|Lunar Lanscape 1 (Collars I), 1929
Regionální museum, Brandlova 35, Kolín, Czech Republic, October 6-26, 2007, (7th photographic festival Funke’s Kolín)
Between the two world wars, the city of Kolín witnessed the activity of three personalities of fundamental significance to the development of modern Czech photography: Josef Sudek (1896-1976), Jaromír Funke (1896-1945), and Eugen Wiškovský (1888-1964). While Sudek’s and Funke’s works were published in numerous books and presented at countless exhibitions both in the Czech Republoic and abroad and rightfully received international renown. The oeuvre of Eugen Wi3kovský is still waiting to be duly appreciated. The retrospective held in the Regional Museum in Kolin is only the fifth solo exhibition of this photographer (and it is symptomatic that his first exhibition in 1985 was not realized in Czechoslovakia, but in the Italian city of Turin at the “Torino Fotografia” festival.). There is not doubt that Wiškovsky’s avant-garde photographs rank amongst the most original and progressive Czech contributions to the development of modern interwar photography. His theoretical works from between the 1920s and 1940s largely anticipated trends which only began to develop in the decades to come. Wiškovský’s photographic work is not extensive either in scope or in the range of subjects but it is of an extraordinarz importance due to its profound ideas and innovation.
Even though his works are now part of collections in such important institutions as the the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Pompidou Centre, Paris, and the IVAM, Valencia, these holdings, with the exception of larger sets of prints he made himself, which are deposited in the Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague, and the Moravian Gallery, Brno, each comprise only several photographs. One reason is that Wiškovský never exhibited much and he therefore had little reason to make exhibition-format prints. Consequently, vintage prints of his photographs are now exceptionally rare and there are far fewer of them in collections, public and private, than there are of works by František Drtikol, Josef Sudek, and Jaromír Funke. That is also one of the reasons his work – like that, for instance, of Jaroslav Rössler, another important Czech avant-garde photographer – has yet to be fully appreciated internationally.
Wiškovský was born in a respected middle-class family in Dvůr Králové nad Labem, Bohemia, on 20 September l888. His father, Alois Wiškovský, was the manager of the Dvůr Králové hospital. His mother, Eugenie Wiškovská, née Hotovcová, was the daughter of the regional council leader. Eugen had three brothers – Alois, a year his senior, Otakar, a year his junior, and Bedřich, two years his junior. All four brothers received university educations. Eugen graduated from secondary school in Dvůr Králové, and in 1906 began to study French, German, and psychology at the Czech part of Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague. He spent the winter semester of his last year, 1909–10, on a scholarship at the University of Geneva. After graduating, he spent many years teaching at various secondary schools, the longest period was at the realgymnasium in Kolín, where he taught until l937, except during the First World War, when he fought as a soldier in the ranks of the Austro-Hungarian army at the front in Italy and Russia. After being wounded a second time, he was stationed with troops behind the lines in Česká Lípa, north Bohemia. In April 1917 he married the 23-year-old Anna Streitová. In l918 their daughter Eva (d. 1997) was born, followed, a year later, by their second daughter Hana (d. 1985).
Eugen Wiškovský was an educated man of many talents and interests. He devoted himself to the reform of teaching foreign languages at the secondary-school level, was a co-author of a Czech-German dictionary, worked with the Alliance Française, was a member of the Czech Psychological Society, translated Symbolist works by Maeterlinck as well as the writings of Freud and Jung. He was also profoundly interested in belles-lettres and the fine arts, played tennis competitively, and devoted time to swimming, skating, athletics, and camping.
