently, the Czech government hopes to accomplish the same by moving the works to the city of Prague so that it may be seen by a wider range of people, notably tourists.