Tug of war over Czech Art Nouveau gem and tribute to Slavs

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Once hidden from the Nazis under a heap of coal, an epic Art Nouveau work created as a tribute to the Slavs has become the object of a tug-of-war between Prague and a small Czech town.

Famed Czech artist Alfons (Alphonse) Mucha (1860-1939), best known for his stylized paintings of women, took 18 years to create the cycle of 20 allegories tracing the history of the Slavic people.

But more than 80 years after Mucha applied the last brushstroke to "The Slav Epic", Prague has failed to build the gallery its author wanted as a "dignified" home for his masterpiece.

Instead, the work has spent a half-century on display at a privately-owned chateau in Moravsky Krumlov, a provincial town in South Moravia about 200 kilometres (124 miles) southeast of Prague.

Now, "Prague and the Mucha family want 'The Slav Epic' displayed with dignity in the capital," says Ondrej Pecha, Prague's culture councillor.

Alarmed by the poor condition of the Moravsky Krumlov chateau, Prague city hall wants to display the work in a building run by the Czech National Gallery, pending construction of a dedicated pavilion which Pecha said could be ready by 2015.

Fearing the loss of its pride and joy, Moravsky Krumlov town hall recently banned any bid to move the work, ignoring that an agreement with Prague over the work has expired.

"Moravsky Krumlov has an unquestionable moral right to host these paintings," contends the local governor Michal Hasek.

Under a 1913 deal that is frequently cited amid the controversy, American Slavophile Charles Crane commissioned the work by Mucha and intended to donate it to Prague on condition the city build a new gallery dedicated exclusively to the masterpiece.

Moravsky Krumlov mayor Jaroslav Mokry argues that since Prague never built the pavilion, the document "has not taken effect".

The painter's grandson John Mucha wants his grandfather's wishes honored with the "Epic" on permanent display in a new gallery. He has found a private investor interested in building and running a pavilion on Prague's Letna hill, onetime home of an infamous statue of Josef Stalin.

The cost is estimated at 400-500 million koruna (16-20 million euros, 21-27 million dollars), but the city of Prague would have to provide the land.

In a bid to prevent any move to a temporary gallery, John Mucha says he holds a document dating from the 1930s saying his grandfather, upset by Prague's standpoint, had cancelled the capital's rights to the work.

Seven of the 20 canvases, inspired in part by mythology, measure a huge eight by six metres, while the eight smallest works measure nearly five by four metres.

Mucha, famous for his posters depicting French actress Sarah Bernhardt, took several trips to Russia, Poland, Serbia and Bulgaria to gather inspiration for the "Epic", which depicts such themes as the abolition of serfdom in Russia.

The first 11 canvases in the cycle were displayed in Prague in 1919 and then toured New York and Chicago in 1920-1921. The entire "Epic" was not exhibited in Prague until 1928, the year of its completion.

But in 1933, the paintings were rolled up and stored in a depository, later to be hidden from the Nazis under a heap of coal during World War II.

They were restored after the war and from 1963 displayed in the Cavaliers' Hall at the Moravsky Krumlov chateau - a logical choice since the small town lies only eight kilometres from Ivancice, Mucha's hometown where an exhibition is dedicated to the artist.

While Moravsky Krumlov, located in South Moravia - a region that draws tourists with its long tradition of wine-making and picturesque sights including the UNESCO-listed Lednice and Valtice chateaux - objects to moving the work, so ironically do many in Prague who fear Mucha's work would lose some of its glamour in a city already so rich in history and art.

Others have questioned the artistic and historic value of the "Epic" itself, including Pavel Safr, editor-in-chief of the Reflex weekly.

The monumental cycle "was already an anachronism at the time it was created," Safr wrote, when focus was more on impressionism and less on such epic cycles.

"In the 1920s and 1930s ... the idea of a pan-Slavic nation had faded in the minds of wiser Czechs after the Bolshevik revolution," preceding the spread of Soviet communism, he added.