Wiškovský inherited his interest in photography from his father. While still a little boy, he used his father’s 13 x 18 cm camera to take various family photos. At the age of fourteen or fifteen he got a more flexible camera, for 9 x 12 cm plates, but photography gradually gave way to other hobbies. He returned to it for a while toward the end of the First World War, making portraits of his wife and first daughter. He did not really begin to treat photography seriously, however, till the end of the 1920s, when in Kolín he began to make friends with a former student – Jaromír Funke (1896–1945). At that time Funke was already a leading Czech avant-garde photographer. Many years later, in October 1962, Wiškovský, in a letter to Anna Fárová, a historian of photography, recalled his work with Funke: “Not that he explained anything theoretical to me – that wasn’t his way. He didn’t like to express himself verbally about his work. That was because of shyness stemming from a slight speech defect, and also because he didn’t want to expand on the matter when I was in the midst of experimenting. We used to go out into the field together, to the building site of a power plant, to places nearby, to the tower of the Business School – and we photographed the “New Objectivity” – stocks of concrete rings, rails, Mannesmann line pipes, and so forth. Funke soon gave that up, because he saw that it was what I was specializing in, and he was also doing it more realistically than me. His greatest help to me was that I could print the good negatives in his darkroom (in the bathroom), since I didn’t have my own at the time.” 1/ Wiškovský was also acquainted with another famous photographer from Kolín, Funke’s contemporary, Josef Sudek (l896–1976). But whereas he had much in common with Funke intellectually and socially (both were respected inhabitants of Kolín), Sudek’s intentionally accentuating his being one of the common people, particularly at first, was a certain barrier.
|Functionalist Architecture, the 1930s
|Still Life, 1929
Wiškovský himself stated that apart from contacts with Funke. He soon shared both Funke’s enthusiasm for the “New Photography,” which applied the principles of Constructivism, Functionalism, and New Objectivity, and his aversion to the survivals of Impressionist and Art Nouveau pictorialism, which imitated painting and graphic art and used oil prints, bromoil prints, carbon prints, and other pigment processes while suppressing the many features specific to photography. In his first important article on art photography, published in Foto in 1929, Wiškovský, undoubtedly under the influence of Funke’s writing on theoretical aspects of photography, clearly rejected painterly efforts, stressing instead features specific to photography. He writes: “If [photography] is to have any justification, however, its creations must achieve their aims in a way that cannot be achieved by any technique other than a photographic one.” 2/ In accord with the views of the Russian Constructivists and the German Functionalists, Wiškovský emphasizes the search for new aesthetic values in apparently unphotogenic objects of modern technical civilization. “Whether machines or buildings, furniture or clothes, they always have the quality of functional simplicity, free of all ornament. And the more they correspond by their own pure forms to certain elementary geometric forms, the more amenable they are to us.” 3/
Wiškovský wrote these words when he was at the beginning of his own serious photographic work and had only a few serious photos to his credit. None the less, even these works totally adhere to the principles of New Objectivity, a trend whose leading proponents, for instance Karl Blossfeldt, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston, had directed attention to the question of elementary forms and structures, the photographically most perfect, most effective expression of the essential features of the depicted objects, the discovery of aesthetic qualities in apparently unaesthetic objects, and, in the area of form, maximum sharpness and richness of the tone of the photographic image. In Czech photography of the 1920s, too, it already had several important proponents, particularly Funke, Sudek, Rössler, and Lauschmann, who, in the next decade, were then joined by many others, including Josef Ehm, Vladimír Hipman, Jindřich Hatlák, Jaroslava Hatláková, Marie Rossmannová, Jindřich (Heinrich) Koch, Josef Voříšek, Emil Vepřek, and Karel Kašpařík.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Wiškovský could directly follow on from Funke’s photographs of parts of cog-wheels and metal barrels as well as the general enthusiasm that a number of avant-garde artists had for modern technical civilization. In his own apparently simple, but in fact carefully thought-out, compositionally refined, photographs of line pipes, bundles of iron rods, bolts, insulators, sifters, or close-ups of turbines, light bulbs, and mortars he found artistically cogent forms. He presented ordinary, often-seen objects, which he could easily find at home or at the building-site of the Kolín power plant, in novel ways, surprising the viewer and demonstrating to the viewer that his or her eye had become tired and dim. He ingeniously used large details, which take the depicted objects out of their usual spatial contexts and often also change perspective and scale. With the move from the color original to the black-and-white photograph, with cropping and masterful work with light, he freed the main motif from superfluities and thus let the most important lines and tones stand out. He often used multiplication and the rhythmic repetition of geometric forms or whole objects, as is evident, for example, in the photos of eggs, corrugated iron, ceramic pipes, or spindles with wool. With extraordinary invention, artistic feeling, and technical precision, he thus put into practice his conviction that “the less unusual the content, the more unusual the presentation has to be.” 4/ Wiškovský’s photographs in the style of New Objectivity are rigorously rational while being full of imagination. The objectivity of the perfect depiction of details of the surrounding world is blended with the subjectivity of the photographer’s personal way of looking at things, his thinking, feeling, intellect, inner world. It differs strikingly from the reality that it depicts; in these photographs reality is artistically defamiliarized. The photos are distinctive works of art with the easily recognizable signature of the photographer. Wiškovský selected and photographed the kinds of objects with which he could express his idea.
