Fotograf Magazine

…such is history…

The Institute of Art History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic brought out the final volume of the monumental Dějiny českého výtvarného umění (History of Czech Visual Arts), the work of twentyseven authors, in two tomes (1144 pages, 997 illustrations). Why its point of departure was chosen as the year 1958 is hinted at by the chapter Otevírání cesty – světová výstava EXPO 58 v Bruselu (Opening the Way – the World’s Fair EXPO 58 in Brussels). Daniela Kramerová here revisits the moment of an awakening of Czech culture to embark on a successful international confrontation: penetrating through the Iron Curtain and into the Brussels Expo indicated that the brakes would at last be released on the development of culture in the Czech Lands. And behold: after the long era of wartime Nazi occupation, followed by the heaviest decade of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the 1960s brought a partial liberation from political pressures. But alas, the 1970s and 1980s were stage managed by another occupying regime, blocking off Western contexts.

 Series editor Rostislav Švácha notes A propos the sixth volume of the History of Czech Visual Arts that the authors lacked the necessary distance in regard to contemporary issues. In the Reflex weekly magazine the critic Jiří Ptáček underlined this: “We have here a situation where the events are recounted by the participants themselves. In particular, some texts referring to the period after 1989 reflect the bias of their authors (Karel Srp, Otto M. Urban), who in fact themselves created the “hypes” of their day as curators and critics. Interpretation is replaced by assigning oneself importance, and the blame for this is to be laid at the door of academicians, longing to draw the saga to its conclusion. Impatience ill suits the researcher. That is the downfall of the whole project.”:: How then did the field of photography fare in such an unpropitious context? Although the medium leaks into other chapters, too, the principal treatment of photographic creativity was left to the author of the surveys in the previous volumes of the History, Antonín Dufek. The present review of the quartet of his new contributions was preceded by the article Academic History of Czech Photography (Fotograf No. 7).

 Dufek opens the issue by giving an outline of the institutional innovations circa 1958. The turning point was – alongside the medals won at EXPO 58 – the 1st Nationwide Exhibition of Art Photographs (I. celostátní výstava uměleckých fotografií). Under this eloquent title, the organizational stamp of approval of the Ministry of Education and Culture elevated the status of freelance photographers within the totalitarian system. The importance of the event in its day becomes evident from its catalogue’s introductory essay, penned by the photographer Václav Jírů, as well as by the fact that after its premiere in Prague, the exhibition then traveled to Moravia’s metropolis Brno, Slovakia’s capital of Bratislava, and the east Slovakian town of Košice. (At the same time, there also traveled from Slovakia to the Czech lands the salon I. medzinárodná výstava umeleckej fotografie (1st International Exhibition of Art Photography). In the Cold War era, propaganda was used to present it – both in its title, as well as in the subsequent foreword to the publication in book form in the edition Umělecká fotografie (Art Photography) – as an unprecedented feat, though in fact it remained very far behind the real 1936 event, Prague’s Mezinárodní výstava fotografie – International Exhibition of Photography)

 After the premiere of 1st Nationwide Exhibition of Art Photographs, Kultura magazine published a series of ruminations on whether taking photographs in fact had the makings of achieving the qualities of an art form. Dufek does not dwell on this 1958 debate, making light of the difficulties of post-war photography as well as stressing that it was no mean achievement that these milestones entailed. Why, even influential art historians at the time were against recognizing (the handful) of photographers as artists! And it makes one wonder that after twenty-two years, the theoretical discourse went no further than a comparable series of articles, published in response to the International Exhibition of Photography.

Antonín Dufek deems that “theory lagged miles behind art.” But the entire era of Communist rule was defined by ideologists determined to dictate what the practice of art should in fact be. In theory, the dictates of Socialist Realism were in force up until 1989! For that matter, the doctrine is amply illustrated by Fotografie 1970–1989. A whole page of the History of Czech Visual Arts is taken up by a snapshot – a marginal part of the reportage The 1971 First of May Parade in Ostrava (Takový byl 1. máj 1971 v Ostravě), commissioned by Ostravský kulturní zpravodaj (Ostrava Culture Reporter). However, it is hardly the role of the history of art to preoccupy itself with journalistic sketches and visual examples of the same, even should they number in scores. It is the driving forces that should be looked at. “Creative photography attained the status of an art only under the condition that it would not merely – to use the parlance of the period – ‘passively mirror the world’”, writes Dufek.

