Jan Malý, a Praguer by birth and in death (16. 4. 1954 – 5. 4. 2017), departed this life as the last of a trio of friends who in 1980 revived the once popular photographic genre, the portrait of the whole body. With the passing of Jiří Poláček (1946–2016), Ivan Lutterer (1954–2001) and Jan Malý, his obituary also marks a farewell to the Český člověk (Czech Human) project.
The abovementioned photographers belonged to the generation that finished their studies at the Department of Photography, The Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, in the 1970s. They visited many villages and towns to expose and capture quite diverse strata of the society. “When I invite someone to the studio, they get ready for it,” Malý said, explaining the advantages of their field studio, “while in the street, they are as they are”. Everyone who wanted to be photographed got a Polaroid picture; the photographers kept the negatives. They developed them using the collodion wet plate process to create and exhibit classic enlargements. From more than five thousand photographs, they published a telling selection in Český člověk, 1997, edited by Jaroslav Bárta.
When Ivan Lutterer died, Bárta tried to preserve his office. To learn more about the legacy and psyche of an artist, it is crucial to examine their artwork in its authentic state. This is not possible, however, when it is separated from the original environment and taken over in accordance with the usual practice: museums store only selections, and the spawn usually comes to nothing. In Lutterer’s case, the effort to preserve his environment was futile. Jan Malý lived to see the end of his studio, but he could not prevent the worst: On 18 July 2013, the house owner took almost all his lifelong work to the dump, allegedly together with Malý’s photographic equipment. Malý commented on this to Josef Chuchma for the daily Lidové noviny (26. 10. 2013): “Forty-five years of work. Negatives. Positives. Darkroom equipment. Flash devices. Tripods. Books I participated in. A lot of personal items stored in crates. He threw it all away. I keep thinking of what I don’t have any more. Suddenly, I have this horrible feeling that I hadn’t created anything during all those years”.
The preserved fragments of a human mind were presented by Míla Dubská, the director of the Leica Gallery Prague, in the Jan Malý | Torzo | Retrospektiva (Jan Malý | Torso | Retrospective, 2013) exhibition. Curator Pavel Vančát had studied Malý’s legacy while the artist was still alive, from his early work U Nováků (At the Novak’s, 1974–1975), Bretagne, 1976 and Samota (Seclusion, the 1970s) to commissions, having documented a dozen cycles. Many were surprised this was only the fourth individual exhibition of Jan Malý. The previous one, Jazz, was prepared by Tomáš Fassati for the F Gallery in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia, 1985. The first two exhibitions, Reduta (Ridotto) and Dopisy (Letters), took place in the foyer of the Činoherní klub Theatre in Prague. They were opened in 1979 and 1980, respectively, by art historian Anna Fárová, who had been silenced by the ruling communists at that time. She could publish her work only abroad (see Camera 1980/7). Only later did she manage to publish the book Plasy 1981, Torst, 2009.
Since the 1980s, Jan Malý, encouraged by art historians Rostislav Švácha and Petr Wittlich, tried to interpret modern architecture, which was neglected at that time. His brilliant images of art nouveau, cubist and functionalist buildings looked like manifestos of better times, especially in the context of grey prefab socialist buildings. Photography of architecture became Malý’s life and profession (see www.isabart.org/person/2827/ photographer). He approached it with free creativity: “Every house has a soul,” he said, “and I try to capture the soul”. His book Od moderny k funkcionalismu (From Modernism to Functionalism, 1985), republished several times, is a celebration of the past, the photogenic vision of Jan Malý and the creativity of Clara Istler, who edited the title.
In the 1990s, Jan Malý worked on the Francouzské pobřeží (French Coast) series and the Na silnici (On the Road) cycle illustrating the return of the free market in the form of bizarre shops along Czech roads. In this way, Jan Malý stayed true to his documentary themes. See also www.jan-maly.cz.