Wiškovský’s photographs from the New Objectivity period are few
in number and often depict various views of the same object. Unlike Funke,
Wiškovský often returned to individual motifs, photographing until he was
completely satisfied with the results. According to his daughters and
Josef Ehm, Wiškovský often spent hours setting up one shot, or would even leave
home with his camera but end up not taking a single photograph.
Despite all the rationality and formal mastery he was often concerned with more than just the artistically unusual depiction of simple and often apparently unaesthetic objects and the solution to problems of the visual minimum or relations between the whole and its parts; he was also concerned with the photographic expression of objective relations as well as his own impression of them, and often, as well, the search for analogies in form and metaphorical meaning. More than once he managed to go beyond a terse optimal description of reality typical, for example, of many of the works of Renger-Patzsch, Aenne Biermann, and other leading practioners of New Objectivity, and to create photographs with a more symbolic effect, whose metaphorical quality has much in common with Edward Weston’s photographs of seashells or artichokes. The objects in some of Wiškovský’s photographs are depicted with the aim of stripping them of their identity. The analogies of form and metaphor do not, however, appear in all Wiškovský’s photographs, yet where they do appear they often play an important role. (Thus, for example, the shot of corrugated iron evokes an image of long hair worn loose or the surface of a seashell, the shot of rhythmically arranged eggs brings to mind fish scales, and a detail of sugar-refinery waste floating on dirty water can suggest a map of South-East Asia or an arabesque.) This is most striking in Lunar Landscape (which also sometimes goes by the curt title Collars) from l929, in other words from the very beginning of his serious photography. The composition with stiff shirt collars was transformed by suppressing the scale and isolating repeating details, by inventive lighting using a bulb placed among the collars, and, in a later version of the photo, the addition of the silhouette of a coin placed in the background onto the photographic paper like a picture of the Earth, into an imaginative picture of the cratered surface of the Moon.
In the early 1930s Wiškovský, apart from details of small objects, often photographed the new ESSO power plant in Kolín. This modern Functionalist piece of architecture by Jaroslav Fragner provided him with a number of motifs for unusual photographs, which were often modeled on works by Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, and Moholy-Nagy, with striking low-angles or dynamic diagonal compositions. The building was also photographed several times by Sudek as well as by the Bauhaus graduate Jindřich (Heinrich) Koch, whose shots are, however, far more static and conventionally composed. Photographs by Funke, who often accompanied his older friend on photographic excursions to the building-site of the power plant, also have much in common with Wiškovský’s Constructivist photos. Some of their diagonal shots of the power-plant smokestack are so similar that it is often difficult at first glance to determine which is by whom. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that Wiškovský tends to put more emphasis on geometrical qualities of the basic elements of the construction of the building, works more with details, and has even created the more original shot – namely, the photograph of the factory smokestack with its reflection in the surface of the river, composed in a rhomboid.
