Iron will and obsessive preparation once propelled Ivan Lendl to the top of world tennis. The once shy and awkward youth from communist Czechoslovakia has applied the same doggedness to collecting art.
The result -- the world’s most complete collection of original posters by the Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha -- is being displayed for the first time in his country of birth. More than 150 prints that the artist created at the height of the Belle Epoque in Paris are on show at the Prague Municipal House.
“Ivan gave me a very straightforward task: to track down every single Mucha poster on the market,” said Jack Rennert, the New York-based vintage poster dealer who’s been in charge of expanding Lendl’s collection over the years. “I was more a detective than a curator.”
The tenacity with which Lendl hunted for his favorite artist’s works recalls his pursuit of grand slam titles. Every year, to prepare for the U.S. Open, he would hire the same workers who laid the hard court surface at Flushing Meadows to install an exact copy of the court in his Connecticut home.
Lendl almost succeeded in completing his collection. There are only three known Mucha posters left in other private collections and museums today. The rest hung in Lendl’s sprawling family house in Connecticut until earlier this year when there were transported to Prague.
Arranged chronologically in two halls of the Municipal House, itself an architectural landmark of the Art Nouveau period, the exhibition traces Mucha’s development as a decorative painter who tapped the growing potential of using art in advertising.
Whether selling soap, chocolate or a trip to Monte Carlo, Mucha’s posters almost invariably feature nubile female figures whose elaborately coiffed hair and flowing, intricately decorated gowns blur the difference between the figurative and the ornamental.
In the second half of the 1890s, Mucha cooperated with the Paris-based printer Champenois, creating some of his best works, from “Zodiaque” (1896) to posters advertising Moet & Chandon Champagne. He was among the first to tie a celebrity to a particular food product, as evidenced by the poster on which theater diva Sarah Bernhardt promotes Lefevre-Utile biscuits.
It was Mucha’s collaboration with Bernhardt and her theater company that made him into a star in turn-of-the-century Paris.
The posters he designed for her plays include “La Dame Aux Camelias” (1896), “Medee” (1898) and “Hamlet” (1899). They represent the culmination of his unique style uniting the figurative and ornamental elements in one integrated whole.
The collection is managed by Czech advertising guru Richard Fuxa on Lendl’s behalf. They plan to take it on the road, especially to Asia. They are considering offers from Japan and China, where Mucha is popular, Fuxa said.
They’re also searching for a permanent venue in Prague for the time the collection won’t be traveling, because Lendl wishes to make it available for public viewing in his country of origin.
He’s asked for reproductions of the posters for his Connecticut house because he can’t bear to part with them all.
While the Bernhardt posters mark the high point of the exhibition, Mucha connoisseurs will be equally pleased with original prints for Documents Decoratifs, an “ultimate Mucha” textbook the artist published in 1902. The sketches show how the Art Nouveau technique can be applied to anything from the human body to furniture, silverware, landscapes or the natural world.
Speaking of the natural world, the exhibition rooms are fitted out with a wall-to-wall artificial lawn.
We are left wondering: Is this an attempt to evoke spring, which has been so slow to come this year? Or perhaps an allusion to the grass court at Wimbledon -- the one grand-slam tournament the collection’s owner never managed to win?
“Ivan Lendl: Alphonse Mucha” is at The Prague Municipal House, namesti Republiky 5, Prague1, through July 31.
(Ladka Bauerova is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, John Mariani on drink and Craig Seligman on books.