The nude is one of the most beloved and most frequent kinds of Czech photography, and many of its artists like František Drtikol, Karel Ludwig or Jan Saudek are among the most important and most popular Czech photographers. Although after 1960 there have been several periods which were not favorable to photographic nudes in Czechoslovakia, for various reasons, there were not any when high quality nudes were not made at all. The worst period of dogmatic totalitarianism ended with Stalin's death in 1953, but it took several more years before the cultural scene showed distinct signs of liberalization in Czechoslovakia. Photographers adopted a number of specialized techniques, including point-source studio lighting, sandwich montages with details of various structure, projections of various rasters on the models' bodies, the Sabattier effect, coarse grain, and "rollage." Such stylized works by Miroslav Hák and Karel Ludwig were loosely emulated by other artists. In 1960, Václav Chochola made several classical studio nudes, emphasizing the models' natural beauty without distinctive stylization, but in that same year, he and the artist Jiří Kolář employed these very photographs in a series of "rollages" and "prollages". Stylization through sharp light contrasts and effective details were often used in nudes to accent basic archetypes, simple shapes and proportionality. Miloslav Stibor in the 1960s became one of the most important international Czech photographers of nudes. In 1968, following his earlier creatively finished, technically precise but somewhat cold nudes, Stibor presented a surprising series entitled 15 Photographs for Henry Miller /see photo/. These sensual photographs featuring cropped details of female bodies are undoubtedly the peak of his work, and perhaps even one of the best works of Czech nude photography in the 1960s. Dramatically lit and stepping out of the darkness almost like phantoms, these eroticized nudes allow for a certain degree of naturalism rather than stylized finish. Sandwich montages and projections of rasters, or light-filtered patterns, were most often used in nudes by Jaroslav Vávra and Zdeněk Virt.
In the 1960s, the first distinctive staged photographs that employed the motif of naked bodies began to appear. Jan Saudek pioneered this approach, which has since found many followers in various chronological and stylistic waves. His earliest arranged photographs, which give symbolic expression to elementary human values and common emotions, were made in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At first, Saudek made delicate compositions that juxtaposed innocent and defenseless childhood and the world of adults. However, it was not until the 1970s that he received significant international notice.
Naked female and sometimes male figures appeared in the exalted scenes by members of the Brno group Epos. Rostislav Košťál, František Maršálek and Jiří Horák, influenced particularly by the hippie movement, literary and creative symbolism, and echoes of surrealism and existentialism, just like contemporary films with distinctive visual symbols, the theater of the absurd and fashion photographs. Taras Kuščynskyj, who sought to capture female appeal in most of his work from the 1970s, was distinct from the work of the Epos group, which was oriented toward symbolic expression of generational feelings. He gradually moved from simple harmonic nudes to more dynamic arrangements with exalted gestures by the models. Increasingly frequently he abandoned interiors and photographed in the forests and fields. Jan Saudek, which distanced itself more and more from fragile juxtapositions of childhood and adulthood or dreams and reality. It turned toward exaggerated eroticism and symbolic depictions of love and hate, the complicated relationships of men and women, reversal of traditional female and male roles, changes in appearance and identity of naked and clothed people, the irreversible flow of time and unavoidable old age and death. The duality of the present and the timelessness of his photographs is frequently strengthened by juxtapositions of old costumes and decorations from other times with typical products from the end of the 20th century. A similar role, reminiscence of old times, also emphasized by antedating photos by a whole century, is played by hand coloring, which Saudek has used since 1977 and which undoubtedly contributes to creating the aura of hand-made originals that some of his enlargements have.
Naked bodies of men and boys did not begin to appear in greater measure until the 1980s, in works by Slovak students at the Prague Film and Television Faculty of the Academy of Performing Asts (FAMU), Tono Stano, Vasil Stanko, Miro Švolík, Rudo Prekop and other representatives of the second wave of staged photography, who mostly stayed in Prague after finishing their studies. With their Slovak nationality and Czech citizenship they now belong to Czech and Slovak photography. Including naked male bodies in various shocking scenes was, of course, part of a wider revolt by the young Slovak FAMU students. Similarly to many of their generation among painters or sculptors, they rejected tendencies to moralize, typical of artists of the middle generation, and had little interest in politics or existential questions, which seemed to them to be exhausted and not modern. They found inspiration mainly in postmodernism, though often there were spontaneous reactions with a deep knowledge of the foreign artistic scene. They were not afraid of eclectic styles, subsequent interference with positives and negatives, reinterpretation of older works, humor, irony or eroticism - and in no way disguised the fact that they were often more concerned with pleasure in the creative game than with reflection of deep philosophical problems. They did not want to change the world, but they tried to relativize its perception, recognition and evaluation, to laugh at stereotypes and cliches. One of the most original and most impressive words in Czech postmodern photography was the series Playing for the Fourth from 1985-86, which resulted from collaboration by Tono Stano, Rudo Prekop and their Prague friend Michal Pacina. By joining inventive photographs of heads - made by Pacina, with photos of bodies - photographed by Prekop, and Stano's details of legs, they created not only three playful photographs, but also an unusually inventive entire series.