Neither for Funke nor for Wiškovský, however, was the Kolín power station the only Functionalist structure to be depicted. Wiškovský made, for instance, an exemplar photograph called Functionalist Architecture, of a new apartment building, and several photos with the motif of the swimming pool and the Barrandov Terraces restaurant. With café tables on terraces above a swimming pool, this photogenic spot on the edge of Prague was among the most popular subjects of Czech photographers in the interwar period. It has been photographed in various ways by Sudek, Růžička, Ehm, Lauschmann, Funke, Pikart, Julius Tutsch, and others. 5/ Whereas most of them, however, have depicted it with a high-angle shot of the semicircle created by the tables and umbrellas, and some, like Růžička and Lauschmann, even used a lyrical soft focus, Wiškovský stresses the contrast between the terrace and the swimming pool below it, in which he achieves a striking change of perspective and scale. No other photographer obtained from this milieu more radical shots capturing the very essence of modern architecture or even the modern age in general. Constructivist compositions also appear, however, in other photographs by Wiškovský, for example the well-known Game (1929), which captures from a high angle his two daughters sitting on a diagonally depicted staircase, in the unpublished photo taken from above of boys tossing coins, or in the unusual composition of Canoe, about which one may reasonably wonder whether its erotic metaphor does not reveal the fact that Wiškovský had translated works by Sigmund Freud.
In l937 Wiškovský and his family moved to Prague, where he taught at a secondary school in Ječná ulice and another for girls in Libeň. In Prague he continued to associate with Funke, who had been teaching photography at the State School of Graphic Art since September 1935. He also made friends with Funke’s colleague Josef Ehm (1909–1989), another important photographer of technically precise works depicting architecture and sculpture, classic landscapes, portraits, and more experimental photos based on the principles of New Objectivity and responding to Surrealism. Ehm told me the following about his friendship with Wiškovský: “There was a twenty-year age-difference between us. We used to meet mostly on Saturdays or Sundays, often with our wives. He had quite a complicated attitude to life, and used to suffer from depression, and was also being treated for it. We often went on walks together. He needed to be with someone with whom he could chat about his problems and photography. It was a really valuable friendship, and I got a lot out of it. On the other hand, I was able to repay Wiškovský a bit in that I knew much more about technique than he did. He usually printed in the postcard format, and often used to get me to print some photo for some exhibition. I also adjusted some of his negatives with reducer, even though he and Funke used to claim that the negative was inviolable.” 6/
Whereas in the small-town milieu of Kolín he mainly photographed industrial buildings, details of technical objects, and modern architecture, in Prague Wiškovský began, somewhat paradoxically, to be concerned chiefly with landscape photography. He already had some experience in this area, for example, his masterfully composed photograph of the path through a field near Police nad Metují, made as early as l933, and the diagonally depicted high-angle shot of the River Sázava with the Scout camp, made about a year after that. He later justified his interest in landscape photography in the article “Proč fotografujeme krajiny” (Why we photograph landscapes): “The land, the soil, the earth, attracts us precisely because of what is lasting in it as opposed to the fleeting and changing nature of everything else in our lives. For us, it is the greatest satisfaction and greatest consolation to find in it harmony with our inner selves. The land, like our inner selves, is similarly manifold, and has idyllic nooks for a blissful dreamer, just as a stormy sea and rocky cliffs have for the romantic misfit.” 7/ In the landscape photos, in which he emphasizes the subjective contribution of the photographer, Wiškovský was interested chiefly in elementary geometric forms, unusual surface textures, and phantasmagorical images. For his motifs he did not have to travel to foreign lands, usually finding them in the few places he had been visiting on foot for many years and was intimately familiar with. Mainly, it was in Hlubočepy, on the western edge of Prague, whose picturesque cliffs and valley (the Prokopské údolí) had attracted many other photographers as well. Wiškovský also photographed the monumental cliffs of Hlubočepy in romantic late-afternoon light, but more often depicted details of them stripped of their true dimensions, revealing natural sculptures, elementary geometric forms, and sometimes also metaphorically effective analogies of forms. He was fascinated also by the irregularity of the terrain there and the bizarre shapes of the fields, which he sculpturally accented in his photographs using light. (Some of these photos have much in common with Funke’s landscape photographs from areas around the towns of Kolín and Louny.) With great patience he photographed identical landscape motifs again and again until he was satisfied with the composition, capturing the texture and the moods created by light. Among other places Wiškovský enjoyed photographing in Prague and its environs was the area of Vidoule in the Jinonice district. There he found, for example, the motif of the field and path, which he shot from above, whose form brings to mind a fluttering banner and mast. In most cases these were landscapes that had been strikingly reshaped by people, and are evidence of the relationship between man and Nature.
