A final denoument for Mucha’s Slav Epic?

Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic, a series of 20 monumental paintings depicting important events in Slavic history, may finally get the dedicated permanent exhibition space the artist wanted almost a century after the works were completed. When we last we saw our Slavic heroes in 2012, the series has just been put on display at the Veletrzni Palace in Prague over the protests of art lovers and the Mucha family.

Mucha gave the series to the city of Prague on condition that it build a pavilion for their display. This was no small matter as canvases are enormous — 26 feet wide by 20 feet high — and World War II, Communist disapproval, chronic lack of funds and chronic legal wrangling with the Mucha family, the permanent Slav Epic gallery never materialized.

After being rolled up in storage for decades, the paintings went back on public display for the first time since Mucha’s 1939 death at the castle of Moravský Krumlov in southern Moravia in 1963. They remained there until 2012 when Prague flexed its muscles. The Veletrzni Palace was the only place with enough wall space to accommodate the monumental works, but the poorly controlled fluctuations of temperature and humidity made it a dangerously inadequate space for canvases that had suffered so much already. The fact that the palace had also been used during the war to hold Jews before they were deported to concentration camps was no deterrent to Prague officials, but it sure pissed off the Muchas, especially as several family members had been among those imprisoned in Veletrzni Palace.

As far as Alphonse’s grandson John was concerned, Prague would not own the Slav Epic until they built the pavilion as per Mucha’s condition. Until then, the series was better off at Moravský Krumlov. Prague’s argument was that they owned the works free and clear because the legal donor was not the artist, but rather the sponsor who paid for them, American plumbing supplies magnate Charles Crane, and Crane had made no requirement as to the display space.

The Mucha family and the foundation they founded took the dispute to the law. Possession being nine tenths of it, nothing changed on the ground until it got worse. In 2016, Prague announced that all 20 canvases would go a two-year tour of Asia. This would have been the first time they left what is now the Czech Republic. That meant more rolling of the massive paintings, more transportation in precarious conditions of fluctuating temperature, moisture and pressure.

John Mucha filed suit yet again to keep the fragile egg tempera-on-canvas works in the Czech Republic, but the courts failed to stop the tour. It went on as planned. When the Slav Epic finally returned home in 2019, Prague announced that the paintings would return to Moravský Krumlov until the city had an appropriate facility for the series.

Now the epic saga about an epic saga may finally come to a conclusion: an innovative multi-use development in Wenceslas Square in the heart of historic Prague has offered the city a custom-designed gallery to be the new home of the Slav Epic. The developer will pay all expenses for construction of the exhibition space in its Savarin project which would be complete within five years.

“Over the years, we have heard many ideas about where to install the Slav Epic. Prague has been looking for its home for almost 100 years now and we are convinced that the Savarin Palace fulfils my grandfather’s wish, on which he conditioned his gift to Prague. Thomas Heatherwick presented to us and also consulted the vision of exhibiting the twenty canvases of the Slav Epic, and I am convinced that my grandfather would be proud of such a presentation of his masterpiece. As I have already said several times, the moment the issue of the Slav Epic’s home in Prague is clarified, I will withdraw the lawsuit with the city, because the will of my grandfather will be fulfilled,” says John Mucha, grandson of painter Alfons Mucha.

The new exhibit tailored to the Slav Epic in the Savarin project would offer an exceptional and globally unique exhibition space in the city centre. At the same time, it will not burden its surroundings with a greater movement of people, as the exhibit would be entered from the inner courtyard and accessibility for visitors will be also made easier by the newly created interconnection to the underground station with a direct entry into the spaces of the Savarin project. The exhibit over an area of 3,500 m2 would be entered through the newly created gardens and the listed building of the historical riding school, which will be the centrepiece of the whole Savarin project.

The exhibition space of the epic and of the life’s work of Alfons Mucha will be 10 metres high, which will enable the presentation of the Slav Epic in a uniform visual view according to the original intention of Alfons Mucha. Then it will all be enhanced by the entry hall into the gallery, technical facilities, a shop with souvenirs related to Alfons Mucha and a space for the gathering of groups for guided tours. The whole area of the exhibit shall be conceived as the life path of Alfons Mucha and how this path led to the creation of the Slav Epic.

Here’s a cool thing. The Mucha Foundation commissioned a virtual reality version of the Slav Epic. Digital artists at Nexus Studios create a virtual experience in which the viewers see the monumental works in an ideal gallery and to step inside the first painting in the cycle, The Slavs In Their Original Homeland, and explore its environment. It is compatible with VIVE Pro headsets and is free for download here.