Do then the chapters on photography capture differentiated cultural motivations?

 The necessity of simplification in so extensive a material is understandable, but still, we need not deny the paradoxes. The chapter dealing with photography in the years 1958 – 1970 opens with a reproduction, a detail of which features also in the cover montage: this is a work by Jaroslav Rössler, whose legacy is one of highly polished imagination, much in the spirit of 1960s photography. However, even during the relatively open-minded 1960s, Rössler, a visionary artist and one of the foremost representatives of interwar avant-garde, was rejected on the grounds of indulging in abstraction by the Union of Czechoslovak Visual Artists, as well as by the exhibition committee of the Brno House of the Arts (he was only allowed to show his works under their auspices in the mid-1970s – thanks to the co-operation of Antonín Dufek, representing the Moravian Gallery, with Anna Fárová, representing Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts).

Though the documentary was seen by many theoreticians as the pure reflection of nature, from the beginning, the photography section of the monopoly Union accepted documentary photographers as members: thus not everyone officially regarded as an artist photographer had to tamper with their photographs (e.g. Jan Lukas, who made a point of taking, instead of making his genre photographs).

In regard to 1958, Dufek bluntly notes that there were opened two galleries specialized in photography. These were pioneering ventures even in the international context – a fact that is somewhat lost on the reader, as the writer fails to make a point of this. (Let us also note that Fotochema – the photo-chemical company’s exhibition room in the center of Prague – was not subject to so detailed a censorship that ventures established on a purely cultural basis had to contend with…). In the fall of 1958, the House of the Arts of the City of Brno opened parallel departments of architecture, graphic arts and photography: these were based on the presumption that professional art historians would become involved with the medium of photography as part of a state institution, in the context of well-recognized fields of research. Thus began the journey leading to the present History of Czech Visual Arts, incorporating photography.

Since the late 1950s, a second magazine enriched Czech writing on photography (I need not mention that there had been far more of them before the war). After years of Stalinist extremes, there thus returned to the pages of periodicals the occasional nudes and profiles of Western photographers. Since December 1958 – and until the closing of the edition Umělecká fotografie (Art Photography) in the spring of 1991 – 47 albums of both Czech and international photographers were brought out. In 1958, there emerged in Olomouc the first post-war photo-group, DOFO: even though with the rise to power of the Communists in 1948 activities of non-official groups were banned, still Dufek’s minute attention to the work of DOFO’s members overplays the artistic importance of the group.

From outlining the general coordinates, Antonín Dufek shifts his focus to those figures mostly of significance. In spite of occasional stylistic or logical lapses, he succeeds in articulating powerfully and above all clearly his viewpoints of long standing. I have ranked among his most loyal readers for as long as three decades. In particular, I am indebted to Dufek – and I am by no means alone in this – for an overview of the historical panorama of Czech photography. For he does not focus simply on the careers of exceptionally attractive artists: he put together above all a survey of works in an impressively broader perspective. Even a survey nonetheless allows for a deeper rethinking of history, a more profound effort to fill in the blank spaces. Paragraphs on individual photographers appear too mechanically pasted from older texts, however. This becomes most striking in the passage on l’art informel and its protagonists. The source materials were written for various occasions, and their montage thus cannot escape disproportion. It is what one would object to for instance in the already mentioned members of DOFO: Dufek dedicated to them an exhibition and an extensive essay in a group catalogue, and therefore had these texts at the ready. Where he would have had to launch on new literature research and gone to the trouble of acquiring new print sources, he did not hesitate to be done with even remarkable artists in a single sentence – and without the use of illustration.