Wiškovský made his most original landscape photographs around the Šalamounka farm in the Prague district of Smíchov. There, he photographed in many variants a small section of land with a hillock and house: sometimes he was fascinated by the contoured little rows of mowed grass, other times by the geometric forms of haystacks or the menacing shadow of the neighboring hill, which made a ghostly symbolic image. The zenith of Wiškovský’s landscape work is the metaphorical photo of lodged wheat with the protruding roof of a farmhouse, suggesting a ship sinking in a stormy sea. This almost Surrealist meshing of reality and imaginary vision is intensified by the title Disaster, under which the photograph was later published. (The original title was Wheat).
The late 1930s and early 1940s were the most important period of Wiškovský’s theoretical writing. 8/ This was thanks mostly to Ehm and Funke. In October 1939 Ehm became the new Editor-in-Chief of Fotografický obzor, and invited Funke to join him to work on the magazine. They gradually managed to turn this conservative monthly of the Association of Czech Amateur Photographic Societies into a modernly conceived specialist journal, increasing its print-run in a short time from 4,000 copies to almost four times that number. This was also thanks to Wiškovský, who at the time had published in Fotografický obzor not only a number of his photographs, but also four of his original theoretical essays: “Tvar a motiv” (Form and motif), “Dezorientace názorů na fotografii” (A confusion of opinions about photography) “Zobrazení, projev, sdělení” (Depiction, expression, communication), and “Oproštěním k projevu,” (Expression by way of simplification) which together with articles by Funke and Karel Teige form the basis of modern Czech photography theory. In them, as in several other articles published in 1946–48, Wiškovský first tried to deduce the principles of photographic composition from the process of perception on the basis of Gestalt psychology. He was concerned with questions about the point of photography, and sought to use his knowledge of information theory to construct a new theory of photography. Owing to their depth, originality, and precise formulation, these articles were unique in Czech photography theory, and were therefore not understood by most readers interested in photography. It would be decades before they were finally appreciated. At the same time, however, it must be said that in them and other articles by Wiškovský the same ideas are sometimes repeated, even if formulated a bit differently; for example, the idea that high-quality photography was a visual adventure guaranteed to be reality. (Nevertheless, the belief, so frequently presented by Wiškovský, that the depicted image is reality itself, has now been completely undermined by the comparatively recent advent of digital technology.)
In “Tvar a motiv” Wiškovský anticipates later attempts to apply Gestalt psychology to the area of the fine arts, as practiced, for example, by the German-born theorist of film Rudolf Arnheim in his Art and Visual Perception (1954). Despite all its originality, depth of thought, and precision of formulation, this fundamental article by Wiškovský did not meet with unanimous approval.
Ehm and Funke ran Fotografický obzor has a high-quality, daring periodical, and as late as November 1940, that is, a year and eight months after the beginning of the German occupation, faced with the Nazi opinion that avant-garde work is “degenerate art,” they managed to publish a special issue devoted to experimental photography. In early 1941, however, in view of increasing denunciatory statements from some Czech photographers, they gave up the editorship, and Wiškovský thus lost, till the end of the war, a place to publish his articles on theory. He did, however, continue to take photographs. He continued with his abstract-making details of the Hlubočepy cliffs and variations of photographs with the motifs of the Šalamounka farm, as well as taking almost Impressionistic photos of the little fields above the valley, in which the late-afternoon or early-evening light emphasizes their undulating terrain, he photographed trees with back-lighting, which separates them from their surroundings, and depicted the architecture of Prague. At the very end of the war, during the Prague Uprising, he made documentary photos of the building of barricades and their defense. These photos are the exception in his otherwise thoroughly static oeuvre. They tend, however, to be descriptive shots, largely lacking in drama, and do not compare with the far more dynamic, emotionally effective photos of the same event taken by a number of other Czech photographers. Shortly after the war Wiškovský also made several photographs of German women and Czech women who collaborated with the German regime, who were forced – often humiliatingly painted with swaztikas – to clear way barricades and debris. Apart from these photographs, the topic of war also present appears in the symbolic After an Air Raid, which shows a bent cross on a pile of rubble.
