THE NUDE IN CZECH PHOTOGRAPHY 1918-1938
Vladimír Birgus Translation Vera Orac, edited by Janine Mileaf and Matthew S. Witkovsky.
The creation of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 accelerated the development of Czech art, whose avant-garde quickly became among the most progressive in Europe. Prague, which until recently had existed in the shadow of Vienna, became one of the main centers of cubism and surrealism after Paris. Czech functionalist architecture and typography boasted international success; Czech avant-garde theatre was on a high level, and excellent work was also produced in the fields of Czech literature and photography. Jaroslav Rössler, Jaromír Funke, Eugen Wiškovský, Jindřich Štyrský, Miroslav Hák, Václav Zykmund and other leading artists not only individually responded to inspiration from the German, French or Soviet avant-gardes, but also created original works that were among the most radical forms of abstraction, constructivism, New Objectivity, and surrealism. Moreover, avant-garde photography was able to develop over a substantially longer period of time in Czechoslovakia than in Germany or the Soviet Union where, after the ascent of Hitler and Stalin, all avant-garde work was soon denounced as degenerate art or bourgeois formalism. In addition to the avant-garde, Czechoslovak photography between the wars also followed various traditionalist directions, which appeared primarily in amateur work and the work of certain professional photographers or studios. This is particularly true of the photographic nude. The young democratic republic was no longer as prudish as Austria-Hungary had been during the reign of Emperor Franz Josef I. With this loosening of social mores, nudes appeared more and more frequently, not only in exhibitions and magazines of the avant-garde, but also in exhibitions sponsored by amateur photography clubs and professional photographers. Photographic nudes also appeared sporadically in the pages of Fotografický obzor, Rozhledy fotografa amatéra, Fotografie, and, from 1931 on, in the precisely printed annuals Československá fotografie. In 1926, Sekerník's manual The Photographic Nude (Fotografický akt ) was published as part of the Practical Library of the Czech Amateur Photographer) by the B. Kočí publishing house. That same year, Amateur Photographers' Review published the album Twenty Nudes by Alois Zych (Dvacet aktů od Aloise Zycha) , probably the first independent publication of nudes by a Czech photographer. Six years later, Vladimír Žikeš published, in a limited edition of 20 copies, the album Apotheoses (Apotheosy) with twelve original photographs of modern nudes by Jindřich Vanik and text by Antonín Matějč ek, a well-known art historian and professor at Charles University in Prague. While Zych's and Vaněk's publications display classically conceived, chaste depictions of the female body that are stylistically still indebted to Impressionist and Art Nouveau pictorialism, Jindřich Štyrský's collage novels are among the most adventurous works of avant-garde erotic literature of the time, even when judged on an international scale. His 1933 bibliophile publication, Emilie comes to me in a dream (Emilie přichází ke mně ve snu) - with collages that inventively exploit fragments of older pornographic photographs - is among the most adventurous works of avant-garde erotic literature of the time" perhaps has an analogue only in the photographs of Hans Bellmer. It is no wonder that this publication was not generally available, nor was it supposed to get into the hands of minors. After all, it was in this same year that movie theatres showed the legendary Czech film Ecstasy (Extase) by Gustav Machatý, which evoked mass outrage and even more mass enthusiasm because of a short, soft-focus scene with the naked Hedy Kieslerová, later the Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr. Štyrský's daring publication symptomatically documented avant-garde artists' inflated interest in erotica and sex, which we find in such diverse media as the erotic drawings of Štyrský and Toyen, Burian's 1935 and 1936 productions of Mácha's poem May (Máj), which contained eroticized film projections by Jiří Lehovec and Čeněk Zahradníč ek, texts by Bohuslav Brouk, collages by Karel Teige, photographs by František Vobecký and the entire magazine Erotic Review (Erotická revue). Little wonder-surrealism played an increasingly important role in Czech art of the 1930s, and the opinions of Sigmund Freud, born in Příbor, Moravia, were especially popular. Of course, even though the atmosphere in Czechoslovakia was more liberal than it was in many other countries, creative freedom was not without its limits. Let us cite at least one example: in 1938, when the Prague publisher Eduard Beaufort published a thin book of Drtikol's nudes Woman in Light (Žena ve světle), some photographs were labeled as problematic, and the book had difficulties with distribution. But by then, the end of the first Czechoslovak Republic and the end of democracy and freedom were already approaching. Among Czech photographs of the 1920s, František Drtikol had no rivals for the scope and quality of his work with the nude. After several less than successful years following World War I, when he went through a creative crisis and apart from commissioned portraits made primarily with archaic costume scenes and biblical or historical motives, came his peak period, which lasted until the beginning of the 1930s. Drtikol gradually abandoned oil prints, bromoil prints and other Pictorialist creative processesother than pigment. Instead of painted backgrounds, he used wooden sets with various rectangles, circles, disks, waves or poles for his studio nudes. With increasing frequency, Drtikol employed simple cast shadows as backgrounds for his models (in this he was surprisingly similar not only to his former student and assistant Jaroslav Rössler, but also to the main figure of the Czech photographic avant-garde, Jaromír Funke) and placed more emphasis on dynamic poses. Although he