|Stanislav Friedlaender, Selfportrait
with Father, 1987
Josef Sudek, Last Roses, 1956
Then the Germans invaded, and this is where the show really gets interesting. There are shots of desperate faces as troops enter Prague, but even more extraordinary is Zdeněk Tmej’s record of the two years he spent at a German work camp. Cameras record the public execution of Prague’s deputy mayor and the chaos of the war’s end, when Praguers took revenge by forcing German women to pave the streets with cobblestones.
If you have time to see only one part of the show, the third section, at the Municipal Library, is the one. Covering the period from the communist coup through the present, this has the greatest breadth and depth of work.
Between 1948 and 1956, the only photography that could be published had to be done in the Socialist Realist style. Portraits of comically enthusiastic workers, usually omitted from exhibitions today, appear here. Photojournalism became insipid, with several photographers selling out to the regime, though documentary work by independents flourished underground. Josef Koudelka’s extraordinary compositions are among the show’s most stunning work. He manages to be in precisely the right place at the right time, every time: nearly on top of invading Soviet tanks, at a Roma funeral, at the moment a sad boy in an angel costume rides past on a bicycle.
Some photographers were targeted for intimidation, such as Jindřich Štreit, who made humanistic photos of small gestures of kindness in a devastated landscape. Like other photographers of the time, Štreit ignored trends of pessimism and realism that were popular in American photography, preferring art that transcended suffering.
Of course the show includes moving documents of the events surrounding the Velvet Revolution of 1989. These are followed by Antonín Kratochvíl’s records of Eastern European cultures in transition. Photojournalism remains weak, however, with the exception of Jan Šibík’s work.
Contempoary curating becomes more challenging: Who will stand the test of time? For the most part, the curators have chosen not pure photographers, but those who use photography as part of their installation works, such as František Skála, Krištof Kintera and Jiří Černický. They also include a few examples of computer-manipulated imagery, such as Štěpánka Šimlová’s highly saturated color montages and Veronika Bromová’s disturbing collages, in which sections of skin are torn away from a woman’s body to reveal the anatomy underneath.
Throughout the show, well-written and translated explanatory essays provide context. But since they are long and the show is massive, it makes sense to buy the affordable accompanying catalogue and read the same information in detail later.
This exhibition is not only about the history of Czech photography, but about how history itself has shaped the images. The show’s wealth of photographs demonstrates that most of the artists survived adversity and prevailed, even as others caved in. Perhaps it is because they forged their individualism by pushing against forced conformity. Or perhaps the small and insular community of teachers and students served to pass on the torch. Either way, whatever drove them remains inspiriting to this day, making this exhaustive and exhausting show well worth the effort of seeing in its entirety.
Published Prague Post, September 14, 2006