Ornate flowers, decorative scrawl, and seductive, scantily clad women: even a century on, Art Nouveau has left its imprint on our artistic tastes. Somewhat short-lived, the Art Nouveau style flourished for just a few short years in the 1890s and early 1900s, appearing in every European capital. But despite its popularity across Europe (just take a look at the Paris Métro stations), there are few cities that come close to Prague in its enduring adoration of all things Art Nouveau.
For the uninitiated, Art Nouveau is easy to recognise because it’s as beautiful as it is over the top. Pieces from this period are distinct for their pastel hues, graceful, curving shapes, heavy outlines, and subject matter – over-embellished flowers and the women above, falling out of their robes.
And if there’s a single name behind the movement, it has to be that of Alphonse Mucha. The father of Prague Art Nouveau, Mucha was Czech by birth, though he divided his working life between Prague and Paris. Best known for his iconic posters – which adorn café walls and inspire tattoo sleeves around the world – Mucha created many of his works in partnership with scandalous French starlet Sarah Bernhardt.
Despite spending the peak of his career in bohemian Paris, (who could resist the charms of Montmartre?) a number of his works can also be found in the Czech Republic, offering the perfect excuse for a Prague Art Nouveau tour. The most obvious stop for those seeking a primer is the Mucha Museum – a small but well curated collection that brings together paintings, photos, prints, drawings, and other personal mementos, including never before seen pages from his Paris-era sketchbooks. St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague’s main cathedral within the castle walls, holds Mucha-commissioned rainbow stained glass windows in the northern end of the nave – though fewer partially-clothed damsels here!
But Mucha didn’t disappear after Art Nouveau had fallen out of fashion – just take a look at his Slav Epic, temporarily on display in the Veletržní Palace until 2015. Considered by the artist himself to be his greatest work, the collection redefines “huge” with 20 giant-sized canvases, each of which cover multiple metres.
And beyond Mr. Mucha’s blockbuster works? Thankfully, there were many more members of the Prague Art Nouveau family who were hard at work at the turn-of-the-century. A number of grand hotels evoke the bygone decadence of the Art Nouveau era, including Hotel Europa, Hotel Central, and the Art Nouveau Palace Hotel. Decorated varyingly with embellished text, vines, ornate scrolls, and busts of female figures, these buildings provide a stylish window into the city’s past.
The Municipal House’s stately exterior and ornate interior are littered with artistic references; it’s no surprise that Mucha himself, alongside a number of his contemporaries, had a hand in its decoration.