Fotograf Magazine

The academic history of czech photography

The Institute of Art History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic recently brought out the fifth volume of The History of Czech Visual Arts [Dejiny oeskeho vlitvarneho umer4 The edition has existed since 1984, when the first two volumes were published, on art up to the period of the Middle Ages. This publishing plan dates back to the 1950s, and the moment is finally approaching when Academia Publishers will face up to contemporary culture.

 

/a crumbling mosaic/

The various epochs of the History of Czech Visual Arts have come out haphazardly. Within the framework of this project, the art historian Antonin Dufek, curator of many years’ standing at the Moravian Gallery in Brno, gradually recapitulated Czech photography. He included in his view not only Czech but also local Austrian, German and Jewish artists. He stressed that in the absence of grassroots research in provincial areas the conclusions of his synthesis were merely hypothetical. Dufek comments on his survey of the art of the years 1780-1890 [defined by political borders, without setting Silesia apart as a separate territory): “As in Bohemia, in the other parts of the Habsburg monarchy we also cannot speak of regional schools of photography.” But it is of little avail: still the historian has not managed to emancipate himself from the concept of both of the previous volumes which included photography (published in 2001). This is also the reason why an ideal synthesis fails here. And moreover, numerous fragmentary recourses into the techno­logical innovations of the medium burden the relatively short texts with an excess of data, which erode the contexts of more lasting trends.

Antonin Dufek draws on “the fact that photographic techniques emerged as a part of the context of visual arts. They expanded the possibilities of the multiplication of images, bringing to fruition the idea of the automatization of representation, thus crowning the tradition of mimetic representation.” But can we adopt Dufek’s position and regard this perspective as the approach of an art historian? Not unless we ask a few questions. “Why, the act of representation occurred as a chemical reaction triggered as if by light, without human intervention. To the idealistic 19‘thcentury, photography fell short of the ideal, “writes Dufek, but at the same time he adds that photographers “often managed to compose their images with the same degree of formal perfection as painters, and what is even more surprising, they managed to idealize the aspect of the human being in front of the camera in the necessary degree that the human form ceased to be linked with the concrete existence of the model” At other times one gets the impression that Antonin Dufek takes the side of photography from a radically opposite standpoint: “By comparison to the manual techniques of representation, bound with the idealization of the sitter and to noble families’ portrait galleries, the new medium took the side of individualism, one of the principal ideas of the 19th century.” And the impression is further supported by the following: “according to the period press, only reality itself could compete with the daguerreotype, not painting – the flawed child of human skill”.

In a word, photography was a tool which allowed not for one or the other – either idealism or realism – but both at the same time. Just as with the other techniques in the visual arts, or literature. The medium could be used for both imaginative endeavor and recording reality. Thus, an arena emerged for the observation of a more general history of photography, described by Dufek as the most important new medium of the 19e century.”But is this not a little misleading? For surely the very title of the History of Czech Visual Arts requires at the very least a description of the relation of the photographers to the period practice of art. Most of the photographs referenced here were not understood as art by their original audiences. Dufek implies that over time the status of these works changed: By far the most notable contribution of Czech photography to the world is the oeuvre of Purkyne – which at the time was perceived as outside the realm of art.”

One should certainly appreciate a discussion of the shifts in the perception of the most remarkable photographic works! Alas, no such thing is forthcoming from the Prague Institute of Art History: its numerous team of researchers has not yet admitted a single person within its ranks who has devoted him or herself to the medium of photography systematically. This is probably why it is sometimes so painfully evident in the present edition that Dufek could have published anything he pleased without any corrective measure being taken.

 

/lamplighter and co/

In the History of Czech Visual Arts 1890-1938 (published in 1998] Antonin Dufek introduced the long-expected “first expressly artistic photographer”, Ludvik Pinka of Kukleny. The two volumes divide the period between 1890-1938 into a far more convenient manner than the previous chapters. Territorial outlines were replaced by sections: Art Nouveau and Symbolism, The Advent of Modernity, Struggle for a Modern Language, and Art of the First Republic [1918-1938]. One feels that Dufek is much more at home in this area than in the passages referring to previous periods. And small wonder: he has researched the art of the 20th century since the late 1960s, working extensively on a number of exhibition projects. Reading these sections brings to memory the ethos of discovery: the researcher’s approach was even at the time distinct from the activity of the popularizers, as well as from exclusive retrospectives of outstanding personalities.

