No end in sight in epic struggle over Mucha's gift to Prague


There’s a bitter legal dispute at the moment over the fate of 20 massive paintings by the artist Alphonse Mucha, who created the style known as ‘art nouveau’ in the early 20th century. The cycle of 20 thematic paintings – known collectively as the Slav Epic - has spent the last 47 years in a crumbling castle in the town of Moravský Krumlov. Officials in Prague, however, now want them back, causing an uproar in Moravia, and elsewhere in the country.

Slav Epic - Master Jan Hus preaching at the Bethlehem ChapelSlav Epic - Master Jan Hus preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel Far away from the capital in a dilapidated 17th century chateau, a group of tourists are given a guided tour of twenty enormous paintings, depicting the trials and tribulations of the Czechs and the Slavs.

The paintings, some of them six metres tall and eight metres wide, are dreamy, almost supernatural images, showing figures such as Jan Amos Komenský, the ‘teacher of nations’, sitting slumped in a chair looking out over a cold, grey sea, or Jan Hus, burnt as a heretic in 1415. Pavla Hemerková is one of the gallery’s guides:

“I like this particular picture very much, because it shows us the history of Slavs in four colours. The blue reminds us of the Slavs in their original native country. The red is the colour of success. The black is the colour of wars, killings and bad times. But the yellow, which is the most spread in the picture, is the colour of happiness.”

How the Slav Epic got to Moravský Krumlov is itself an epic tale. Alphonse Mucha, who was born in a nearby village, bequeathed the paintings to Prague in 1928, on one condition – the city erect a special purpose-built pavilion for them. It never did.

During foreign invasion and war, the Slav Epic was wrapped up and hidden in storerooms, even, says the legend, in tombs. It was rediscovered in 1948 and moved - as a provisional measure – to Moravský Krumlov, restored, and put on display in 1963. It’s been here ever since. But now the capital wants it back, much to Krumlov’s anger. Anna Veselá is a retired teacher:

“The way I feel about the Epic is the way 90, 100% of the population of Krumlov feels about it – it’s cared for well here, but we never thought it was ‘ours’. We’ve always counted on the fact that as soon as a special pavilion is built in Prague, we’ll say goodbye to it. Without delay.”

The legal dispute is complicated. Earlier this year, the City of Prague demanded the paintings’ return, based on Alphonse Mucha’s original wish. The Mucha family, who run the Mucha Foundation, intervened, appealing to the state authorities in Moravský Krumlov to block the move, which they did. Jaroslav Mokrý, the town’s mayor, says the capital is simply throwing its weight around:

“Each little village, each little town, must be left to do what it’s capable of: its own government, its own economy, its own industry, its own culture. If it’s not capable of doing it, then it must voluntarily relinquish those powers to a higher authority. But if someone thinks that all the most beautiful things should automatically be sent to the capital, and that there should be one gallery displaying all the art in the country, that’s a gross violation of the principle of subsidiarity and something that has no place in a democracy.”

Alfons MuchaAlfons Mucha Prague has vowed to appeal, describing the decision to ban moving it as an infringement of the capital’s ownership rights. But there is a sense that this epic struggle is entering its endgame. A thousand angry art students recently demonstrated outside the chateau, even President Klaus has intervened in favour of keeping the paintings in Moravia.

So Alponse Mucha’s gift to the Czech people is stuck in legal limbo; the ban on moving the Slav Epic means Prague can’t have it, but neither can Moravský Krumlov let it go, even if it wanted to.