On ViewThe Art Gallery Of Ontario
October 3, 2012 – April 7, 2013
In his essay for the massive exhibition catalogue, the photographer Geoffrey James remarks that, though he has yet to travel to the city, when there, “I know I will not find Sudek’s Prague.” He is right. These 175 black and white photographs from Josef Sudek’s (1896 – 1976) long career were taken in a city initially part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then the capital of independent Czechoslovakia, but soon invaded by the Germans and, finally, one which fell under Soviet domination. Since the images mostly show empty streets, one would hardly learn that history from these pictures. Of course it would have been dangerous to photograph German or Russian soldiers. But just by looking, one can hardly date most of the photographs. Events touch Sudek’s art only in “Prague after Bombing—Street Scene, Clock Tower and Cathedral in the Background”(1945).
Sudek believed that photography “depends entirely on things that already existed before it and apart from it, that is, the world around us.” As such, his photographs show a surprisingly narrow selection of things from the world around him. We see Sudek’s studio; a number of sculptures; St. Vitus cathedral and the Prague Castle Gardens, as well as nearby landscapes; and still life objects. But in this exhibition we find little evidence of contemporary architecture, street life, or factory labor. (I describe only the selection of photographs on exhibition; Sudek did treat these subjects in the 1920s.) The show in Ontario presents a curiously timeless view of a city which, during his lifetime, underwent significant changes. Not a lot of people inhabit the pictures, though “The 3rd Courtyard of the Castle, Viewed from the Tower of St. Vitus’s Cathedral”(1936) looks down on a crowd. He did a few portraits, and “In The Magic Garden (Hat on Bench)” (1954 – 59), we see a hat, the surrogate for a human presence. But more typically, Sudek’s photographs present sculptures, as in “Statue of Saint Wenceslas” (1942 – 45); small objects, as in “Toy Blocks” (1930s), or the series “Simple Still Lifes (Egg and Glass)” (1950 – 54); and panoramic landscapes. “St. Vitus’s Cathedral, still life with a jug at a pier (1925),” one of his masterpieces, very beautifully shows a still life object in that church.
Like Giorgio Morandi (1890 – 1964), another traumatized veteran of the Great War, Sudek was mostly isolated. In the 1930s, he achieved considerable commercial success, but after that he was on his own. At a time when photography, like painting, was being radically transformed by the heroic avant-gardes, he lived and worked in an out-of-the-way city. Morandi, it has been said, “by slowly withdrawing … constructed a reality that gave him time to think and work … as an individual.” The same was true, I think, of Sudek. His Prague was full of shocks, but unlike the Surrealists, he generally had no interest in showing them. One exception proves that rule—“Mannequin and Sculpture,”from the series A Walk in the Garden of the Lady Sculptor (1953 – 57)—where that combination of objects is startling. But in describing Sudek as detached, I do not mean to suggest that he was indifferent to public events. Rather, he recognized that the only way to authentically respond to his times was to “not fit in, not play the game.” Acknowledging that no mere representation of everyday events could truthfully describe the everyday world, he created an authentic vision of his Prague. Like Morandi’s bottles and landscapes, his photographic subjects reveal a world that existed somewhat apart from the viewer. By thus preserving his artistic freedom, his art offers us a moral vision—one which remains of lasting value seeing as we too are in thrall of the rhetorical power of photographic images.
Note: The catalogue is Josef Sudek: The Legacy of a Deeper Vision (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2012). My quoted phrases about Morandi are borrowed from an essay in Sean Scully, Resistance and Persistence: Selected Writings (London: Merrell, 2006).
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