Czech photography after 1945
After the end of the Second World War in June 1945, Czechoslovakia returned to the status before the German occupation. The country became - like all of Europe at that time - the scene of dramatic political and territorial changes. As part of the Soviet Union’s political and power-grab westwards expansion, part of Czechoslovakia’s territory was forcibly annexed to Soviet Ukraine. Thus the independence of post-war Czechoslovakia was weakened from the very start. Czechoslovakia’s left-wing orientation was resolutely confirmed by the victory of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1946. These elections, followed by events in 1948 when the Communists violently assumed all political and economic power in the country, accelerated the state's slide towards totalitarianism. The concentration of power in one political party led to the emergence of one of the totalitarian regimes in the Soviet sphere of influence (1948-89). The brief post-war "breath of fresh air" during which the arts reconnected with pre-war activities was brought to an abrupt end during 1948-56 – a period associated with systematic shocks to science, art and culture. In the post-1948 period, the official art of social realism was enforced in Czechoslovakia – based on Stalinist-era Soviet art-propaganda. Other art forms such as experimentation or personal opinion were deemed incomprehensible or formalistic. A degree of social liberation took place in the former Czechoslovakia and other socialist bloc countries after the death of Stalin (1878-1953).
But let’s return to specific photographers in the post-Second World War period. Miroslav Hák (1911-78) aptly captured the essence of feelings and experiences in war-torn Prague. His photograph In a Courtyard (1942) anticipates the wide imaginative and poetic direction of domestic art post-1945. Hák defined the photograph ‘as a transfer of seen reality into a new reality photographic’. The photographs of Vilém Reichmann (1908-91) from the Wounded City cycle are examples of the ambiguous interpretation and recording of the post-war destruction of deserted Czech cities. Yet one leading light emerged in Czech post-war photography: Josef Sudek (1896-1976). Now the best-known Czech photographer, his work shunned the purist pictorialism and conventional photography from the pre-First World War period. Sudek entered photograph for existential reasons – as a one-armed war invalid photography represented one of his few money-earning options.
He took photographs for the advertising sector, documented architecture (e.g. the photography cycle from the completion of St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle, 1927-28), and reproduced art works for fine-art publications (especially Cooperative Work). His foremost work emerged after the Second World War when he drew on intimate and contemplative themes: the still-life genre was well-suited to his reclusive mood. Numerous simple minimalist compositions were created since the 1950s, comprising everyday items and food (glass, eggs, bread, mussels, film scroll). Sudek used a large-format camera – not enlarging, but rather just making contact prints because he always sought to portray subjects as faithfully as possible. He was intrigued by the quality of surfaces, the properties of materials and substances (e.g. light refracted in water), indeed the expressive opportunities of the medium of photography. Josef Sudek is one of the most recognised Czech photographers abroad.
Jan Svoboda (1934-90) was a similarly significant figure in Czech photography, whose early work was strongly inspired by Sudek. His photographs took ordinary objects (e.g. the Table cycle) through which he sought to express a mood created by various grey shades inspired by Cézanne's colourful valerian theory. A distinctive feature of his photographs was the large dimensions of magnifications, hung without a frame to emphasise composition and illusive rendering of space. His mid-1960s work marked a departure from domestic photography to the ‘art photography’ style, exploring staged photography, personal intellectual and conceptual projects, and non-enlightened, critical documentary society. Yet Svoboda focuses primarily on composition, space and illusion in his work - questions that define photographic images in their most elemental form. His work is both a record of intellectual reflection on photography and a versatile processing of space, purity, humility, oblivion and volatility of the moment.
The photography of Běla Kolářová (1923-2010) was neglected until the 1990s, having been overshadowed by the complicated life of her husband, poet Jiří Kolář (1914-2002). She stood by him throughout his persecution and imprisonment by the Czech State Security Force following his signing of Charter 77 – and they also lived as emigrants in France. As a photographer, Kolářová focused on experimental images produced without a camera in a darkroom. In an effort to reduce the world and capture the photographic medium, she created a unique abstract study using small artificial negatives. She was also interested in photographic recordings of rotating light sources, and photographic "light drawings" that came from manipulating objects directly under a magnifying device (Gray phonograph, 1962).
Another prominent female figure of Czech post-war photography was Emila Medková (1928-85), the wife of surrealist painter Mikuláš Medka (1926-74). Both belonged to the artistic circle centred around theorist Karl Teig (1900-1951), a leading Czechoslovak interwar avant-garde figure. Medková’s images were produced using the ready-made approach, such as the Two Heads and Fear photos from the 1960s that emerged as metaphorical, randomly discovered compositions.
Miloslav Stibor (1927-2011) and Jan Saudek (* 1935), while opposites in terms of themes and formal process, were both devotees of nude photography. Yet mid-1950s Czechoslovakia considered nudes as incomplete and formalistic – not at all appropriate for the propaganda of the totalitarian communist system. Hence the female body was long concealed from national photography shows and exhibitions – nudes could not be published: so the sensual woman was replaced by the emancipated woman – typically depicted as a worker or peasant. Reflections of the body, expressive portraits, nudes, and even the human figure in symbolic scenes gradually gained prominence in national photography in the 1960s. Miloslav Stibor achieved high recognition with his nude output. The formal processing of nudes moved the potential boundaries of black and white photography towards sharp contrasts.
Jan Saudek is the second key photographer who progressed the genre towards staged photography - the central theme of his work is a person with biological, emotional and social needs. His subsequent work embraced the depiction of physical shortcomings, representing the unavoidable consequences of old age. Over time he created a distinctive decadent mode of expression that arose from combining the naked body with fragments of historical costumes in his stylized shabby atelier.
After 1945 photography in the former Czechoslovakia was restricted - due to the political situation, isolation from news and information, and violently suppressed contact with the free world. Yet - as highlighted in the text - many respected photographers succeeded in evading the communist monochrome to produce memorable photos and images.