Fotograf Magazine

Images and their prototypes

The cover of a valuable publication – written and compiled by both a practitioner and a theoretician of photography, Jaroslav Anděl – draws on a reproduction of a photograph by František Illek. The graphic designer Šimon Blabla placed within the book title and the names of some of the protagonists of the book, photographers and architects, to striking effect. In the case at hand, however, the basic bearer of the new vision is Zdeněk Pešánek, whose Prague department store neon advertisements Illek had photographed in the mid-1930s.

The vanguard around which the subtitle of Nová vize. Avantgardní architektura v avantgardní fotografii: Československo 1918–1938 (The New Vision for the New Architecture. Czechoslovakia 1918–1938) revolves was formed mainly by architects. They dictated that modern buildings be built with accessible, that is to say, traditional technologies: over walls made of brick they would suspend a glass roof supported by traditional wooden roof timbers. Photographs which transcend the simple mirroring of works already given aesthetic value by their architects are supposed to be to the credit of inter-war photographers. At least, this is the announcement quoting Anděl’s text on the jacket flap: “… lighting and angle can dramatically change the nature of the object photographed. If the object is a work of art, and particularly one of such complex spatial form as a building, or some architectural detail, the photographer becomes the interpreter of the photographed object.” (One could argue, however, that static images cannot compete with the variability of immediate experience, thus fixing a much narrower field of possible interpretations). An extreme example – one explicitly pointed out by Anděl in the chapter Architektonické detaily (Architectural Details) – is Sudek’s image of a staircase, from the collections of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Paradoxically, it is reproduced here upside down, and regrettably it is not clear to whom we may ascribe this orientation of the image… A supremely photographic act of deliberate willfulness is the diptych by Hugo Táborský. This portrayal of a family villa designed by the architect František Kalivoda is rendered firstly in a realist manner, the second time in a Surrealist fashion: a fire on the palette, or heat-occasioned folds of the emulsion on the negative, is evidently to be credited to the author of the image.

The anthology of mostly utilitarian – and therefore descriptive – works of photographers is divided into chapters following chiefly the social purposes of the architecture: Schools, Sanatoriums and Spas, Swimming Pools, Cafés, Family Houses, Churches… It thus recapitulates building projects by their morphology and not by a wide-ranging analysis of individual buildings. Anděl deliberately shuns the schools of Neo-Classicism and Decorativism, as well as solitary individuals, in order to pursue “the international style of Modernist architecture” from which “the architecture of the second half of the 20th century derived to a large degree.” This is precisely why the visual quality of the book strikes one as antiquated where it depicts airplanes or automobiles, whereas we perceive the buildings as timeless (even though this is mostly due to the force of habit of everyday experience). I was taken aback by the author’s complaint that the some-time dominance of Functionalism has no such parallel today: “Contemporary architecture, however, cannot boast any such unifying vision.” The alleged unity of form of New Vision, however, has an underside, the diversity of which is accentuated precisely by photography as the interpretation of individual achievement. (Even a body of houses and streets in the form of a city is a subject which is not devoid “of soul which feels, which suffers,” as Le Corbusier has noted in his article The Engineer’s Aesthetic and Architecture.)

Anděl presents the International style through a myriad of Czech and local artists. This is not merely by “virtue of necessity”: the legacy of international artists is also granted treatment fairly often, whereas those who were at home in Czechoslovakia in the period between the world wars are still waiting to be introduced in the wider European context. The embryo of the book published in Czech was an exhibition that never materialized which Anděl had been preparing for the Museum of Architecture in Frankfurt in 1991; the author says by way of introduction that he found inspiration in an article by the photographer František Čermák written in 1940. Titled Největší výstava fotografických zvětšenin (The Largest Exhibition of Photographic Prints), it reflected on a retrospective of Czechoslovak inter-war architecture in Prague (featuring 1206 exhibition items).

As the first influential personality active as a theoretician in Czechoslovakia, Le Corbusier is naturally referenced by Anděl. His articles, collected in 1923 in the above-cited book Vers une architecture (Towards a New Architecture), nonetheless suggest something other than a purely photographic perspective: “Painting today has gone ahead of all other arts. It was the first to achieve a unity and assent with its time.” This is the opposite of Anděl’s proposition that the avant-garde “announced the death of painting together with the need to develop technologies related to the modernization of the 19th century, such as industrial architecture, photography, and other communication technologies.”

In that case: is Anděl correct when he ascribes the unison between the contemporary era and new media, and he presents “photo-mechanical reproduction from a broader historical context” as a premise of the contemporary “omnipresence of the media and their task in both the reception and the production of works of architecture”?

The answer is far from obvious. The final chapter of Anděl’s book Architektura, fotografie a tisk (Architecture, Photography, and the Press) remains the best guide to Czech inter-war periodicals and books on architecture (although, alas, it lacks a conclusive synthesis). He also mentions the magazine Bytová kultura (Apartment Culture, 1924–25) magazine, whose editorial board counted Adolf Loos among its members. The second volume of this short-lived Brno-based periodical featured Poznámky z hovorů s Loosem (Notes on Conversations with Loos) by the writer and journalist Bohumil Markalous. In his capacity as editor, he also featured the article in the book edition of Loos’ own Spoken into the Void (first published in book form in 1929). The pioneer of Modernism opposed the photographing of interiors: “There are architects who design interiors not so as to be agreeable to live in, but only so that they photograph well. These are the so-called drawing board architects, whose mechanical composition of lines of light and shadow is best suited to some mechanical apparatus, such as the photographic darkroom.”

When first published, Anděl‘s mostly pictorial volume awoke immediately an eruption of questions, which the reviewer Jan H. Vitvar found unanswered in the book (despite the considerable scope of its 280 pages): “Did the photographs serve architects merely for promotion or minor inspiration, or did they exercise a far more profound influence? Was the photographer more important to the architect than the designer, or the author of the visual decoration of the given building? And can we find a parallel to this in the present?”

It seems that Anděl’s contribution is one to the history of visual culture, rather than that of material culture. A side effect of this, however, is the illustration of the findings of the Prague Structuralists. Before the Second World War, the literary theoretician Jan Mukařovský and his colleagues examined the individual – or authorial – structures of various works of art. The photographers cited approached architectural forms in a similar way. Authentic endeavors, however, had to officially give way to two imported doctrines. These were to replace personal consciousness with thoughtless attitudes: the German occupation imposed on Czech theory the propaganda of a so-called national realism, the Soviet influence aspired to a would-be Socialist Realism, which it in fact asserted in practice. After half a century of totalitarianism, there came a massive wave of translations of the results of the French post-structuralism of the 1960s. These were often workmanlike efforts to find confirmation of the international impact of the founding status of the Prague Linguistic Circle. The translations have so far suggestively overimposed the original orientation: at the expense of revealing the uniqueness of an artist’s thinking, it has become en vogue to trace the points of intersection of an abstract construct of art history with the individual artifacts. This assassination of authorship, however (a mere echo of the execution of God) fails to see that each subjective contribution transforms the culture as a whole… Thus no matter how much the editor of the album misses a unifying vision in the present context, I should recommend the kind reader to pay heightened attention to the very opposite – to all that is unique, and its transcendence.

 

Anděl, J: The New Vision for the New Architecture. Czechoslovakia 1918–1938, Praha, Slovart 2005. ISBN 80-7209-624-9.

Josef Moucha

#9 Architecture

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