January 7, 2015

Josef Sudek. Untitled, c. 1940-1954; gelatin silver print. Courtesy of Jerry D. and Mary K. Gardner.

Josef Sudek. Untitled, c. 1940-1954; gelatin silver print. Courtesy of Jerry D. and Mary K. Gardner.

Nazi Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakian territory in 1938 ushered in five decades of nearly uninterrupted occupation and oppression for the central European country. Collective Restraint: Four Decades of Czech Photography at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego features dozens of photographs from just prior to this period through the stormy 1960s. The works on display bear little immediate witness to this unstable period in the region’s history; Czech photographers from the time were often required to avoid overtly political subjects in their art, but the testimony of this history lies just beneath the surface.

The photographs in the exhibition are beautiful, often eerie, and sometimes abstract. None seem to point directly to Nazi occupation and Soviet invasion. A turn toward abstract works and formal experimentation, however, represented a means of navigating censors. In this way, abstraction and the seeming lack of subject matter in many works are themselves a documentation of the political history of the time.

Photographer Josef Sudek reacted to the Nazi occupation by withdrawing from public life to the domestic sphere during World War II. One untitled photograph (dated 1940­–1954) presents a clothesline hung between two bare, wintry trees; it sags from the weight of several white garments. The photograph was taken behind a window, safely indoors, and condensation on the glass obscures the view. This pretty yet melancholic image is an indirect reference to the horrors of war and totalitarianism, which directly informed the work.

Formally distinct but produced under similar political conditions, an untitled 1944 photograph by Miloš Koreček was created by heating a glass negative to create small and large bubbles; it looks as if drops of ink were deposited on a glass plate. Though motionless, the bubbles seem to have just momentarily ceased swimming around the plate like living cells. One could look for a historical analogy in the bubbles and the molten look, but it is the necessity of the artist to work in this manner that tells the story of Nazi restrictions on his practice.

Czech artists were in a similar situation when they found themselves under Communist rule. While the Nazis shunned photography, Communists looked askance toward art forms or subjects considered bourgeois. The traditional use of nude figures in art was suspect, and so nudes were treated with an experimental approach that might render them more acceptable. Several works in the exhibition document this attempt to continue working with nude figures under these trying conditions. An untitled Josef Ehm photograph (c. 1950s) depicts a nude woman sitting on a wooden chair, her arms wrapped around the back and her face buried in her arms. The chair is an organic shape, somewhat resembling Koreček’s bubbles, and the model’s right breast is framed by a large hole carved into the wood. The image chronicles a negotiation between the woman and the chair’s form, both obscuring and revealing the model’s body.

Collective Restraint also includes several works from Czech Surrealists. These works seem to exhibit a similar level of restraint, especially when compared to more flamboyant works from France and points west. Emila Medková, a central Czech photographer and surrealist, is known for a series of photographs of walls that oscillate between the abstraction of Koreček and the subtle documentation of Sudek. One work from 1959 is a close-up of a wall, rough and dark like asphalt. White scratches erupt from the left of the frame, trailing off as a few stretch across the photograph and mar the right side. In these images Medková captures minute and everyday absurdities, like the indecipherable scrawling on buildings.

Tibor Honty’s The Gathering (c. 1960s) is another example of this subdued photographic surrealism. Rather than finding absurdity in reality, like Medková, Honty creates an imaginary scenario by arranging the busts of three sculptures as to suggest a conversation between the inanimate objects. The weathered and disembodied busts make for a dreary image, but the silliness of the situation ultimately prevails. These works represent Honty and Medková’s efforts to work without completely folding to political constraints. They are contemplative and nuanced, illustrating the carefulness and attention that was required to work as freely as possible. The photographs are a testament to the resilience of the artists in the face of sobering political challenges.

Collective Restraint covers a large period of Czech history and nearly two dozen artists working in varying styles, yet the central concerns of artists working in these times emerge. The gorgeous photography can be enjoyed on purely technical and aesthetic terms, but the history of the conditions under which they were created adds an important layer to full appreciation of the artists’ work.