Fotograf Magazine

Searching for Josef Sudek

The Moravian Gallery in Brno rose to the occasion of Josef Sudek’s double anniversary (of his birth in Kolín on March 17, 1896 and his death in Prague on September 15, 1976) by celebrating it over the winter as well as publishing an eponymous album, The Unknown Josef Sudek: Vintage Prints 1918–1942. The works on exhibit originated from the collections of the Moravian Gallery in Brno and the Regional Museum in Kolín (at a ratio of 36 to 38). Together with a parallel exhibition held at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague entitled Družstevní práce: Sutnar – Sudek[ref]Družstevní práce (Cooperative Work), founded as a publishing house in 1922, was the most successful supporter of efforts to apply art to everyday life and the most prominent cultural institution of pre-war Czechoslovakia. Družstevní práce and its branch Krásná jizba, founded in 1927, strived by their production of publications and other printed materials, interior decoration items and objects of everyday use (made of glass, porcelain, metal and fabric) to achieve mass spread of the new lifestyle. ([/ref], the two events in fact defined the twin focal points of the artist’s work between the wars.

The claim of an allegedly unknown Josef Sudek was intended by the curator of the photographic collection of the Moravian Gallery, Antonín Dufek, to serve with characteristic irony as a somewhat exaggerated way of attracting attention. “Josef Sudek,” he writes in the press release, “is known to the world mainly through his late work. Of his uncommonly large body of early work the exhibition The Unknown Josef Sudek presents a collection of 74 prints, which the artist sent to photography exhibitions, both and home and especially abroad. A body of vintage photographs of such scope dating to Sudek’s early period is thus presented to the wider public for the very first time. It appears that his photographs of this period are far more important than we had hitherto believed. Not only the later, but also the early work of Josef Sudek forms a valuable part of the world’s artistic legacy.”

Laying out how undefined Sudek was between the world wars is a revelation. Dufek stressed at a press conference that the portfolios which outstanding photographers such as Drtikol, Sudek or Funke would have sent to the salons of their era would have demonstrated simultaneously conventional and progressive features. In an effort to succeed, the artists would have tested the organizers of exhibitions to see precisely how far they could go, and also wanted to demonstrate the scope of their skills. Dufek’s concept for the Sudek exhibition reflected this. Thus we find here not only free creative work, but also advertising commissions as well as other commercial work, in general indebted to whatever was in demand at the time: “Sudek’s early work incorporates all the genres that were cultivated at the time,” states Dufek. “Apart from the geometrical still life, among the most illustrious work are his Expressionist and realist landscapes, or the late landscapes, which compete with the work of Jaromír Funke or Eugen Wiškovský. Scenes of Prague photographed without a tripod using a 9 x 9 cm reflex camera make up possibly the most original and at the same time the most compelling series in the exhibition. Early genre photographs, 1920s and 1930s portraits conceived in a variety of ways, later work with arranged still life and also work of the advertisement type rank among the peak achievements of their day. Also quite powerful is the series of photographs taken in the Saint Vitus Cathedral, bringing as it does his unknown work alongside the well-known.”

Let us also note that Sudek conceived his first monograph, compiled during the mid-1950s, with the aim of fully presenting the scope of his creative talent.

The protagonist of a book-length catalogue accompanying an exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague dedicated to the Družstevní práce (Cooperative Work) enterprise is Ladislav Sutnar (born Pilsen, 9 November 1897, died New York, 17 November 1976). He worked chiefly in graphic design, and after 1929 was active as the leading artist of Družstevní práce, which commissioned numerous advertising illustrations from Josef Sudek. During the Second World War, he remained in the USA. Sudek, however, discontinued their collaboration as early as 1936, as he was swamped by work that he felt took him away from his own leanings.

Družstevní práce was founded in 1922 as a publishing house. Curator Lucie Vlčková presents it as “the most significant cultural institution of the First Republic”. The exhibition, concerning the combination of photography with modern typography – i.e., a representative retrospective of promotional materials, magazines, calendars and books – was a treat for the viewer. The selection of prints drawn from Sudek’s presentations at the Praguebased Družstevní práce exhibition room was also compelling. Jan Mlčoch, the curator of the photography collection of the museum, also contributed to the extensive and richly illustrated Czech-English catalogue an article on the relationship of Josef Sudek to advertisement photography, and Vojtěch Lahoda contributed an essay on the photographer’s collaboration with the Družstevní práce publishing house.

Both books bear the proverbial minor flaw, and in a similar way – in the form of bizarre sullies against established facts. In note 13, Antonín Dufek surprisingly launches on a polemic against himself: “František Drtikol, Jaromír Funke, Adolf Schneeberger and Josef Sudek later (in 1925–1926) jointly applied for admission to the Umělecká beseda. See Antonín Dufek (ed.), Jaromír Funke (1896–1945). Průkopník fotografické avantgardy / Pioneering Avant-garde Photography, catalogue, Moravian Gallery in Brno 1996, p. 28.” In the Funke catalogue to which he refers, Dufek had stated that an application form found by Anna Fárová in the effects bequeathed by Drtikol to the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague could not in fact have been submitted: a copy would thus have been found in the Umělecká Beseda Archive.

The deputy director of the Institute of Art History at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Vojtěch Lahoda, quotes an ill-informed passage from the period press in an attempt to prove that Sudek’s solo exhibition at the Krásná jizba (the Družstevná práce exhibition room) in 1932 was the “first public exhibition of photography in Prague.” This is untenable, and neither is it true what the English translation of the passage states – “This was the first time a solo public exhibition of photography was ever organised in Prague…” for it was not even the first solo exhibition of a photographer in Prague.

The coincidence of Sudek exhibitions in both Moravia and in Bohemia latently illustrates why Sudek truly came into his own only in his late work. First of all he had to overcome the temptations of the current fashions of his age.


Dufek A. Unknown Josef Sudek/Vintage Prints 1918-1942. Brno, Moravian Gallery & Praha, KANT 2006, 74 reproductions, 130 pages. ISBN (MG) 80-7027-157-4, (KANT) 80-86970-22-1.


Vlčková L (ed). Družstevní práce: Sutnar – Sudek. Prague, Museum of Decorative Arts 2006, 136 reproductions, 250 pages. ISBN 80-7101-066-9 

Josef Moucha