The absence of seminal exhibition catalogues, magazine articles and books on the theory of art afflicts the bibliography of the History of Czech Visual Arts in a manner that is little short of tragicomic. Zdeněk Virt was lucky at least in so far as the History includes a curt reference to his German book Op-Art Akte; while Milan Nápravník’s book is denied acknowledgment, although published in Prague. Explicitly –and alas, mistakenly – declared as unrealized were the catalogue Fotografické cykly a seriály (Photographic Cycles and Series, 1969) and the album Orbis Pictus aneb Svět v objektivu (Orbis Pictus, or, The World Through the Lens, 1964) edited by Jan Pařík. A note on the margin: Pařík in fact published his 1960s Kafka & Prague also in Czech, in 2000. The 2006 monograph of the Czech-Swiss documentary photographer Iren Stehli might have been brought out after the History’s deadline. Still, Stehli’s Libuna: A Gypsy’s Life in Prague (2002) has been out here for some time, and the complaint that the artist has so far “not published her outstanding portraits” is therefore groundless. If Ivo Přeček is a unique creator of objects using his own photographs, why is either a reproduction or a reference to his catalogue missing? How could its co-author leave out Přeček’s monograph? And, a rhetorical question: if some part of an artist’s oeuvre is underlined as the most original contribution of the given artist, why are they represented in the History by a reproduction drawn from a different part of their work? In the case of Běla Kolářová, the essay accentuates her experiments with exposures done under the enlarger, while the illustration, however, exemplifies “the influence of Joseph Beuys”. By the way, it is dated 1963, while the texts situates Hair – the series in question, in the years 1964 and 1966; similarly annoying is the inconsistency in the spelling of the Fotograms of Ivo Přeček. Pavel Baňka is listed as a “citizen of Prague, one year the junior of Jaroslav Rajzík”, but we fail to learn the actual age of either photographer.

Given the mass of material treated here, as well as all the people involved – writer, editor, graphic designer – I suppose mistakes are inevitable. Even so, all reproductions should cite their authors correctly; the mistakes occur also in other chapters than just those on photography (where there are two such errors). It seems as though Dufek did not take much trouble. For it is clear which part of the primary sources he ignored. See the following example. Antonín Dufek: “Město (The City, 1983), a joint work of the photographers Vladimír Birgus and Pavel Jasanský, one year later brought out again during the liquidation of stock, with a number of photographs replaced by works of Miroslav Hucek.” And in contrast Birgus (a propos 1983), in the almanac Fotografie v českých zemích 1839– 1999 (Photography in the Czech Lands 1893 –1999): “Already printed, the book Město, featuring the photographs of Vladimír Birgus and Pavel Jasanský was declared ideologically defective, and Práce publishers sent ten thousand copies to the mill to be pulped. One year later a new version appeared, with additional photographs of Miroslav Hucek replacing a number of the images that were removed.”

If I draw attention to (in fact what are only the most vexing) shortcomings, it is not only a quibble: for Dufek’s method suffers precisely with the malady defined by the above-cited critic Jiří Ptáček as the cause of the failure of the last two volumes of the History. The survey of the field of photography has remained only too dependent on the degree of inspiration of the texts that are being pasted. For sure, many of these are brilliant – such as for instance the sub-chapter dedicated to Visualism. Still, the whole should be edited in such a way as to avoid the counterproductive repetition of information. It is futile, for instance, to speculate which of Běla Kolářová’s works are photographs – artifacts, and which are “photographic documentation of the artist’s assemblages” – he should simply have asked her. The indicated uncertainty of interpretation on the part of Antonín Dufek is closely linked with a resignation on furnishing the book with data as to the format of the originals, honored by other authors of the History.

