John Mucha – Part 1

John Mucha is the grandson of the great Czech Art Nouveau painter and decorative artist Alphonse Mucha. His parents are also noteworthy; his late father Jiří was a journalist and writer, while his Scottish mother Geraldine, who is 92, still composes music. John himself heads the Mucha Foundation, which conserves the family’s collection and promotes the artist’s work internationally. His home in the Czech capital, situated opposite the gates of Prague Castle, contains a breathtaking array of Alphonse Mucha memorabilia and artworks and is described by John Mucha as a “living museum”. When we spoke at the Mucha family flat, I first asked him if he had grown up there.

John Mucha in '13. komnata' documentary by Czech TelevisionJohn Mucha in '13. komnata' documentary by Czech Television “Eventually, yes. The story is that I was born in London in May 1948. When my mother was heavily pregnant in January ’48, one of my Scottish relatives was very high up in the BBC, he came to Prague and he said to my parents, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but something’s going to happen. Then of course came February [when the Communists took power].

“He advised my mother to have her baby in England. The reason was that if you’re born in England – or at least in those days it was the case – you automatically got a British passport.

“So mum left and I was born in London and spent my first six months there, I think, and then we came to Prague. We lived in the family villa in Bubeneč until 1950, which was already after the Communist coup, when we were thrown out.

“My father found this place – which doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to a church. As a family we’ve been living here since 1950.”

Did you have a great sense of privilege growing up here, and living opposite Prague Castle?

“None, at all. When you’re a little kid…you may find it surprising, but all this was completely normal to me. Of course at school I had a lot of friends, whose families would typically…you’d have a flat, what was a flat in the First Republic [interwar era], which would have let’s say four rooms and one bathroom, one kitchen, and it would be shared by two or three families…kids who in terms of space came from very limited means. As boys this was great, because you had lots of space.

“But nobody ever…it was only when I was about 15 when suddenly there was an element – whether it was being encouraged by the Communists, I don’t know – but that’s when things started getting a bit more difficult. You got beaten up from time to time, and people would shout at you, come on, admit you’re a Jew! And things like that, which was rather strange.”

Is it the case that this flat is somehow based on Alphonse Mucha’s studio in France?

“Yes, it is. We, the family really has been very lucky in that we have been able to hang on to everything that you see. When we moved in in 1950 my parents tried to give it the feel of the atelier that Alphonse had in [Paris street] Val-de-Grace.

Geraldine MuchaGeraldine Mucha “It’s interesting, what a lot of people don’t know is that if it had not been for my mother, we would not be sitting here today. Why do I say that? In 1950 or so my father was arrested and accused of espionage, falsely. The state prosecutor wanted the death penalty, which fortunately he didn’t get but got hard labour, he was in the uranium mines in Jáchymov.

“Of course the secret police came to confiscate everything. My mother said, very bravely, I’m sorry, all this is mine, and I’m a British subject! And somehow…they didn’t expect that. They sort of became uneasy and then they said, we’ll go, but we’ll come back. And they never did.

“Having said that, had we had a collection of Picasso, Matisse and so on, like for instance the Kramářova sbírka [collection assembled by Vincenc Kramář now in possession of Czech state], I’m not sure we would have got it back.”

How old were you when you realised that your grandfather was a great artist?

Alphonse MuchaAlphonse Mucha “Under the Communist regime, Alphonse Mucha was a decadent bourgeois of no value whatever…As a kid, again I didn’t really think about it. I started being a teenager at the start of the ‘60s…’61, ’62, suddenly it was the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and then eventually Flower Power and of course a massive revival of Art Nouveau and, who else, Mucha. And Mucha again became famous all over the world.

“I remember going to the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which was the first exhibition abroad after many, many years. It was a sensation. So yes, it felt nice!”

What’s your relationship to his work? I mean, how much do you like it?

“I think what is incredible is the diversity of his work. He’s still best known for the posters, and we’re trying to dynamite the idea that he was just a poster artist.

Slav EpicSlav Epic “When you see the pastels, which are radically different, when you see the drawings, which are exquisite, the oil paintings…the Slav Epic, which is extraordinary, it is absolutely extraordinary. The Bosnian Pavilion, which was the spark for the Slav Epic.

“I think what comes out of his work is that almost everything he did comes from the heart. And you can’t miss that.”

Roughly how many pieces of his do you have here in this flat?

“We don’t have many of his pieces in the flat, obviously there are security considerations, sadly, in this world. What I can tell you is that the collection is the largest and the most comprehensive in the world. But obviously for security reasons we have to keep things in secure storage.”

What do you think explains the enduring appeal of Art Nouveau?

“I’d slightly change it, in that if you look at history you have this huge explosion in 1894, and where Alphonse is absolutely key. He’s the only first Czech visual artist who is a founder of a global art movement. There are many other wonderful painters, Kupka and so on, but they were not foundation stones of whichever movement it was.

“But then of course it exploded onto the world, and then came Art Deco and it completely disappeared. And then Flower Power, and again it started consolidating its position.

“And I think the appeal is particularly today…it’s not just the economic crisis, but it’s also an age of doubt, it’s an age in which we are sort of wondering what it’s all about. I think what Alphonse’s art does is it sort of offers you a haven. Like a boat, you can sort of sail in and have a little rest and get your thoughts organised. And then you go out again into the world [laughs].”