It wasn’t until the 19th century that the word Bohemian was used as a socio-cultural identifier. Before the 1800’s the anti-establishment, somewhat unpredictable, artistic astronauts of the norm were sometimes called “gypsies”. Perhaps a result of the potent impression on the aristocratic imagination left by the Romani people, which originally immigrated into Eastern and Central Europe from the Indian Sub-continent some 1,500 years ago. Their freedom-loving nomadic lifestyle may have been what correlated the term ” bohémienne” with the Spanish gypsy in Gorges Bizet opera “Carmen”, often interpreted as a character developed to express the composer’s own desire for freedom. An example of how for many the term gypsy and bohemian were interchangeable, this remains true even in modern times.
An alternate, if not concurrent, line of reasoning for the linguistic co-habitation is the existence of the Kingdom of Bohemia – and by extension Bohemians- in Eastern Europe, an area through which many Romani people immigrated. The Kingdom of Bohemia covered much of what is now The Czech Republic but first it was ruled by the Holy Roman Empire, then the House of Hapsburg and Lorraine, next becoming part of the Austrian Empire, and then a “crown land” within the Austro-Hungarian Empire remaining that way until the end of World War I. Needless to say, the area has endured centuries of rebellion and violence throughout the duration of it’s struggle for cultural independence. Throughout these struggles Prague remained an epicenter of economic power, maintaining this status even today.
It was extremely difficult to walk around Prague without stopping at every intersection, doorway or lamp post to document the heavy art nouveau embellishments. Incredibly, of the several hundred photographs I shot in Prague the majority are architectural details, corners of buildings or bridges. I had never been to such a well dressed city. To further lure me into outstaying my self imposed “7day maximum” rule for each city, the hostel I ended up in was fantastic. The bunk I took over was one of two in a sunny, clean room I shared with two hilarious British lesbians. We quickly became friends and spent several evenings on the rooftop enjoying the view of the city, drinking cheap Czech beer and playing playing billards. There was a popular club next door and a few of our roof top evenings wandered into late night dancing. During the days I traveled around the city solo, napping in the grass of one of the many parks in between museum visits photography marathons. There was one museum I was particularly interested in seeing.
During the course of his lifetime Alphonse Mucha had developed a beautiful balance between design theory and organic forms. He designed costumes, jewelry, furniture, building facades, and commercial interiors, but what he is best know for are his posters. In 1894 his last minute design for the play Gismonda starring Sarah Bernhardt pioneered a new approach to the traditional theater announcement. Apart from his graphic work he also composed many paintings covering a variety of themes and subject matter. The paintings were what I had in mind when I sought out the museum that afternoon. The magnum opus or masterpiece of Mucha’s work is entitles “The Slav Epic”; 20 enormous pieces depicting the history of the slavic people. While this covers an extensive grouping of political territory, Mucha had his people of the old Bohemia in mind – presenting the entire cycle to the city of Prague. The Slav Epic is an incredible series of paintings, one of my absolute favorites. What always interested me about his oil paintings was his surprising use of light and color areas to focus the viewer on specific segments of the piece and to highlight or explain a kind of time-line in the work. I have since learned that he was heavily influenced by the Austrian academic, historian and painter Hans Makart (also a major influence on Mucha contemporary Gustav Klimt). Exhibiting the typical Neoclassical themes of history, allegory and literature Makart also painted using light in a very particular manner.
The Nile Hunt of Cleopatra is a perfect example of the use of light to direct the viewer. In the foreground the act of hunting is being played out as several of the Egyptians haul a beast from the waters, the boat nearly tipping into the river itself demonstrating the enormity of the catch while in the background a luxurious boat embraces a clear blue sky filled with birds. Several women lounge about draped in glowing white and two individuals casually shoot at the passing fowl as if enjoying the action of handling the bow, with little care of whether the arrow would in fact make it’s mark. The interesting part of the painting, for me, is the use of dark and light. The foreground; full of action and momentum is painted in the shadows while the lucid background is almost unreasonably illuminated. The viewer could understand this to signify the divergent social classes portrayed in the scene, or to indicate the boat as a later point in time where the bounty of the hunt provided by the physicality of the hunters is enjoyed as a carnal pleasure in the feast.
This complexity and symbology is also apparent in the large scale work Mucha completed and viewing even a few of the smaller pieces in the museum was enough to have me deep in philosophical thought for several days. During my stay in Prague I also visited St.Vitus cathedral to see the stained glass Mucha had contributed. The vividness of the late afternoon sunlight diffusing through his careful placement of color was a perfect collaboration with the natural world and his organized sense of form. Set in such an environment; saturated by the song and prayer, politics and power of his people – the experience held me in an ethereal trance. I stood before it for a number of hours, the vermillion light filtering through the figures in the glass and onto the skin of my arms almost like blood or a thick velvet robe.