The Devětsil : Capturing the Unseen...
A History of The Czech Society of Photography and how it redefined a war-torn Europe
By Laura Whitcomb.
Night descends on the summers of Prague with fearsome storms sending many into the cavernous bars to take cover as rods of light illuminate the medieval skyline in incandescent flashes. The thunder rallies an intensity of conversation one of which leads a young man to be asked to define the Czech soul. He does not pause in his answer “Born in suspicion it belongs to one who restrains ‘his/her’ voice and its passions and then screams them into bathtub drain only when certain all doors of his home are closed.” The illusive mystery of what is ranted into this solitary vortex of the sewer echoes can be found via the lens of the Czech School of Photography.
The photographic lens became the most avid voice of the Czech soul allowing a portal to make its passions palpable. The Czech photography movement flourished between two world wars and survived Nazi and Soviet occupation expressing its voice in the impalpable mystery that the country’s tumultuous history rarely allowed artists to convey . The camera lens offered a protective barrier from intrusion and the photographic outcome allowed passions to be expressed in an indecipherable riddle that allowed this art form to survive over 50 years of censorship.
The Czech synthesis of ‘being‘ was carved by the painter and photographer Alphonse Mucha, the leading figure of Art Nouveau and Modernism. World War One’ s aftermath gave birth to an emancipated Czechoslovakia and the new nation had the Bohemian born Mucha profusely design its new identity down to the very bank note. Mucha infused his works with a spirit that recalled the animism and folklore of a rhythmic Slavic past replete with mysterious forces of the unknown. Czech nationalism would be designed by the artists of this new spirit shaping architecture, furniture, painting, graphics, film and photography to become a capitol to the movements of Art Nouveau and Symbolism.
The Prague born photographer Drahomír Josef Růžička, left for America at a young age he carried on the sense of Czech animism replete in his viewpoint. Růžička returned to Prague and influenced photographers with his collection of Edward Steichen photographs and his own works portraying the seismic magnitude of life in America. Růžička influenced young photographers to experiment with scale and volume engineering the powerful force of light.
The greatest breakthroughs in Czech photography arrived with the influences of Cubism, Russian Constructivism, and the Bauhaus in Germany exploring new perceptions of surface, composition and perspective rooting out ulterior dimensions to subject matter.
Bauhaus Building, Lucia Moholy
Many of the Czech school were influenced by the German Albert Renger-Patzsch, who allowed his lens to reveal analogies between the natural, and the manufactured exploring the formal composition in the man made. The new influences in design and photography encouraged photographers to root out the organic mechanism of the mechanical.
Albert Renger-Patzsch 1927
Lucia Maholy was born in Prague and would become a consummate photographer of the Bauhaus where her husband the constructivist Laszlo Maholy Nagy taught. Jaromir Funke would be come a leading exponent of the influences of the Bauhaus and Moholy Nagy. Funke explored an organic dimension in the detail shots of machinery. Also Inspired by Cubism and the formal compositions of the Russian avant-grade, Funke brought the use of diagonal composition into his fold. His abstract compositions embraced the aspects of shadow play and solarization. Funke’s school of photography was Photogenism and his photographs were viewed as picture poems.
Composition (From Abstract Photo series) 1929 -Jaromír Funke
Josef Sudek, studied under Funke and although had lost an arm to the first World War he became one of Prague’s most tenacious photographers. His passion for capturing the daily life of Prague mirrored Eugene Atget in Paris. Sudek waited for the moment light would transgress a landscape and capturing the mystical dimensions of light and the ominous power in the cast of shadow that could transform architecture . Sudek is the most renown photographer that captured the daily life of Prague paralleling Eugene Atget’s fixation with Paris Sudek photographed the forrest landscapes of Bohemia. Together with Adolf Schneeberger and his dramatic landscapes Funke and Sudek founded the Czech Society of Photography that would set the standards of their brand of modernism.
Labyrinth In My Atelier 1960. Josef Sudek
Eugen Wiskovsky exemplified the poetic realm focussing on the industrial and technological innovation reducing objects to line and form along with Funke and Saudek “NewPhotography.” New Photography applied the principles of Constructivism, Functionalism, and New Objectivity but had its own spirited dimension capturing an unseen animistic force at work. This sense of the animistic harkened to the slavic tradition of the folkloric and the suspicion of oneself and the world around them recalling the passages of Franz Kafka who viewed Prague as a ‘living being’ haunted by the unseen forces of its past.
