Fotograf Magazine

Czech Photographic Avant-Garde 1918-1948

Today it is generally accepted that the golden age of Czech photography was the inter-war period when the ‘new medium’ was at the very centre of contemporaneous artistic trends. But although people speak of Czech
avant-garde photography with respect, although it has recently even received favourable attention in the rest of the world, it has not yet been analysed in as much detail as would seem. More than fifty years on, there are still no monographs for a number of the foremost figures; we have only a vague idea about the photographers from Mladá Boleslav, and we are rediscovering the Fotoskupina (Photo-group, F5, F3, F4) and the Fotolinie (Photo-line) from České Budějovice. None the less, in the last decade we have seen a multitude of exhibitions and new publications testifying to the current heightened interest in inter-war photography.

The exhibition Modern Beauty – Czech Avant-garde Photography 1918-1948 held three years ago (3. 3. – 30. 5. 1999) at the House of the Stone Bell in Prague, was the largest and most complex overview of Czech inter-war avant-garde photography to date. The exhibition was prepared by the Prague City Gallery, in co-operation with the Mission for the Photographic Heritage of the Ministry of Culture and Communication in Paris and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. The curators were Vladimír Birgus, Pierre Bonhomme, Jan Mlčoch and Karel Srp. The exposition was on display in several cities in Europe before its Prague date: Barcelona, Lausanne, Paris and Munich.

The impressive 325-page Česká fotografická avantgarda 1918-1948, published on the occasion of the Prague exhibition, provided a very detailed overview of the Czech inter-war theory and practice of photography. In addition to the contributions from a number of scholars (Vladimír Birgus, Karel Srp, Antonín Dufek, Jan Mlčoch, Aleš Kuneš and Iva Janáková), treating the successive phases and manifestations of Czech avant-garde photography, a key part of the book was the rich, technically superb illustration supplement with more than 300 reproductions. After the Czech and German publications, the MIT Press has finally published an English mutation of the book.

Among the almost 400 exhibits – photographs, posters, journals, published books and rare authentic maquettes, on the covers of which photographs were used as a modern graphic feature – we find a multitude of materials that are published for the first time ever, or are known only from poor-quality reproductions. Czech avant-garde photography in the strict sense of the term consists only of an elite circle of artists and works, but behind them are the many snapshots by professional photography studios and amateur photographers, of which there were about five thousand actively working half a century ago. At that time, however, noteworthy photographic work was not being made only in one place; exceptional photographers were working in Prague, Brno, České Budějovice, Olomouc, Mladá Boleslav and other locations. An admirable feature of the book is the comparison of the foremost Czech artists with contemporaneous accomplishments in the rest of the world. Particularly pleasing is the comparison of common motifs of the Czech avant-garde: the Barrandov terrace of Wiškovský, Růžička, Pikart, Lauschmann and Ehm; the Kolín Esso power station photographed in the same period by Sudek, Wiškovský, Koch and Funke; and the Prokop Lake sought out by so many.

The publication does not introduce any revolutionary discoveries; none the less, it is unique because it summarises and recapitulates. The authors of the work have collected and published an unusual number of originals of superb works; they have presented the Czech avant-garde in prestigious international galleries; and they have discovered and explored parallels that previously had only been vaguely intuited.

Tomáš Pospěch