It can be said that the backbone of photography as an art in the Czech lands was preserved by Anna Farova, while Antonin Dufek, a generation younger, then endowed the skeleton with flesh. In 1973 Anna Farova dedicated a major retrospective exhibition, The Personalities of Czech Photography from the Collections of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague to the founding figures of what she referred to as artistic or creative photography. She had intended to dedicate a subsequent exhi­bition to documentary photographers, but this never materialized, as after becoming a signatory of the Charter 77 human rights manifesto, Farova was promptly stripped of any possibility of public activity.

Thanks to his extensive research into the most varied aspects of photography, Dufek’s commentary is almost unfailingly insightful. Among the less viable, but stubbornly repeated statements is that 1928 saw “the first collective exhibition of the photographic avantgarde in Mlada Boleslay.” One of the period reports on this event which took place in the pavilion of the Municipal Savings Bank is entitled The IV. Exhibition of the Members of the Club of Amateur Photographers of Mlada Boleslav. Its author Robert A. Simon, ranked over one third (of the estimated seventy-seven) photographs within the new trend. There, he distinguished two tendencies. The first consisted of “representations of everyday objects”, rendered unusual by lighting and low or high angles. The second consisted of work with the still life in the manner of Constructivism. Simon listed among the innovators Josef Dašek and Josef Slansky, both of whom however also presented more conventional work. He praised Dašek for “a few regular images, the best of which was the Lamplighter genre.” Alongside the series of the above-cited gentlemen, three examples of collective effort were also presented (Sphere/ Koule, Study of Objects/ Studie veci, Sphere and Shadow/ Koule a stin.) Among the protagonists of the show, Simon listed also V. Sprachal, and in part also J. Teply and R. Hauerova, He described five other participants as “artists working in the accustomed way” [see Rozhledy fotografa amatera 1928; 8/6: 87-88]. Now, Jaroslav Flossier had opened the avant-garde era in Czech photography ten years previously. And even if in time the elements of modern style were adopted by activists in the hobby movement, we should hardly mistake this trend for the “first group presentation of avant-garde photography”. The problem of implan­ting non-artistic artifacts into the history of art in Dufek’s writing thus does not concern only the earliest period in photography. It has in fact a symptomatic parallel in later periods.

Dufek thus comments on the beginning of the Second World War: “the illusion-making way of representation returned to photography.” Why, it had never left it! It had merely disappeared from the radar of the art historian, who once more forces the whole range of photography to conform to his narrow field of vision. This deformative angle can be felt also in his statement, that “During the war, Karel Ludwig became the leading figure of photojournalism” Did he really have a leading position among the reporters of the closely-observed occupation era press? It seems that in Dufek’s view, if the Czech Press Agency at the time was not concerned with whether it was producing art, it simply did not play an interesting enough role, churning out their illusion-making reportage… He then short-circuits the history of this section by citing a 1952 manual Themes in New Photography (Thema v nave fotografit]: “The publication of Doležal’s book thus paradoxically marks the end of attempts to transform photography into an instrument of ideology and Stalinist dogmatism.” As though photographic propaganda, dissemina­ted by the mass media, did not continue!

The selection of illustration material could also have been more cautiously undertaken. Given their small number, one would opt for Anna Farova’s model, which focuses on key artists. The photographs of Brno’s Jan Beran and Bohuslav Burian, marginal figures (featured perhaps merely due to the historian’s local patriotism), no room was left for far more essential phenomena. One sorely misses Ladislav Sitensk9 – an example of aesthetic endeavor in the service of wartime resistance. And if Dufek decided to focus on photojournalism, we could do without the propaganda a la [national] Socialist Realism. The occasional insights of Oldnich Straka or Josef Voniaek tell us little. Why not feature Svatopluk Soya? He did not create merely the “handful of little known works”from the end of the war that Dufek mentions in a single sentence, Also the verbal description of the perfection of the monumental composition of Tibor Honti’s He Fell in the Last Seconds of the War merits an illustration,

Apart from the above-cited objections, Dufek conducts his lecture in 20th century creative photography in a concise manner. When compared with the crumbling kaleidoscope of his 19th century overview, this strikes one as the work of a different author altogether.

It is outside the scope of this essay to set each factual mistake right. I therefore cite only the most striking cases.