Funke established an art movement known as Devětsil that flourished in influence during the interwar years and brought critical architects, writers and artists to lecture in Prague including Le Corbusier, Man Ray, Paul Klee Vladimir Mayakovsky and Walter Gropius. Using low angles and striking new adaptations of form Devětsil pioneered what their colleagues at the Bauhaus had manifested with a Czech fingerprint of evocative form replete with a pagan sense of the unknown endemic to a Slavic past.
Untitled Jaroslav Rössler 1927
Devětsil ‘s impact could be felt across a whole new generation that emerged between the wars. Devětsil experimented with photograms, large details, diagonal composition, photomontage, and double exposures. It would be abstraction that would become Funke’s most accomplished terrain along with Jaroslav Rössler who was also a member of the first Czech pioneer of constructivism with his compositions of the diagonal and a view from a low perspective using long exposure and shooting the subject with a tessar lens out of focus.
Jaroslav Rössler was a student of Funke and the youngest member of the Devětsil group. Rössler incorporated all the techniques of Devětsil in a masterful command creating works in collage and solarization.
Devětsil’s viewpoint and objective also influenced the photographer Emil Berka who used double exposure along with technology’s innovations arriving at composites that looked like abstract forms. A masterful visual authority that incorporated Devětsil ‘s ideas was seen in the photographs of the former chemistry professor Jan Lauschmann and his elevated perspectives. Vaclav Chochola also experimented in haunting Kafka-esque double exposures the most renown being a man fading into a street scene.
Collage would also become a major force amongst the fold of Czech photography.
The German Dada artists Raoul Hausmann and Richard Huelsenbeck organized two Dadaist evenings in Prague in March 1920 that went on to influence the Czech poeticism movement. The Dada associated artist John Heartfield emigrated to Prague in 1933 to escape the Nazi regime. Heartfield’s politically charged photomontages greatly influenced the climate of resistance amongst the Czech artistic milieu and along with Dada influenced Czech artists to experiment with the power of collage.
The most prolific result would manifest in the collages of Karl Tiege, a highly active member of Devětsil, who would become a pivotal member of the movement Surrealism that Dada had birthed in Paris.
Collage 1936 Karl Tiege
Karl Tiege, the most important member of the Czech Surrealist group mythologized the female identity and the power of erotic taboo to break barriers of unyielding poetic constraint. Tiege’s collages deconstructed the iconography of a new mass culture with images of the profane in a totemic composite that evoked the ritual of a new order. Tiege portrayed the female identity in sharp eroticism.
Tiege pioneered the use of collage amongst the Paris Surrealists separating the technique in the haphazard way of its forefather Dada into a concrete poetic form. Tiege invoked ideas of taboo and the profane and embodied them into a notion of ritualistic conscription. Jaroslav Rossler was a student of Tiege and expressed his inner torment through the selection of incongruous objects montage, collage, and camera-less images.
Funke was one of the first to join the Surrealist group and Surrealist series of store windows photographs titled “Glass and Reflection”.
Jindřich Styrsky was a painter stage designer and and graphic artist he captured a dialogue of objects in shop windows and created collages. He created a Statue of Liberty stripped to her very support beams hoisting an all seeing eye from her chest.
La Statue de la liberté, collage, Jindřich Štyrský 1934.
Styrsky wrote of his photos, “The sister of eroticism is the unconscious smile, a feeling of the comic or shudder or horror. The sister of pornography however is always only shame a feeling of disgrace.”
The most evocative photographs of of the Czech school can be found in the erotic nudes of Frantisek Drtikol. Dritkol allowed the human body to intersect into the rhythmic shapes of modernism. Frantisek Dritkol nudes in contorted in shadows and converging lines.
Dritkol, along with many of the photographers were established poets and painters, one of which was Frantisek a former painter . The camera allowed them to enumerate on what they explored in their other field.