The distinctive trends of the 1980s included multi-media work, which also often included motifs of naked bodies. Postmodernist re-evaluation of the principles of the pure photographic image in Czechoslovakia too led to increasingly frequent crossing of the borders between photography, painting, graphics and sculpture. Pavel Jasanský reacted to the expressionist impulses from works by Arnulf Reiner and Anselm Kiefer in the series Bodies, growing since 1985. He completed the large photographs of naked couples and groups with sweeping overpainting in black, but he also connected them in an action sequence or assembled a video from them. Vladimír Židlický shifted from abstract body fragments with frequent use of luminography to dramatic scenes with clusters of naked figures, creatively reinforced by engraving and scratching negatives, drawing with light and brown toning of the enlargements.
>From the beginning of the 1990s, the fall of the communist regime and the return of democracy brought an exceptionally liberal atmosphere for the photographic nude in Czechoslovakia, which seemed to want to quickly compensate for the long years of censorship and official prudishness. Tens of erotic and pornographic magazines appeared, which here, unlike most western European countries or the USA are not sold only in special sex-shops, but in virtually all news agents. Despite these excesses, the closing 1990s were an exceptionally fertile period for Czech nude photography. While the staged photography of the previous decade was dominated by a return to playfulness and the lack of conflict of Dada or poetism, in newer staged photographs by Ivan Pinkava, Václav Jirásek or Michal Macků we find quite different influences. Ivan Pinkava frequently seeks inspiration in antiquity, the Gothic, the Renaissance, Mannerism, the Baroque, decadence or symbolism. The people in Pinkava's photographs frequently look like archetypes or mythical figures, who symbolize various psychological, relational or sexual themes, just as the desire to seek something deeper and more permanent than the current hectic times usually provide.
At the beginning of the group Brotherhood (Bratrstvo) at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, Václav Jirásek used as starting points the archetypes of the most dogmatic period of socialist realism, but today, like Pinkava, he seeks inspiration in a far more distant past, reaching not only to symbolism or the Gothic, but even to pre-historic myths. His melancholic photographs, in which he himself often appears lately, as a naked man in the midst of romantic nature, examine the depths of time, changeless values, a supra-personal order and faith. They return on a kind of imaginary spiral to the spiritual atmosphere of the end of the 19th century, which had great interest in such themes. All this is underlined by the richness of his tonal scale and the sharpness of contact copies from large format negatives, from which he sometimes assembles long panoramic images.
An accent on content and image symbols is also typical for the works of Michal Macků, which have recently received great acclaim in the United States and some European countries. Macků very inventively uses the technique of "gellages," which permits pulling the damp emulsion from a large-format negative and then treating it, which can include multiplication of the same motif, tearing, suppressing certain details or spatial distortions. In motifs of his own naked body in imaginary space he symbolizes the themes of violence, anxiety, loss of individuality in the middle of a de-personalized crowd, the duality of body and soul, transcendence and extra-rational perception. Zdeněk Lhoták also photographs his own nude body, but his work is markedly different from the photographs of Michal Macků and the works by John Coplans with similar motifs. Fragments of the naked figure are depicted from such unexpected angles and in such surprising cut outs, that they become a kind of sign, in which the erotic charge is suppressed in order to emphasize self-reflection and complicated symbolism, loosely inspired by yoga and Buddhism. A novelty in Lhoták's nude self-portraits, is the use of color.
In the '90s Pavel Mára made two distinctive series with motifs of naked bodies. In the technically precisely made, greater than life size enlargements of triptychs, depicting faces and entire naked figures of women and men from a frog's-eye view, axial view, and bird's eye view with parallel vertical lines, he suggestively posed the questions of identity, outer appearance and the precision of our perception. The tranquility of these photographs contrasts with the expressiveness of the red androgynous bodies from the series Mechanical Corpuses, connecting in an unusual symbiosis sensuality and coldness, animality and de-personalization.
Another of the few photographers who work inventively in nude photography with psychological and esthetic aspects of color is Jiří David - one of the best known artists of the middle generation, who often uses photography in his work. The sharply colored photos of his own naked young son with a revolver with their unusual atmosphere, may suggest the poetics of David Lynch's films.
Whereas earlier women appeared only exceptionally among Czech photographers, in recent years a number of female photographs of male and female nudes have appeared. Even during her studies at FAMU Michaela Brachtlová drew attention with her juxtapositions of details of bodies and plants, sea creatures and furs, in which, on the surrealist model, she emphasized latent erotic meanings. She also drew loosely on her somewhat grotesque-seeming juxtapositions of male bodies with fetishist furs in the illusory details of the male models' bodies. Irena Armutidisová and Jolana Havelková created their sociologically and psychologically eloquent portraits of naked men and women in a documentary concept. There are many more women photographers and painters or sculptors whose works include nudes or fragments of naked bodies. This testifies not only to the emancipation of women, but also to the fact that the nude is one of the most frequent, most favored, and most current genres in contemporary Czech photography.
The exhibition The Nude in Czech Photography 1960-2000 was curated by Vladimír Birgus and Jan Mlčoch. It was presented in the Manesh in Moscow during the Fotobiennale 2002 in the collaboration with the Czech Center in Moscow and The Moscow House of Photography. In September 2002 it will be presented in Czech Center in Paris, in November and December 2002 in the French Institute in Aachen.