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Czech Photographic Avant-Garde, 1918-1948Review - Czech Photographic Avant-Garde, 1918-1948
by Vladimir Birgus
MIT Press, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Sep 16th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 38)

This important book gives us the history of Czech avant-garde photography from the founding of the independent Czechoslovak state after the First World War until the forming of the Communist government after the Second World War.  It has thirteen chapters, written by five experts, illustrated by photographs selected by Vladimir Birgus.  The book also contains a chronology of Czech art for the period, and fourteen pages of biographies of all the photographers included. 

Czech photography was influenced by other movements within art at the time, notably abstractionism, surrealism, and the German Bauhaus movement, and photographers also responded to the dramatic political events of the period.  But photography also developed its own characteristic styles, developing the potentialities of its medium.  This book develops a powerful case for the innovative ideas of the Czech photographers.  The essays are helpful as a guide, but it is the pictures themselves that of course are most impressive. 

One of the most important figures was Frantisek Drtikol, whose works from 1925-29 explore the combination of geometrical forms with a female nude.  His work is both sensuous and striking in its bold and rather self-conscious juxtapositions of curves and straight lines of the human figure posed amid cylinders, cubes, wires, poles and objects clearly created specifically for the photograph.  The use of light and shadow in these images is especially skillful. 

Another prominently photographer is Jaroslav Rossler.  Not only does he have a couple of very impressive collages which combine images and print, but his work dominates the chapter on “Abstract and Nonfigurative Tendencies.”  These photographs, like Drtikol’s, play with geometrical shape and light and shadow, and they do with with striking delicacy. 

Jaromir Funke’s photography also focuses on shapes, but is more naturalistic, using objects from everyday life such as metal bowls and plates, a metal hose, and sheets of glass.  Eugen Wiskovsky’s work is similar, featuring eggs, metal pipes, a turbine, and an insulator, and discovering pleasing abstract patterns.  Many of the photographers of this era were especially interested in architecture because it provides wonderful examples of powerful lines and curves.  One of the loveliest images is by Wiskovsky, of two children sitting on a flight of stone steps, taken from above them, with sunlight streaming in from the top of the picture.  A little later in the book, we find a couple of breathtaking landscapes by the same artist, one of a field of crops blown flat by the wind, titled “Disaster,” and another of beautiful rolling hills with a city in the background and the tops of trees in the foreground. It’s the contrasting textures of light that make these images so powerful. 

Very different in their styles are the works of photographers in the 1930s who take a socio-critical stance, depicting the living and working conditions of the poor.  It is a pity the book did not include more examples of this work; of those photographers included, the portraits by Jaromir Funke of a mother and daughter and another of a “Beggar from Chust,” both from 1937, are impressive for the sympathy with which they show their subjects.

On the other hand, the book devotes two chapters that feature surrealist photography, which may be more than enough for most tastes.  Karel Teige, Judrich Heisler, and Jindrich Styrsky are the artists most heavily represented in the chapter on collages and surrealism, and this work especially seems forced, owing a heavy debt to Dali and Magritte.  More interesting from a contemporary perspective is the work in the chapter on “Surrealist Photography,” of Vaclav Zykmund, whose bizarre self portraits, one with his head entwined with black thread and the other with a light bulb sticking out of his mouth, are surprisingly engaging.  Some of  the pictures included in this chapter seem more bizarre and humorous rather than surreal: Miroslav Hak’s haunting image of a dress hung from a large barrow in a deserted courtyard (1943) falls in this category. 

The period between the wars was of great importance for artistic photography, as it started to establish itself as a legitimate form in its own right. Czech Photographic Avant-Garde makes clear the contributions of Czech photographers of the era, and shows their relation to movements in the rest of contemporary art and popular culture.  It’s an excellent resource for anyone interested in photography as an artistic medium, and maybe more importantly, it provides a wonderful collection of images that will be unfamiliar to most readers.  Highly recommended. 


© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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