Surrealism and Czech Photography
Surrealism has always been a strong artistic tendency, first emerging in literature and poetry, and ultimately expressed in the visual arts. As well as dadaism, surrealism was also influenced by the form and fantasy of Renaissance painting and metaphysical Italian painters. The theoretical basis of the surrealistic movement was defined by French poet André Breton (1896-1966) as being spontaneous and illogical, a freestyle narrative of human subconscious. Surrealism liberates fantasy, interprets dreams (Freud's psychoanalysis), reprocesses chance as a creative process, uses automatic (uncontrolled) writing and draws on traditional creative techniques using association strings. Surrealism associates seemingly disparate elements based on a certain internal meaning, while using the internal model (reflection of subconscious – each person’s inner world), which aims to capture (verify, specify) through art or literature. Inter-war surrealists were responsive to their predecessors’ artistic impulses, while also explicitly expressing their political and social reality. The war in Morocco (1920/21-26) provides an interesting link, since the surrealists condemned the conflict and joined the progressive (then leftist) forces. Subsequent connections with Marxist philosophy continued until Stalinist dogmatism was condemned as degrading advanced left-wing ideology.
André Breton's experimentation with automatic writing culminated in the Manifesto of Surrealism (1924, representing the first period of surrealism). The heyday of surrealism (second period) lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War, the end of which heralded the third period that continues to this day, because the creative methods of surrealism (automatic writing and drawing, subconscious work, dreams, sexual desires, etc.) remain contemporary.
In the Czech art scene, surrealism began to be promoted in the mid-1930s with examples such as Funke's surrealistic film with characteristic It Takes Time eye motif (1932) and the early Rössler photo-colourization of Paris themes (1927-1935). Artist and theorist Václav Zykmund (1914-84) also had a significant impact on domestic events beyond surrealism. Probably already as a Ra Group member, he created Self-portrait with Cage that he captured using a montage of symbolic objects (cage, pendulum, watch). Other means of expression were used by Miloš Koreček (1908-88), Zykmund's companion and group member. Experiments with the thermal destruction of photographic emulsion led him to non-figurative expression. This technique, which he termed fokalk, conveyed Breton's theory of psychic automatism and followed Man Ray's original attempts (1891-1976) with cameraless photos. The group’s work range is illustrated by the autonomous photographic structure of Josef Istler (1919-2000), as well as the extensive work of Vilém Reichmann (1908-91). His photographs portray a rich imagination, which oscillated from the poetic concept of reality through interest in structural abstraction to listing found objects.
The Prague surrealist circle is represented by the work of Emila Medkova (1928-85) and Libora Fáry (1925-88). Medkova 's images - such as Two Heads I and Fear (1960s) - originated as metaphorical, randomly discovered compositions. The post-war period Wall photograph was influenced by the magical realism photographs of Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1940), the aesthetics of Group 42 and the photographs of Miroslav Hák, Jiří Sever (1904-68) and Vilém Reichmann. Due to their distinctive structural and textural character, they are also published in connection with the local version of post-war structural abstraction and informality.
Libor Fáry’s work is associated with various disciplines - painting, graphics, scenography and photography. From 1944 to 1948, together with photographer Karel Cmíralem he created a series of environments with characteristic surrealistic props (clocks, dead fish, nets, figurines, artificial limbs) connected by associative and unexpected links. (1) Members of the surrealist circle included Emila Medkova and Mikuláš Medek (1926-74), sculptor Jane Koblasou (*1932) and Čestmír Krátký (*1932). ). The latter’s original ethnography focus soon became as photographer of both structures and destroyed objects. Alongside Alois Nožička (*1934) and Karel Kuklík (*1937), he is ranked among the leading Czech informal photographers and late surrealists of the 1960s. Stanislav Benc (*1935) was also aligned to this circle. The close connection between structure and imaginative aspect of found objects was recorded in Ladislav Postup’s (*1929) work from the 1960s. (2) Another artist involved in the scene was Jiri Sever (the alias adopted by Vojtech Čech), an expert in synthetic dyes and aromatic perfumes. (3) His pictures abound with concealed stories and poetic images. The younger generation was represented by Jiří Erml (1945-2008), who left for New York in the late 1960s. His pre-emigration work depicts morbidity and mysterious connections, and his staged still life is composed of withering leaves, laboratory glass and the remains of rodents and insects. Eva Fuková (*1927) also emigrated at approximately the same time - her work also touched on surrealistic origins, especially in a metaphorical approach to reality and collapsing its sub-moments. Some work by conventional Czech photographers Václav Chochol (1923-2005) and Miroslav Hák (1911-78) can also be related to the wider imaginative and poetic flow of national art after 1945, and as such can be considered surrealistic. Examples are Chochol’s bizarre Portrait of Salvador Dali (1968), and Hák’s snapshots of unexpected and absurd connections in the spirit of Duchamp's ready-made method.
(1) Hana Rousová et al., The end of avante-garde? From the Munich Agreement to the Communist Coup. Arbor vitae, Řevnice 2011, 190 pages.
(2) Surrealistické incidence. Česká fotografie šedesátých let / Surrealist incidence. Czech photography (Stanislav Benc, Čestmír Krátký, Karel Kuklík, Alois Nožička, Ladislav Postupa, Vilém Reichmann, Jiří Sever). Pražský Dům fotografie, 26. 9.–30. 10. 1996.
(3) Surrealistické incidence. Česká fotografie šedesátých let / Surrealist incidence. Czech photography (Stanislav Benc, Čestmír Krátký, Karel Kuklík, Alois Nožička, Ladislav Postupa, Vilém Reichmann, Jiří Sever). Pražský Dům fotografie, 26. 9.–30. 10. 1996.