Fotograf Magazine

The Alphabet of Things: Notes on Modern and Contemporary Art

Photography is one of Karel Císař’s frequently revisited topics. In the afterword to his book Abeceda věcí: Poznámky k modernímu a současnému umění (The Alphabet of Things: Notes on Modern and Contemporary Art), he describes it as a supplement to What is Photography?, an anthology published in 2004 under his editorship. In many of his own texts Císař cites the intellectual authorities represented in the anthology; The Alphabet can therefore be described as an instance of putting these theoretical sources into contemporary Czech art history practice. At the same time, the reviewed book partly foreshadows Císař’s upcoming monograph on avant-garde photography, which will be a more comprehensive contribution to the theory and history of the medium.

Beginning with the very first essay in the collection, the eponymous Photography, the fourth section is entirely devoted to the subject, which also permeates the other five parts. Císař’s interest can be explained in his own words: “Rather than a means of expression for the avant-garde, photography can be understood as a theoretical field which offers new rearrangements of the word ‘art’” (p. 10). In his texts, although arranged in alphabetical order, Císař rearranges the historical sequence and offers a perspective from which modernity can be seen as a “perfectly contemporary project”. When he does turn to the past, Císař does so mainly to glimpse the present.

If the author describes his own collected texts as “notes” in the book’s subheading, this is undoubtedly not to marginalise the impact of the ideas it offers. Rather, he points to the multiplicity of contexts from which the individual studies have emerged. The “note” label also suggests a certain decisiveness, one that is often employed in the conclusions of various (often broadly outlined) studies, by either quoting a well-known author or in a somewhat declamatory and abbreviated fashion, just when the reader might expect the argument to be taken further. The aim of Císař’s Notes, however, is neither to give a universal and absolute theoretical narrative nor to discover unknown artists and thinkers. Its strength lies in its ability to make new links and comparisons, in noticing details and subtle nuances, and in opening new perspectives through analysis and interpretation. In this sense, it is not important whether the object of authorial interest is photography, text, or action.

Tereza Jindrová