Czech Photographic Avant-Garde, 1918-1948
Vladimír Birgus, ed.
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buy *Czech Photographic Avant-Garde, 1918-1948* online Czech Photographic Avant-Garde, 1918-1948
Vladimír Birgus, ed.
MIT Press
311 pages
May 2002
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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The 1989 implosion of the communist regime released Czechoslovakia from its cultural isolation. The world discovered a treasury of unknown ideas and techniques that had been developed by Czech avant-garde photographers during the first half of the century. They had worked quietly, even obscurely (and, in some cases, riskily), as they pursued their artistic and experimental paths. This landmark survey of Czech avant-garde photography is the first time we can see how Central European experimentalists found the same mainstreams and explored many of the same byways as did their American and European cohorts. And yet, as the images in this book testify, almost every shot has a quality distinctive enough to be called Czech. Specialists will take years defining that quality, but anyone interested in the richness of Central European art and originality can catch a look at it now by reading this book.

Curled Up With a Good BookCzech photographers had a vision of modernity that resembled Bauhaus in its desire for a major houseclean of old forms, but avoided the Bauhaus's smothering insistence on theory first and reality later. The Czech vision was really many visions, each varying dramatically on the surface but coursing down the same mountain. We see aesthetic old friends here: pictorialism, picture poems, abstraction and its quasi-abstract variant called nonfiguration, social journalism, surrealism -- and a home-grown movement named Poetism. (Sadly, in one of the worst oversights imaginable in a book from a university press, the Index cites only the people named in the book, so we can never track down where the term "Poetism" appears.)

The text is an anthology of essays. They have an elbowy reach as they knock into each other introducing the period and movements; exploring the background of the photographers and their mutual influences on each other; and much more. The biographies of most of these photographers were completely unknown in Western Europe till this book came along.

Photography is a study in the ability of a technique to transfer task from person to technology and thereby liberate the creative impulse. The early photographers in the 19th century were as much chemists as recorders. Matthew Brady required wagonloads of gear to take his famous pictures of the Civil War. Putting all that on a strip of film did more than popularize: it opened minds.

Photography came to Czechoslovakia well after film had been put onto rolls. Czech photographers could spend their spare time thinking. It is tempting to compare the Czech efforts with the boundary-pushing experiments of North American and Western European photographers in the Twenties and Thirties. They were, after all, conducted almost simultaneously. Yet there is a clear difference in technique between images by Paul Strand, Minor White, Ansel Adams, and Edward Steichen, and their Czech counterparts named Jeromir Funke, Jindrich Styrsky, and Drahomir Ruzicka. The difference is largely due to the Czechs being essentially untrained, unlettered hobbyists with very little aesthetic theory to distract them, and therefore an ability to see objects and scenes on their own terms.

It shows.

Take some of the high-angle panoramic portraits of cafe terraces and outdoor restaurants of Josef Ehm, Jan Lauschmann, Arnost Pickart, and Eugen Wiskovsky. They resemble the overhead shots of Atget and Cartier-Bresson. The big difference is that Cartier-Bresson was consciously seeing a "decisive moment" to push the shutter (as does Richard Avedon's "Portraits" series), while the Czechs seem more preoccupied with panorama in and of itself. For example, there are almost no humans in the pictures; unoccupied cafe tables march off in rows like stamped-metal plates on a production line. From the flat, even light, one knows the skies were overcast. Did the photographers go there on such days because they sought a scene without life? If so or even if not, they succeeded.

This same sense of dyspersonalization also occurs with the nudes. If ever there was a case for elan as a series of curves, the nude is it. Yet the nudes of Frantisek Drtikol are so embedded in (and mostly behind) angularities and factory-hewn curves that the figures come off as union-shop amazons fresh from the factory floor.

Jaromir Funke went this one better by removing the nude, letting metal dishes and chrome-plated spiral tubing take their stead. Eugen Wiskovsky does the same to electrical insulators, wires, and turbine rotors. The aura of celebration is obvious -- these things will make Czechoslovakia mighty. The Thirties' obsession with structure and function removed life almost completely from architecture. Only four of the fourteen pictures between pages 130 and 139 have any sign of life in them. Otherwise they look like fully-automated manufactories, a sort of capitalist architectura cœlistis.

While the text assigns terms to the various classes of imagery -- Constructivism, Futurism, Functionalism, and the like -- the impact on the eye is rather different: of all the catchalls one can apply to remove being from reality, industrial photography is as cold and correct as a calculus solution.

The rather smallish amount of commercial photography presented likewise is unremarkable, even the page layouts trying to be with-it in an era when Art Deco dominated almost everything a few longitudes to the west. This surprises, because the American experimentalist Man Ray, living in Paris, was a formidable esprit de l'oeil to Jaroslav Rossler and others. Ray's was is the most energizing foreign influence on Czech photo imagination of the time.

All the factory fantasy took an abrupt swerve when Surrealism arrived. The Czechs were not content to imitate. Photographers such as Jindrich Styrzsky, Hugo Taborsky, Frantisek Vobecky, and Bohumil Nemec spared us Western Europe's metaphysics of dripping clocks and life-vacated forms to concentrate on a more local product: the magical encounters to be found on a human visage. With surrealism the Czechs utterly reversed themselves. A human-seed sensibility blossomed into a broad meadow whose subtext was poetry, imagination, creativity, and the inner model. Literature was as much a part of photography as photograph was of literature, just as complexity, too, contains its own antonym. The term "Surrealism" as defined in Paris didn't quite fit this heady mix, so it was aptly called Poetism by the locals. Antonin Dufek's chapter on the subject is arguably the most stimulating in the book.

And indeed, the two most striking images in the book are Surrealist. In Jeroslav Rössler's "Untitled, 1931" on page 117 (and the cover jacket), a woman's face fills the frame, tilted at 45 degrees as she looks the lens in the eye. The pictorial strength may come from her thin line of almost black lipstick and one eye encircled by a black ring, but the psychic strength comes from the translucent panes before her that divide the image into portions of clarity and bad focus. What we see isnšt a reality, it is a focusscape.

On page 211. Jindrich Styrsky demonstrates how even sexual explicitness can be turned into art. The scene is metaphysical conception. A couple is immersed in an astronomical scene of stars and nebula. He is swan-diving into the stars while she is curled up receptively with her vagina and eyes both awaiting. His smoky stream of ejaculate divides, with one wisp entering her and the other sailing into the stars. He is energy about to be remote and she is the state of rest already there. It is perhaps the most primal image in the book. Though it adds no new contributions to psychology, it speaks to our inner life as seen much later and from afar.

The book is as complete a view as we can find of the entire Czech world between the White Carpathians and the mountain rim that barricades Czechoslovakia from the rest of Europe. Photographers had a great old time in the years between the arrival of democracy with Jan Masaryk's government in 1918 and its end with Hitler's invasion in 1938. An astonishing number of them were hobbyists with little interest in what today would be called a career path. It is quite something to watch them trying the same experiments and making the same mistakes -- finding their own metier like good artists should -- with results quite different than events further westward.

They defined aesthetics, possibilities, and learned the limits of their medium. But much more. They ventured well beyond the typical hobbyist's preoccupation with technique and equipment (in the entire book there's not so much as a single paragraph that describes their equipment -- and this in the era when the Leica and 35mm film were commoditizing photography to the point of social revolution). Their great contribution was essentially the same as that of Atget and Bressai: a vivid glimpse into the realities of their part of the world -- Westernized Slavs -- which no one had paid much attention to. It turned out that society and commonplaces were more relevant to them than theory and manifesto.

© 2002 by Dana De Zoysa for Curled Up With a Good Book

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