Fotograf Magazine

Photography and the Narrow Straits of the Ph Factor

After the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, the Moravian Gallery in Brno can pride itself in having the second most well stocked depository of Czech art photography, housing almost twenty-seven thousand items. That is to say, original positive prints dating to the period when the photograph was taken (if possible at the time). The richly illustrated catalogue is programmatically entitled Full Spectrum / V plnem spektru. Opening with Antonín Dufek’s history of the collection, it concludes with Petra Trankova’s list of contributing photographers (including a list of their works). Is any other institution in the country able to venture on such cataloguing of a collection of Czech art on a similar scale?
The Moravian Gallery has invested an unimaginable amount of time to this effort (despite the date of publication, the book, containing more than five hundred reproductions, was brought out last year). Its objective could not have been a comprehensive statement on the results of fifty years of collecting, and thus it makes no sense to complain that such a report has not been achieved. Instead, one may marvel at the amount of kitsch this selection has laid bare. Still, could our notion of the past make do without it? Without, say, Julius Andres’ Diana (1930), Karel Hájek’s Black Madonna / Černá Madona (1958), or Jaroslav Vávra’s nudes form the 1960s and 1970s?

Into Nowhere

Antonín Dufek has worked at the Moravian Gallery for four decades, providing its photography collection with a solid basis. He thus deserves mainly respect, although his highly central role has left certain things to be desired. The errors he has committed are of several kinds. Many are due primarily to a lack of concentration. How is one to read a statement regarding the inventors of the color process . as being the Lumiere brothers? Though they may have prefabricated the process to such a degree that even amateurs were able to handle the color spectrum, their autochrome (patented in 1903) is not the oldest technology of this kind.

If the caption of a reproduction of Jiří Toman’fs 1960’s photograph cites the location as gTroskyh when in actual fact it is Kunětická hora, a marginal detail becomes a broader problem: what information can actually be relied upon here? Another source of Dufek’s mistakes seems to derive from force of habit. Having once committed to memory that František Drtikol started his career in Prague in 1910, he will continue to repeat this, even though his mistake could not have been pointed out to him more clearly (see the review of The Academic History of Czech Photography / Akademické dějiny česke fotografie, Fotograf # 7/2006).

Dufek labels the story of the birth of art photography as one of the most internationally notorious, while himself being one of the co-authors of its Czech version: according to him, art was produced by amateur photographers, as opposed to those who ran photographic studiosc If one aims to recap the birth of an entire field of art, it is hardly advisable to recycle such contentious moments as myth; there should be no question about that. Dufek, however, continues harping on the same string with little heed to revisions (The Splendeurs et Miseres of the Hinges of Historiography, Fotograf # 17/2011).

The fact that the book, with the specific Czech sub-heading Fotografie 1841–2005 ze sbírky Moravské galerie v Brně, was brought out by the very institution celebrating its jubilee should in no way lower the criteria. In Dufek’s styling, the art of photography was defined even by those who explicitly denied the existence of any such thing (what is particularly odd is the list of Czech aestheticians and historians, which includes V. V. Štech, an implacable denialist for entire decades). Both the foundation and building of a collection of photography on the premises of a classical museum of art proved surprisingly smooth, and almost entirely unproblematic. Apparently, competition between the diverse views of experts from different approaches was also not lackingc The time when art photography had to be defended is past: the field boasts solid proportions within which it can continue to function, with no need to worry about its upholders. Even if no Czech institution has ever pursued the full range of the functions of photography, surely this will come with time…

Petra Trnková’s contribution The Charm of Old Photography and the Story of a Modern Medium: the Progress of Interest in 19th Century Photography develops in a more realistic vein. Jiří Pátek, who succeeded Antonín Dufek in the capacity of head of the collection in 2006, contributed an article titled “Beneath the Surface of Shapes and Behind the Doors of Institutions: the Anatomy of Art Photography in the Second Half of the 20th Century.” In this essay he takes stock of art photography as a phenomenon of the past: “If, however, we wish to reflect upon it in a meaningful way, we need to employ tools that are not already inherent within it, replacing the foundation stone of individual talent with the optics of impersonal mechanisms […]”. But why should one relinquish a personal perspective and deny the role of individual talent?