approached the style of avant-garde artists in many of his photographs, he never abandoned symbolic meanings and spiritual content. One of the photographs from the beginning of the new era of Drtikol's work is a seated male nude in a background formed by poles and circles (1923). Here, Drtikol had already abandoned the Art Nouveau approach, but had not given up allusion to symbolic meanings, which we also find in a series of male nudes entitled Worker, and in most of his female nudes. In some photographs he arranged his models in expressive poses, influenced by modern dance and theater; in others, he emphasized symbols of cast shadows or transcendent circles and cones of light. Similar circles of light also appear in later paintings and drawings, which were strongly influenced by Buddhism and esoteric mysticism. He often returned to the motif of a wave, which was for him not only an aesthetically effective shape, but also a symbol of life with its peaks and falls. Today the variations on a reclining female nudes in the setting of a wavy line from 1925, which harmonically connects a live body to an inanimate context, is among the most popular of Drtikol's photographs. The most productive period of Drtikol's photographic career came between 1927 and 1929. That was when he made his dynamic nudes with striding models, models lying or standing on diagonally leaning platforms or models holding onto hanging ropes. In these slightly out-offocus photographs, Drtikol highlighted minimalist details of the basic lines of the body; he staged dramatic confrontations between the mysterious, curved silhouettes of the models and the sharp geometric shapes of the settings. While Drtikol had previously photographed dreamy fairies and femmes fatales as literary figures, he now often celebrated the ancient ideal of physical health and inspired beauty through photographs of dancers and gymnasts, while maintaining his interest in pictorial symbol and spiritual content. He had masterful
control of work with light and could modulate its effects beautifully, just as he knew how to make effective use of emotion and metaphors of cast shadows. In looking for the best poses, Drtikol sometimes used film of moving models, and sometimes made many variations of the same photograph. Many models, whose beauty has survived decades of changing tastes, are captured in the staggering naturalness of their nakedness; sometimes sexually inviting poses or indications of lesbian relationships appear in the photographs. Some of the photographs were rather daring, which caused Drtikol's nudes to be excluded from certain exhibitions, especially in the United States and Great Britain. Nonetheless, in the second half of the 1920s, he stood at the peak of his photographic career and had an international reputation; he received prizes at photographic salons throughout the world and published in dozens of magazines. His solo exhibitions were successful in a number of American cities, and in 1929, his narrative album Drtikol's Nudes was published in Paris. At that time, his interest in transcendentalism and mysticism grew; he studied Buddhism and yoga, meditated, wrote down his visions and dreams, translated Buddhist literature and gradually gathered around himself a circle of spiritual students. At the beginning of the 1930s, Drtikol stopped working with the nude, and began to make complicated symbolic compositions with small figures carved out of plywood. In 1935, he closed his photography studio so that he could devote himself to meditation, painting, and a search for the right path in life. Drtikol's photographic nudes began to be published more widely again after his death and gradually achieved a worldwide reputation. Today it is clear that Drtikol was the most important photographer of nudes in the Czech lands. Other Czech photographers of the nude, who gradually moved from pictorialism to modernist photography, but stopped short of the avantgarde, have not been as fortunate as Drtikol with regard to posthumous critical acclaim. In the past 15 years, many books about Drtikol have been published and his works have appeared in numerous exhibitions. Meanwhile, most of Drtikol's compatriots are still waiting to be rediscovered. Josef Kroutvor, curator of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, and Monika Faber, a photography historian in Vienna, have succeeded in drawing the attention of international audiences to the unjustly forgotten works of Anton Josef Trčka, Vladimír Jindřich Bufka and Karel Novák through a travelling exhibition and catalogue Modern Photography in Prague 1900-1925 Of these artists, the only one to receive much attention elsewhere is Trč ka, who has been featured in solo exhibitions and a monograph. Today, he is considered an important figure in Czech and Austrian photography. Alois Zych and Jindřich Vaněk, representatives of a more traditionally conceived photographic nude between the wars, are still waiting to be rediscovered. In many of Zych's discreet nudes of seated or reclining womenoften covered by ingeniously placed draperies, we find evidence of his inspiration in classical painting from Ingres to Mánes, as well as connections to the Pictorialist works of Robert Demachy and Heinrich Kühn. Zych enjoyed great success at international photography salons with these academic nudes, which were generally lit with one strong and one weak light. By 1926, however, when his photogravure album Twenty Nudes was published, the younger generation of photographers considered his work archaic. In the nudes by Vaněk, which recently aroused well-deserved interest in a small-scale exhibition at the Josef Sudek Gallery, we find a distinct development from pictorialism to an idealizing, yet frequently challenging, style of glamour, later made popular in the Czech lands by Karel Ludwig. In his remarkable text for the bibliophile edition of Apotheoses, a 1930s album of twelve of Vaněk's nudes, the renowned art historian Antonín Matějč ek still found it necessary to defend the existence of the photographic