In one day, I saw a museum of Communism and a museum of Alphonse Mucha. This was intentional since the communists and Mucha were nothing alike. They made mistakes, very different in scale, but one error may have led to the greater one.
The communist dream was bound to become a nightmare because it came with so much ugliness. Whatever Soviet Realism, the official art of Communism, was, it was bad art and a movement that elevates ugliness in the name of some good or ideological truth has something very wrong.
Regimes that oppress artists soon kill men. Failure to love art or subsidize it is not persecution, as Western art-bums sometimes claim, but a just state should suppress art only in extreme circumstances.
Mucha created Art Nouveau and added curves to a linear word. Sarah Bernhardt was the famous actress of her day and Mucha made her immortal by designing theater advertisements for her that were art and commercially successful.
He was an artist lucky enough to need to earn money, so he was forced to put his aesthetic sensibility into real life. He was an artist who began hanging on street walls who ended up on gallery walls. He designed beautiful cookie tins and forks for dinner. He was Walt Disney with greater artistic skills.
Some men would be content with changing the artistic and commercial world, but Mocha wanted to serve the Czech and Slovak people. He turned his passion to creating a great mythic canvas conveying the history of the Slavs. Mucha lived to see his dream of a free Czechoslovakia and then lived just a few days too long. He saw the city and his homeland subsumed by the Nazis. Curves and softening light were replaced by swastika angles and Nuremberg torches.
After the war, fascists were replaced by communists and going from Hitler to Stalin was not so different from the Melkor to Sauron transition. It was just as well Mucha died, because it would be forty years before beauty would matter as it had to him. And that finally suggests an inadequacy to this artist I love. This broken world is as much Ecclesiastes as it is John 3. Biblical poetry knows the Lord is our shepherd, but in a world with enemies to love.
The communists were tyrants, but that most dangerous sort: the do-gooder with guns. They wanted to help the poor so much they trapped everyone just above the poverty line. Nobody, even the lazy, were allowed to starve, but nobody was ever quite full. Still, for the starving or oppressed, the tyrants of the right or left were tempting. Mucha had a heavenly vision, but it dealt with defects in this world by brushing them out. If I look at his art too much, then I need to read some Langston Hughes or sit with harsh photography.
Too much American “Christian” art smacks of Soviet Realism, propaganda or bad Mucha gone sugary. A Cromwell breaking stain glass in the name of the Faith will be a tyrant just as surely as a secularist smashing icons. The ugly art, music, and building of the American Church is an outer sign of inner theological rot. A lover of Jesus can create beauty in a garbage dump as the Copts in Egypt have done, but the man in love with His idea of Jesus will produce a church reflecting nothing more than himself.
Beauty is not enough, but it is necessary. Mucha shows that idealization can teach, but easily can degenerate into schmaltz in unskilled hands. Mucha made common things beautiful, but bad Mucha-clones make common things crass. To be true and good, not all art can be beautiful, because it would not reflect the devils in the cosmos.
Medieval cathedrals had flashing glass and gargoyles.
I will keep the ideal vision of Mucha in my heart, recollecting the other reality: the need to know how to deal with pain that will come. I will never make my truth the enemy of beauty . . . so help me God.