Into Narrow Straits

The changing attitudes of theorists as well as artists towards the practice of photography can be placed among the livelier parts of cultural history. The co-authors are thus to be commended not only for the great detail of the publication, in which Antonín Dufek has the main say, but also for the trilogy of exhibitions celebrating fifty years of the existence of the Moravian Gallery. The final part of these was Pátek’s installation The Ph Factor. In an effort to show the spread of resonances across the art scene, the curator combined roughly 180 prints (mostly dating to the latter half of the previous century) with 26 other works of art . paintings, objects or videos. The exhibition constellations reverberate further in a manual featuring instructions for reading these. The opening pair of reproductions establishes this spoon-feeding in the form of a luminous aura: Josef Sudek’s Interior, Completion of the St. Vitus Cathedral, 1924–1928, is placed alongside Václav Jirásek’s 1994 Vaňkovka, photograph of a disused factory hall. Pátek does not always make obvious such connections that lie beyond the surface. (And raising what is a rather superficial similarity, above all, can nevertheless also obfuscate the original meaning.). And what of, on the other hand, Kolíbal’s 1967 object The Fall? What has the intersection of three steel spheres to do with the representation of time-space through the medium of photography?

Apart from artists such as Josef Sudek, Jan Svoboda, Jindřich Štreit, Jiří Foltýn, Miloš Spurný and Viktor Kolář, each honored by a solo exhibition at the Moravian Gallery, the curator cites names that generally go unnoticed: Jan Wojnar, Alexandr Skalický and Josef Pokorný… The rough outline goes from Socialist Realism, represented by Hipman’s Worker (Dělník) via Běla Kolářová’s geometric abstraction and towards the pictorial verism of Ivana Lomová or the conceptualism of Štepán Grygar. The question is whether this is more than a noncommittal illustration of about a dozen mentor’s themes defined by either form or subject matter (urban scenes, l’art informel, experiments with light, documentary photography, real or fictitious landscape).

It is crucial to state that the curator is less concerned with the artists than with theory. Instead of the artists, he scrutinizes an art theory thesis labeled the Ph Factor (in other words: photography as an element, a component part). He also uses figures of various periods and nationalities (Kmentová, Kolářová, Lomová, van Haanen, Kolíbal, Kratina, Chatrný, Zavarská and Kintera) rather loosely, rather like specimens. Thus, one could replace pretty much any individual work with another. This again begs a question – how functional is a structure whose crucial links are interchangeable? What preconditions does such a perspective offer for the development of the collection as such?

It would seem that Jiří Pátek’s analyses fall into the narrow confines of being entirely independent of both the methodology of art history, and the works of art themselves. His objective is to live up to the paradigm regarded as relevant today. If one can indeed apply the program of ideological turnabouts to the province of the spiritual, then older horizons will hardly ever be exhausted. (Couldn’t they on the contrary unmask the expectations misrepresented as a new paradigm?) In fact, detached descriptions of mounts do not in themselves rule out the timelessness of intimate experience: “We lead our womenfolk with severity, exactitude and without compromise” – I was struck by the Socialist Realist Commitment (Závazek), a 1950s oil on canvas by Pavel Bačovský.

The options of the readership are surely not limited by the deciphering of the author’s intention. As with pretty much anything, Full Spectrum can also be viewed in different ways. And so can the condescension with which Antonín Dufek, representative of a more time-honored creed, extricates the reader from Pátek´s theoretical dead end: “Yet it is only today that any photograph – included here on the basis of a certain concept by the artist or curator – can exist within the context of art.” Over-simplification though it is, this statement nevertheless does not deny the historical role of individual figures and their perspective within history.
Josef Moucha

 

Antonín Dufek, Jiří Pátek, Petra Trnková: Full Spectrum. Fifty Years of Collecting Photography. The Moravian Gallery in Brno. / V plném spektru. Fotografie 1841–2005 ze sbírky Moravské galerie v Brně. The Moravian Gallery in Brno and Kant Publishers, Prague, 2011, 550 pages.

 

Jiří Pátek: The Ph Factor. Photography and Fine Art in the Second Half of the 20th Century / Element F. Fotografie a umění ve druhé polovině 20. století. The Moravian Gallery in Brno, 2012, 40 pages.

Josef Moucha

#21 On Photography

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