Fotograf Magazine

Josef Sudek as a Mannerist

A retrospective to honour the anniversary of Josef Sudek (1896–1976) was prepared by Ann Thomas, a curator of the photography collection of the National Gallery of Canada, and another two historians of photography, Vladimír Birgus from the Czech Republic and Ian Jeffrey from the United Kingdom. This fortunate selection of 130 works premiered in the Jeu de Paume, Paris. The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, will display twice as many works from autumn to spring 2016. These are included in the catalogue, together with works by Sudek’s contemporaries and followers (Jaromír Funke, Eugen Wiškovský, Jaroslav Rössler, Tibor Honty, Jan Svoboda, and Petr Helbich).

Art historians and Sudek’s admirers have long been aware of his extraordinary genius. But that said, there will always be plenty of those interested in classical photography and culture as such who will need to know more about Sudek’s achievements. In 1964, his monograph was issued under the export company Artia, with a memorable preface by Jan Řezáč (in German, English and French), sending the first important signal. Nearly 100 photographs titled Sudek focused solely on his non-commissioned work. In the middle of 1990s, another survey not to be overlooked was published by Anna Fárová at Torst, then a new publishing house in Prague. At the end of the 20st century, her book Josef Sudek, featuring a penetrating insight into a life devoted to work, was also issued in German and English, thanks to the Munich publisher Gina Kehayoff. This edition included over 300 reproductions of all kinds. The current monograph, however, surpasses both previous and contemporary publications by its printing design. See Josef Sudek: The Legacy of a Deeper Vision, Hirmer Verlag 2012.

The current project of Canada and France underscores Sudek’s personal message, his journey from the doctrines of the time to self-expression, giving it the upper hand over both Prague’s exhibitions honouring his jubilee. (In Sudek’s studio, the Institute of Art History of the CAS presented a selection from Sudek’s St Vitus Cathedral series from the 1940s, In the Shadow of the Cathedral. An installation in The House at the Black Madonna organised by the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague has a telling motto, quoting Sudek himself, “I will gladly photograph modern architecture in a modern way.”)

True, Sudek was not shaped by his pictorial juvenile works from the amateur movement’s canon. But by showing that he was able to master the sign language of cosmopolitan salons, the curators of the gallery let us understand the experience that helped this mature artist to go against the grind of socialist realism. Returning to forming techniques, he abandoned the stylistics of inter-war modernism, also briefly and cleverly summarized. Sudek replaced the direct strictness of avant-garde aesthetics, favoured even after WWII, with the charm of a distinctively mannerist vision. Modifying an inherited arts repertoire and subduing references to the chaos of the everyday, he achieved a remarkable l’art-pour-l’artism, further intensifying the classic nature of his works by dark edges of the positives, since the early 1940s projected from the negatives to large-sized, light-sensitive papers using a contact method. The heart of the exhibition is formed by routes following his series (from The Windows of My Studio from the 1940s and 1950s to Labyrinths from the 1960s and 1970s).

Both versions of the exhibitions and their catalogue are extended by loans from private and public collections (including the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague), nonetheless it remains important that Sudek carefully planted seeds of his legacy in America. Sudek’s collection at the National Gallery of Canada (as well as the Art Gallery of Ontario) contains the works that he originally sent to immigrants, namely his former student Sonja Bullaty-Lomeo and his friend Josef Brumlík. To navigate the circumstances and meanings of Sudek’s work, the trio of curators-cum-editors offer their own interpretations as well as commentaries and essays by his colleagues and contemporaries.


Josef Moucha


BIRGUS, Vladimír, BOWER, Peter, HELBICH, Petr, JEFFREY, Ian, LAHODA, Vojtěch, MLČOCH, Jan, STRIMPL, Jan, THOMAS, Ann, VISCHI, Christophe. The Intimate World of Josef Sudek. Ed. 1. Milan: 5 Continents Editions, coproduction of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2016, 272 p. Graphic design: Lara Gariboldi / Voga Design. ISBN 978-88-7439-735-8. Josef Sudek. Le monde à ma fenêtre: ISBN 978-0-88884-940-3.