In the short period of relative freedom and democracy between the end of the Second World War and the Communist seizure of power in February 1948, Wiškovský published other articles on theory in the periodicals Fotografie, Československá fotografie, and Zpravodaj fotografů. In parallel with his theoretical writing he made other landscape photographs in Hlubočepy, static photos of Prague, and details of various natural motifs, for example, the well-known Chestnuts. In this period he also showed works in several important group exhibitions, in particular “Modern Photography in Czechoslovakia,” which was first held in Vienna in late July 1947, and later in Zurich. It was a major exhibition of works by leading Czech and Slovak photographers, for which Orbis published a catalog with 24 plates and an article by Teige providing an outline of the development of Czechoslovak photography.
Soon after the Communist regime established itself in Czechoslovakia in early 1948, the propagandistic role of photography in the style of Socialist Realism was officially asserted above all others. Consequently, there was no room on the officially sanctioned scene either for creative experiments or for profound articles on theory based on Gestalt psychology. In the years of the most rigid Stalinism of the Communist regime led by Klement Gottwald (till his death, several days after Stalin’s, in early 1953) articles appeared in photographic periodicals questioning whether landscape photographs without tractors could be anything but a bourgeois holdover. Wiškovský at the time quit teaching, publishing and exhibiting. In his photographs in the 1950s Wiškovský devoted himself primarily to work on the large series of imaginative photographs From the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, where he sought to juxtapose crumbling tombstones with the bizarre shapes of the surrounding trees and shrubs, which contrast the man-made and the natural worlds. Many of his photos of the Old Jewish Cemetery seem highly descriptive and some motifs repeat themselves. Although they demonstrate the depth of his ideas and his mastery of composition, they also indicate his decline as an artist, his dwindling ability to take the viewer on new visual adventures.
In this period Wiškovský also photographed historical architecture of Prague, flowers (which came out on several postcards), inventive abstract-making details of ficus leaves or lemons in water, and genre shots of people walking in a park or children on an outing. He also returned, however, to the old motifs of the juxtaposition of Nature and the changes man makes to it. He was at the time gravely ill, forgotten by the wider public, and on the margins of photographic life. The only substantial recollection of his personality, photographs, and writings was an article by Jiří Jeníček in the April 1957 issue of Československá fotografie, accompanied by three of Wiškovský’s photographs.
The credit for truly rediscovering Wiškovský’s work in the early 1960s is due to Anna Fárová. The first fruit of the collaboration between Fárová and Wiškovský was a set of twelve postcards with copies of his photographs and a short, but cogent article by Fárová, which came out in the “Profily” (Profiles) series of the Orbis publishing house, Prague, in July 1963. Wiškovský did not, unfortunately, live to see the small book Fárová compiled and edited as the 23rd volume in the Umělecká fotografie (Art photography) series of the SNKLU publishing house, Prague, in June 1964 in a print-run of 5,000. 9/ He died on l5 January 1964 at the age of 75 of peritonitis after a belated appendectomy. A small group of family and friends paid their last respects in the chapel of the Strašnice crematorium in Prague.
The publishing of Fárová’s little book with a good selection of
photographs and an informed, analytical-interpretational essay finally awakened
interest in the work of Wiškovský. After being ignored for years, the art and
artists of the interwar avant-garde now began to be more intensively exhibited
once again, and articles by their leading theorists and artists began to be
published as books and in periodicals. As early as 1966, John Szarkowski, the
director of the Photography Department of the Museum of Modern Art, New York,
mediated the purchase of four photographs by Wiškovský for the Museum
collections. The most important set of his works, however, were acquired for the
Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, by Fárová, the first curator of its
Photography Department. Another important set was acquired for the Moravian
Gallery in Brno by Antonín Dufek, head of its Photography Collection.
Wiškovský’s work is today no longer forgotten and it is recognized as essential
to the history of Czech photography. None the less, it still awaits its
well-deserved place in the international context.
Translation Derek Paton
Anna Fárová, Eugen Wiškovský, SNKLU: Prague 1964.
Vladimír Birgus: Eugen Wiškovský. TORST, Prague 2005. ISBN 80-7215-266-1.