 

/suppressed stories/

Among the details which do not overwrite history systematically is the following triple mistake: “Together with Augustin Skarda, in 1910 Frantgek Drtikol opened a studio of a new type in Prague, equipped with electric lighting.”Since in these points we are repeatedly mislead here, let me demonstrate what can be gleaned from period literature, and the archives of the commercial courts. Drtikol registered a company in his sole ownership on January 26, 1911 (the address was V kolkovne No 920-I, in the Old Town; in 1910 Drtikol was still in his home town of Přibram). Then he moved to another address in Prague in 1912, again as sole occupant of the studio in a newly built tenement house [in Vodičkova Street, No 730/11, in the New Town). As it transpires from the repor­ tage of the chairman of the Czech Club of Amateur Photographers, Karel Anderle, the studio was not equipped with electricity (K. A. Klub nevetevou v atelieru Drtikolove. Fotograficky obzor 1912; 20/3: 71-72). The civil engineer Augustin Skarda was the financial partner of Drtikol’s business for eight years. They registered their company Drtikol & spol. on March 28, 1913, with the retrospective validity as of January 1 of that year. The capital each business partner entered the joint venture amounted to 3,500 crowns, and it was spent on studio equipment.

At times the dating of reproductions is contentious. Jiří Jeníček’s photograph Café, Bar, Dancing Daily (Kavárna, bar, denně tanec) possibly dates to 1947 instead of 1948. In the original we can still decipher the date one poster in the background, In Vilem Reichmann’s 1994 photographic monograph, Dufek dates Reichmenn’s Meshes (Osidla) to 1941. In the History of Czech Visual Arts 1939-195E1(2005) this work is dated to 1940. Yet in the fourth volume of the History of Modern Art, Reichmann’s photograph is dated “circa 1939” – possibly because the volume is dedicated to an era said to end in 1938.

A different kind of duplicity also testifies to the lack of concentration on the part not only of Dufek, but also of the editor Jaroslav Havel: on a single page (222) we may twice read that the monograph Photo­graphs of Karel Ludwig was to be followed by Actresses of the Czech Theatre, and Nudes. Instead, the editor should have taken care of the petty argument between Antonin Dufek and Vojtech Lahoda concerning whether the panoramas of the Central Bohemian Range were initiated by photographer Josef Sudek or the painter Emil Filla. Lahoda argues in favor of the photographer (p. 384), citing his most extensive monograph to this day, edited by Anna Farova. This claim, however, is questionable, as Farova also needed a thorough editor. On pages 126 and 127 of the TORST 1995 publication cited by Lahoda, Sudek’s first panoramas are dated to 1949; information on page 80 of the same book asserts that Sudek was inspired by his friend Filla. Dufek writes in the academic history (p. 428): “If it were not for Filla’s panoramas, he might not have started looking for a camera that would enable him to achieve something similar.”If I were to take my bearing according to the catalo­gue I purchased a quarter of a century ago on my rambles through the area in question, I would have sided with Lahoda: according to him, Filla only adopted the elongated horizontal frame in 1949 [see Sekera J. Emil Pita. Pametni sin na Peruci. Praha: V9stavnictvi 1980: 55]. Sudek began creating his panoramic photographs of the same area in 1948, as is evident from a number of reproductions in various monographs (see also Farova A. Josef Sudek. Praha: Torst 1995: 301).

These contradictions show that more than one person in the academic team entrusted with the history lacks a sense of perspective, Why, both painter and photographer might have developed the format of their work independently, directly from the form of the landscape. Both were visited with visions of the landscape already during the war. Filla dreamed of the Central Bohemia mountain range while in a con­centration camp, while Sudek reminisced of a panoramic Kodak camera that he learned about from an old price list (“During the Protectorate I believed that if I owned this kind of camera, I could do really nice landscapes with it.” – see Josef Sudek o sobs. Praha: Torst 2001: 102.) And just on the margin: apart from the wide-angle works in contemporary visual arts, both Filla and Sudek were acquainted with the drawings done on parchment scrolls in the Far East…

Even though the bibliography attached to the History of Czech Visual Arts is expressly termed as selected, one is still surprised to find that it ignores a parallel endeavor: the collective work of the parallel “alternative culture’, Pfibeh ‘Ceske spolednosti 1945-1989 (Alternative Culture. The Story of Czech Society 1945-1989]. Here Antonin Dufek might look for a correction of his reading of “Sudek’s” photograph title: The Joke (Zert (1953). This is probably no place for hint: the editor of Sudek’s first monograph, Jan Plezaa, managed to have the reproduction published only at the cost of a change of title. When he later published the same photograph for export by the Artia publishers (1964), it was as The Mask (Maska), Still, in the signed copy, Sudek corrected the title as Imaginarni portret – Imaginary Portrait. The copy in question is accessible for viewing in the Library of the Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague. (Younger readers will probably need an explanation why the photograph could not have been published under its original name. To make a long story short, the doctrine of Social Realism was regarded as the rule throughout the Communist era…)

I shall end on an optimistic note: Dufek’s history of Czech photography is now almost complete. We may look forward not only to their academic final chapters, but also towards new concepts!

Josef Moucha

#7 New staged photography

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