Art Nouveau's poster child makes a Grand Slam return
Tennis star Ivan Lendl's collection of Alfons Mucha lithographs is a clear winner
Posted: April 17, 2013
It may come as something of a surprise to many people that the Czech-born tennis legend Ivan Lendl had much more on his mind than smashing an overhead past the likes of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe or Björn Borg. Fortunately, sports superstars are sometimes not as one-dimensional as we think, and Lendl put the same single-minded passion he displayed on the court into a personal obsession: the work of Czech artist Alfons Mucha.
As a result, the former world No. 1 in tennis also became the world No. 1 in a very specialized area of art collecting: He has amassed the most complete collection of original posters by Mucha on the planet. The current exhibition of Lendl's collection, at Prague's Municipal House (Obecní dům) - a resplendent Art Nouveau building that Mucha himself had a hand in decorating - is the first time the entire group of posters Lendl collected has been put on public display.
Lendl began collecting the posters in the early 1980s, when his success on the court rocketed him to the top of the tennis rankings, where he remained until the early 1990s. Born in 1960 in Ostrava, Lendl emigrated to the United States in 1986 and became U.S. citizen six years later. His collecting passion, which has not waned over the past three decades, was sparked when tennis coach and art collector Jan Kukal introduced him to the artist's son, writer Jiří Mucha, who exposed Lendl to his father's Art Nouveau enchantresses.
Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) was the darling of the Belle Époque. His illustrations, drawings, pictures and decorations have practically come to define the Art Nouveau style, which was originally called "le style Mucha" by the French. The Czech artist enjoyed a meteoric rise after designing a theater poster for the play Gismonda, starring French actress Sarah Bernhardt, in 1894.
When: Through July 31, daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Where: Municipal House, nám. Republiky 5
Tickets: 180 Kč; half price for those under 16 and over 65
"He became a superstar of European art literally overnight," says exhibition co-curator Karel Srp. "The exhibition begins with the Gismonda poster, which put him on the map." Another reason this poster is the logical introduction to the exhibition is that it was the first one Lendl acquired.
The exhibition includes 116 of the 119 posters that Mucha is known to have created between 1894 and 1935, with the lion's share coming from his Paris period, which lasted from 1894 to 1904. In addition to the posters, Lendl collected a wide array of ephemera designed by Mucha, such as product packaging, postcards, menus and calendars. The exhibition is thus like a compendium of Mucha's work in color lithography.
Lendl was greatly helped in his collecting quest by the noted American poster expert Jack Rennert, who compiled the 1984 catalog raisonné Alfons Mucha: The Complete Posters and Panels. The two were introduced in the early 1980s by Jiří Mucha, and Rennert was instrumental in building up the collection and curating it for Lendl.
"He is extremely passionate about collecting," Rennert says. "His instructions were to find each and every one of [Mucha's] posters. When Ivan learned that the only copy was in a museum, he would say, 'Well, why don't you make them an offer?' Ivan is a single-minded, dedicated individual, whether in sports or business. He wanted to own every graphic work of Mucha in my book."
Of the three posters Lendl was not able to obtain, two are in public collections and one has been lost, but he has a postcard reproduction of it.
"It was important that he live with the collection. Every day he saw every poster in every room of his house," Rennert says.
The tennis player even custom-built his mansion in the U.S. town of Goshen, Connecticut, to accommodate the posters, and has been quoted as saying that his only interests are sports, Mucha and his family.
Lendl's daughter Marika, who came to Prague for the show's opening, says, "I've grown to love them almost as much as he does. … It was part of our daily life." She points to a small Moët & Chandon advertisement as her favorite piece in the collection. (Lendl himself was unable to be in Prague for the opening, but he will visit the exhibition April 29.)
While Lendl's collection is on the road, Rennert says, "He will have framed reproductions in their place so he won't have to live without his Mucha posters."
The man who brought Lendl's extraordinary collection to Prague is Richard Fuxa, the board chairman of the BigBoard Praha outdoor advertising company, which explains the torrent of promotional billboards throughout the country - unprecedented for a cultural event and almost rivaling the sea of political billboards before a national election.
Interest in the exhibition has therefore been very high, with more than 1,400 visitors coming to view the posters on the day the show opened, April 10. The irresistible combination of the world-famous Czech artist, the Czech-born tennis legend and the exhibition venue itself is cause for a bubbling up of Czech national pride.
Fuxa approached Lendl last year about displaying his collection in Prague. He says Lendl embraced the opportunity to present the posters in his homeland. During negotiations on the loan, the arrangement evolved into a more lasting administration of the entire collection by the Czech businessman.
Fuxa would not confirm or deny he had purchased the collection, saying only, "We have an agreement. I am able to dispose of the collection for an indefinite period of time."
To manage the collection, he established the Richard Fuxa Foundation, which will organize further exhibitions of the posters. Fuxa says there has been interest from cities in Europe, Japan, China, Russia and the United States.
"My goal is for the collection to be preserved as a whole and to be displayed to the public," Fuxa says. "We perceive it as a certain repayment of debt to the artist, who was valued more around the world than here at home."
The exhibition, which runs until July 31, offers a unique opportunity for residents of and visitors to the city of Prague to delve deeply into the graphic output of Art Nouveau's most significant artist, in the splendid building where Mucha painted some of his finest murals.
Municipal House Director Vlastimil Ježek is delighted. "This is a great symbolic return of Alfons Mucha to the Municipal House."
Mimi Fronczak Rogers can be reached at