The hometown hero test

alphonse-mucha-lithosHometown heroes are an interesting litmus test for a place. Looking at which famous people were born in a given city isn’t that revealing — but examining how those famous sons and daughters relate to their hometown after they become Big Deals is another question entirely. The relationship says a great deal about the person, the city and the role each filled in the spirit of their time.

The test works best for cities that produced relatively few internationally famous faces. So many important people are associated with (if not actually from) New York City that after a while those people stop belonging to the city and the city starts belonging to the world. Compare that with a place like Prague, which is synonymous with the work of Franz Kafka and Alfons Mucha.

The contrast between the two men really spoke to me during my recent visit to the city, because even though they’re technically contemporaries* who were consumed with thoughts of the same city, they couldn’t possibly be more different.

Mucha made his name producing posters for theatrical productions in Paris — the images at the top left are some of his best known work. He would go on to do all manner of traditional art, including a massive series of painting about the history of the Slavs, but he was always best known for his commercial designs. When Czechoslovakia became a country, he was asked to design the money, the stamps and even the medals the country would bestow on its heroes*.

Kakfa shares a lot of similarities with Mucha, but with different results. Both men were fascinated with their homeland, but for Kakfa the fascination bled into disgust. He called Prague “a dear little mother” with “sharp claws” that “never lets you go.”

Both men did a lot of menial jobs that were absolutely beneath their talents. Mucha used even the crassest gigs to create beautiful things; Kakfa used his hatred of day job — he was a bureaucrat, of course — to fuel the nightmarish worlds captured in his fiction.

Both were deeply affected by the horrors of World War I — Mucha used it as a rallying cry to lobby for freedom for his people and Kafka treated it as proof he was right about the human condition.

I don’t want to push the connection too far. I don’t want to turn them into Goofus and Gallant. They’re men, not symbols. But they are interesting reminders of how much power we have to shape our own lives — to make the most of a melancholy hometown or an unfulfilling job or a difficult moment in history. More than that, they’re proof positive that there are no right answers in art — whatever they felt about Prague, the city loves the both. Happiness is not a bar to creativity. Pessimism is not a sure path to defeat. The work is the only test that matters.

*I can’t find anything to suggest that they knew each other, but they did live and work in Prague at the same time. Kakfa would almost certainly have seen Mucha’s work, though I can’t say the reverse is true.
** He actually dies as the country is being taken over by the Nazis. He was lucky. He lived long enough to see the impossible dream of an Czechoslovakia come true, but doesn’t have to stick around to see how that story ends. Way to pick your moments, guy.

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