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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
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 Drtikols, play with
geometrical shape and light and shadow, and they do with with striking
Jaromir Funkes 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 Wiskovskys 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. Its 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 Haks 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. Its 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.
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