Upon the Nazi invasion many of the Czech School had to flee the country. Alphonse Mucha died shortly after his Nazi interrogation, a gesture to make known the Czech arts and the spirit of resistance would be met with a certain death. One of the artists that immediately fled was Alexander Hackenschmied changing his name to Sasha Hammid. Hammid was one of the founders of modern Czech photography and film. His most renown works were the hypnotic portraits of his wife and partner Maya Deren encapsulating her imitable mystery. Hammid filmed Deren documenting the rituals of Haitian voodoo in and captured her torment in the American experimental 1946 film ‘Meshes of The Afternoon.’
Many of the Czech school of photography stayed behind. Bohumil Šťastný used his photojournalism skills to help the Czech resistance photographing locations of V-1 German weapons for the exile government in London. Jan Lukas covered the injustices during the war that lead to his photographs of the Nazi retribution to the German Czech citizens.
Šťastný’s photographs were highlighted by his documentation of the Prague Uprising that were included in the 1946 book The New Vision by Maholy-Nagy.
Until the Velvet Revolution the Czechs were under a rigid ideological supervision. Soviet opposition buried the reforms made by president Drykal who wanted to provide a more tolerant form of Communism with crushing blows and an army of tanks. Many of the cultural community fled including the Czech new wave film luminaries Milos Foreman and Jan Nemec along with most artists and writers who had made their dissent known. Karl Teige was labeled a Trotskyite degenerate, and many of the photographers of Devětsil were imprisoned. The Czech Spring blew up into riots and protest rose against an intolerant occupation and its sanctions.
Josef Koudelka is one of the most renown Czech photojournalists who covered the Prague Spring even though Magnum was forced to publish his work anonymously. Koudelka’s photos of protestors facing an army of tanks challenging the suffocation of Totalitarian might was the most powerful rally of international support. In the desperation for an upheaval of change many other photojournalists carved their identity in this spirit including Jan Saudek, Ladislav Postupa Victor Kolar ,Viktor Kolář and Vaclav Jirasek.
The Prague Uprising aftermath gave birth to new genre that flourished in documentary photography. As smuggled photos were the only means to gain international support,photographers turned their art to the plight of social change knowing that through the inviolable photographic message would be able to circumnavigate censorship. Jindrich Streit exhibited censored artists that were found critical of the regime and took photographs of the strife of Moravians. Koudelka, whose Pague uprising photos had to be published anonymously through focussed on Romanian gypsies capturing the human spirit triumphing in the landscape of what society deems as despair.
Jaroslav Kucera social documentary renown for his candid shots of working girls expounded on the psychological effects that transformed the country in its suppression and amongst many other photographers was imprisoned and banned from working.
One of the most renown photographers oft he Czech School would be found in the last chapter of his life. The blurred voyeuristic photos of Miroslav Tichý all play into the Czech emulation and fixation exploring female mythology. Tichý captured his clandestine erotica assuming the lens of that of the intruding voyeur from hiding in bushes capturing his subjects in their private subjective moments.
“Home-made Camera” by Miroslav Tichý
Tichý s proto-Lomography style was the result of a camera assembled from refuse he constructed of which he called a ‘ trash cam.’ Tichý explained secured the poetic imperfections to his photography. Tichý stacked thousands of these photos under a bed, burned some for warmth over decades of cold winters. The photo collection was sacrificed to mother nature allowing the seasons to deteriorate them for decades allowing time itself to be the ultimate voyeur.
The lens has been the most compelling of catalysts and one of the compulsive of beauties.
There is a nihilism in the Czech soul after a millennia of an imposed Catholic conscription by the Hapsburg Empire to the the mandatory atheism of communism. This left a yearning for a spiritual resulting in an animistic return to the slavic root of all that is mysterious and archetypal amongst the primary forces ruling nature. The landscapes of Vilem Reichmann and Emila Medková explored the organic formations seeking the momentum of a higher order and essence of all things. The Slovakian Peter Zupnick also captured this organic dimension but chose to draw over his photographs expressing the unknown forces of the object in the spirited sense of mystery and suspicion that has transgressed so many of this photographic school . This transgression is the endurance of surviving a conflicted past allowing its survivors to be mediums and practitioners of all that is unseen.
Laura Whitcomb is a contributing writer for By such and such and the author of “Dali a Paradox of Fashion.”