GLENS FALLS — In a dramatic unveiling of the newest exhibition at The Hyde Collection on Friday night, Curator Jonathan Canning turned on the lights, opened the gallery door and invited members of the Director’s Circle to “Come in and meet Sara Bernhardt.”
And there she was, the iconic French beauty of stage and film, in three near life-size lithographs, draped in the elegantly sensual colors and sinuous swirls and patterns of illustrator Alphonse Mucha.
“Sara put him on the map,” said Canning on Friday, adding that there are two versions of how the two connected.
The story from Mucha is that he was working in a print shop over the holidays and Sara Bernhardt called in saying she needed a new poster. The story from Bernhardt, Canning said, is that she chose six designers and liked Mucha’s work more than any other, giving him a six-year contract.
And so began the private tour of the “Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau,” exhibit that opens at the Hyde on Sunday. Featuring 70 works of the artist credited with inspiring the Art Nouveau movement, the exhibition comes from the private Dhawan Collection of Los Angeles.
While still focused on the three images of Sara Bernhardt at the entrance to the exhibit, Jenny Hutchinson, museum educator, talked about lithography and whether or not these pieces were actually lithographs.
“With lithograpy we are talking about a plate, either limestone, aluminum or zinc plate,” she said. “I’m wondering if this is a plate.”
Hutchinson continued, explaining the process of massaging the plate with gum arabic or acid before rolling it with ink.
When Canning and Hutchinson interchangeably talk about Mucha, they talk about how his works in the late 1800s and early 1900s marked a time of a new woman, a woman who was free to leave the home.
“There are images of ladies smoking in public,” Hutchinson said. “This is the new modern woman and is the first wave of the liberation of females.”
The Mucha exhibit arrived at the museum last week and, on Monday, Canning said they were just beginning to unpack it.
“We just opened the first crate a few moments ago,” he said in a phone interview Monday, adding that they let it sit unpacked for several days to let it acclimate to the conditions at The Hyde. “It had to travel in bad weather. And to prevent it from sudden temperatures, we let it, over time, come back slowly.”
Canning said that all museums try to maintain 70-degree Farenheit temperatures and a 45 to 50 percent relative humidity. “Whenever art moves, we try to maintain that,” he said. “On this trip, it was very cold and they were delayed by snow. It was all sealed in a crate and that is a buffer, but we wanted it to adjust slowly.”
The week prior to the exhibit’s arrival, they were busy preparing and painting the walls in deep muted purple and green, a stunning complement to Mucha’s deeply rich, warm oranges and blues.
During Friday night’s tour of the exhibit, Canning and Hutchinson stopped at several images to talk about the artist’s connection to the work, the world situation at the time and how Mucha influenced the art world with his pieces.
“Mucha’s early work is centered on the epitome of beauty,” said Canning. “With the use of subtle color schemes, lavish scrolling text and exquisite women, he defined the Art Nouveau movement."
Despite being the most successful decorative graphic artist of his day, Mucha "surprisingly" did not have a passion for that work, Canning said.
"Mucha aspired to being a great history painter, but his greatest influence was on art nouveau," he said. “He was inspired by the traditional dress, the folklore and landscapes, and proud of the Czech culture.”
According to Canning, Mucha considered his life’s masterpiece to be "Slav Epic," 20 large-scale paintings depicting the history of the Czech lands and people. The latter part of Mucha's career is also included in the exhibition, with samples of his work after returning to his homeland in the early part of the twentieth century, including bank notes and one of the Slav Epic panels.
"He was arrested in 1939 when the Nazis came to the city of Prague," Canning said, adding that he had just finished presenting his 20 great works. "They were hidden away so the Nazis could not destroy it."
Canning said that many people may not know the name Mucha, but they may be familiar with his images. In the 1960s, the band Gypsy used one of Mucha's images for an album cover.
"I think visually they look familiar and it is as appealing to us (today) the way it was to the French in the 1890s," Canning said on Monday.