Though on the part of the curator of the photography collection of the Moravian Gallery in Brno the desire to make accessible in every respect the collection which has grown so considerably during his long-term curatorship is only natural, yet it is hardly suitable for the present publication to illustrate the history almost exclusively by stating acquisitions achieved by Dufek himself since the late 1960s. This has already been noted, to little response, by Josef Chuchma when writing on one of the retrospective exhibitions curated by Dufek – Co mám doma, takové jsou dějiny (My Collection is What Makes History, MF Dnes 23 July, 2001).:: It is not always quite clear in whose name Dufek is in fact speaking: “We had read the mud-streaked gymnasts by Zdeněk Lhoták as an ambiguous commentary on the regime.” A surprisingly informal tone for an academic history; and quite at odds with my own reminiscence, or the testimony of the art historian Zdeněk Kirschner, in Lhoták’s 1986 catalogue, or in period critiques by Jiří Macků, or in fact the photographer’s statement for the magazine Československá fotografie (Czechoslovak photography)… The comment on Antonín Kratochvíl, “perhaps the only Czech émigré who made it as a photojournalist” shows how cursory is Dufek’s orientation in the catalogue Československá fotografie v exilu 1939–1989 (Czechoslovak Photography in Exile 1939 – 1989, 1992). The chapter on Exile Photography required a more than usual effort. More than other Dufek essays in the History, it is full of the inept enumeration of obsolete information. And Dufek also fails to recognize the significance of many other photographers, though formally and dutifully he includes them in his list.

One should give here a list of the primary undervalued photographers – but alas the list of those whose work is not reproduced is endless. Yet the expanses of empty page margins are more than is necessary. (The contribution of Karel Srp on Current Art of the 1990s – a contradiction in terms by now – could also have benefited from small-format reproductions of the works by Lukáš Jasanský and Martin Polák the essay describes). Dufek takes up two large-format pages with three Antonín Kratochvíl’s snapshots from Guatemala (dated differently than in the photographer’s own monograph), instead of attempting to make a representative selection from the reporter’s extensive work. Bohumil B. Krčil, too, is exemplified by a totally banal image. Perhaps the History of Czech Visual Arts could be illustrated otherwise than by the exile Slovak Matej Štepita-Klaučo, albeit lamely spelled in Czech as Matěj in the caption. Time-worn, tarnished posters are the staple of interwar photography, so perhaps one needn’t reproduce them as an exemplification of the “hottest” repertory of the 1960s. Vladimír Židlický, on the other hand, is named as a pioneer of Postmodernism, the claim unsupported by reproduction. And what are we to think if in the era of electronic communication the living artists were never approached with inquiries as to the dating of the works where Dufek was (not) in doubt?

In places Dufek really goes over the top: “Veritably the last exhibition of young artist where a jury was able to make a verdict freely was the Fotomax exhibition at the Brno House of the Arts (1972).” Another instance of an insupportable absolutist statement: “Erml’s work is probably the most radical departure from the lyrical and artistic traditions of photography in Czechoslovakia.” Similarly outrageous is the testimonial issued to Dagmar Hochová: “The passage of time adds fascination to almost every single one of the artist’s photographs.” This is more like, “My mind is what makes history.”

The revocation of more than one hundred and fifty years of busy activity of hundreds of individuals from a single perspective is thus rather uneven. The Institute of Art History has resigned beforehand at coming to terms with the public commission. And needlessly. For the commission surely is not material for a single story, some sort of a saga, marginalizing all in which the narrator fails to find an interest! What is lacking is a variety of perspectives that would outline the map of our cultural history in a way that would do justice to the evolution of art. That is to say, in a plastic manner. If the recounting of the entire history is attempted by a single narrator, it is not only that noteworthy phenomena will be marginalized or left out entirely. The contributions on photography are incorporated in the History of Czech Visual Arts in too causal a relationship. They suggest links even where there are none: Antonín Dufek simply failed to simulate parallels of perspectives whose disparateness was in proportion to the asynchronicity of the careers of those into whose original messages he inquired.

 

Dufek, A. Fotografie 1958–1970; Fotografie 1970–1989; Fotografie 1989–2000; Exilová fotografie. In: Švácha, R & Platovská, M Dějiny českého výtvarného umění [VI] 1958/2000, Praha, Academia 2007. ISBN 978-80-200-1489-6.   

Josef Moucha