Czech Connections

Article excerpt

Vintage and Contemporary Czech Photography

SK Josefsberg Studio

Portland, Oregon

March 1-April 7, 2001

Contemporary Photography in the Czech Republic

Benham Studio Gallery

Seattle, Washington

March 19-April 28, 2001

Czechoslovakia stands out among the modernist countries of Europe; it was occupied by the Germans from 1939 to 1945, by the Soviets after World War II and ruled by a Communist regime from 1948 to 1989. Throughout these periods of political turmoil, its modernist tradition, even its avant-garde, survived. This was partly because, prior to these decades of vicissitudes, the early modern traditions were well established. Even in the era of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, Bohemia was a highly industrialized area and a hotbed of political activity. By the late nineteenth century, art photography was already ensconced and by 1918, when Czechoslovakia was established as an independent country, it had an active photography scene. Thus the photographer Jaromir Funke (1896-1945) was apart of the international avant-garde of the 1920s with his cameraless images and abstract compositions alongside artists like El Lissitsky, Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and his wife, Lucia Moholy, who was also Czech.

Funke's Children Ascending a Stairway(c. 1922), marks the oldest photograph in the two tandem exhibitions in Portland and Seattle. Together these shows offered :a selected overview of twentieth-century Czech photography. The exhibition in Portland was curated by Pavel Banka, the one in Seattle by Eva Kralova director of the Prague House of Photography. Contemporary artists were shown at both exhibitions and the plan is to have an exhibition in Prague next year with Northwestern photographers. [1]

In Portland, the exhibition featured familiar vintage, photographs: such as those by Frantisek Drtikol (1883-1961) from the late 1920s Drtikol posed nude women near geometric shapes, as in the offbeat constructivist composition Nude with Crossed Poles (1929). Influenced by the modernism of Funke, Drtikol was also known for his portraits of writers and artists. He had a short career, giving up photography for painting in 1935.

In the Portland exhibition, the outstanding photographer of the next generation, Josef Sudek (1896-1976), was represented by a few of his characteristic works of the 1950s and 60s, as well as a portfolio of photographs of Saint Guy Cathedral commissioned in 1928 on the tenth anniversary of the Republic of Czechoslovakia. This album of pictorialist works emphasizes the grandeur and romanticism of the cathedral.

Sudek was trained as a bookbinder, but he lost an arm in World War I and was unable to pursue his original, profession. Funke became a close friend in the 1920s, even as Sudek began to experiment with the pictorialist manipulations popular with the New York Stieglitz circle, Pictorialism was popular in Czechoslovakia and Sudek's Saint Guy Cathedral photographs demonstrate his expertise with these techniques. By the early 1930s though, Sudek joined modernism and specifically what was called "New Wave" photography. But he continued to use large plate cameras in spite of his disability, and in 1958 he used an 1894 panoramic camera to make a series of images of Prague that emphasized a poetic, almost dreamy, view of the city. He was completely at odds with the Socialist Realism of those years, but his continued production of poetic modern works such as the photographs in the SK Josefburg Studio exhibition, demonstrates that Socialist Realism was not the only possibility in Czechoslovakia during the Communist era .

Another photographer of this same generation, with a very different biography is Vilem Kriz (1921-94). Kriz, who studied with Funke, was a surrealist photographer in Czechoslovakia until 1946 when he went to Paris and achieved recognition for his images of the dreary post-occupation city. …