nude. The nude was not among the most frequent motifs at photography exhibitions or in photography magazines at this time; nevertheless, many other photographers continued to pursue the subject. Among them was Jaroslav Fabinger, a long time official of the Czech Club of Amateur Photographers in Prague and a colleague of Jindřich Štýrský (he made many enlargements of Štýrský's photographs and provided some of the photographs for his book covers). Fabinger made simply but effectively composed and inventively lighted nudes. From the mid-1930s, Fabinger used the Sabattier effect, or solarization, in some nudes to emphasize the elementary lines of the body. In 1936, he even wrote an instructional article for Photographic Horizon about this technique, which, according to Jaromír Funke, Fabinger developed independently of Man Ray. Drtikol, who organized a number of courses in nude photography and portraiture in his well-equipped studio, had a great influence on the spread of the genre among amateur photographers. Students in these courses used not only the same sets and models as Drtikol himself, but also often similar compositions and lighting. For this reason, nudes by Boháček or Benáková-Fantlová, for example, are better described as imitation than as truly original work. One exception is Josef Větrovský, who sometimes used Drtikol's sets with similar poses or cast shadows , but in other nudes was able to show a far greater degree of individuality. This is also true of his gently melancholic photographs of models with closed eyes, as well as the more dynamic and expressive photographs of male models. In many countries the years after World War I were a period when the cult of the healthy body grew and interest in movement, modern dance and sport increased sharply. Czechoslovakia had no mass nudist movement like that in neighbouring Germany, and so photographs of naked bodies in nature, widely available in German photography in the works of Magnus Weidemann, Gerhard Riebicke, Kurt Reichert, Herbert Lehmitz, Ingeborg Boysen and dozens of anonymous amateur photographers, and often featured in the American magazine Physical Culture or the British journal Health and Strength, appeared only sporadically. Karel Hermann even wrote in the magazine Fotografie in 1935: "As the pattern of a studio kills a portrait, a nude cannot be captured outdoors. Of all the outdoor nudes produced in the world, barely two or three are acceptable." Today it would be difficult to find out whether Hermann was familiar with the outstanding outdoor nudes by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Rudolf Koppitz, Lászlo Moholy-Nagy and other photographers, or whether he really considered them unacceptable; however, it is certain that the outdoor nude also appeared in Czech photography. As early as 1915 several nudes of a woman and child in the forest or a meadow were made by the proponent of purist pictorialism, Drahomír Josef Růžička, who then lived in the USA. Between the wars, Jan Blažek made not particularly imaginative nudes in nature, the photoreporter Karel Hájek photographed a number of variations of dancers with scarves and veils in a meadow and Julius Andres often photographed naked women dancing in nature. Hájek's and Andres's photographs were apparently a response to the popular connection of dance with nature, typical of Isadora Duncan and the Dalczroze dance school, though they mostly retained a sticky-sweetness and kitschy effect. Even photographs of nude and semi-nude bodies of athletes, so popular in the USA and in totalitarian regimes such as Hitler's Germany (for example, Leni Riefenstahl's emotionally affecting and compositionally inventive photographs of athletes, which fit perfect into Goebbels's propaganda about the health, strength, will and determination of the German nation), Mussolini's Italy or Stalin's Soviet Union (how many photographs by Rodchenko, Petrusov, Zelma and other photographers were made during one physical education celebration in Moscow's Red Square in 1936!), were not particularly widespread in Czechoslovakia between the wars, and were seen mainly in photographs from the Sokol athletic organization's gatherings and various athletic appearances. Even more sporadic were studio photographs of nude or seminude well-trained bodies engaged in shot putting, discus throwing, tug of war, weight lifting, exercise with a pole and other pretended sports activities which we find in works by František Drtikol, Josef Osička, Josef Větrovský, the Ströminger studio, students in the State Graphic Arts School, Jindřich Hatlák (it is interesting that his model for a nude body builder was the well-known photographer Přemysl Koblic) or the unjustly forgotten Rudolf Schneider-Rohan. It is interesting that in the absolute majority of cases these were nudes of male athletes, in which the photographers emphasized their strong, muscular bodies, particularly through careful lighting. While a considerable number of male nudes from other countries, whose authors included famous photographers such as George Hoyningen-Huene, Horst P. Horst, George Platt Lynes, Herbert List and Cecil Beaton, had a clear homo-erotic focus, among male nudes from the 20s to 40s by Czech photographers, this is
distinct only in the works of Rudolf Schneider-Rohan, which, however, were made during his time in Paris. A unique place in the context of the Czech male nude of the time belongs to a set of several classically composed photographs from 1922, in which Drtikol's assistant, Getruda Fischerová, depicted a nude male model standing and sitting in front of a black background. The model was her colleague and later husband, Jaroslav Rössler, himself one of the top artists in Czech avant-garde photography. Of course, despite all their innocence and delicacy, the photographs were not made public until after the author's death. We can see in them the influence of Drtikol, among whose works we find a number of nudes of men or youths, in which the author often accented allegorical meanings, in the spirit of symbolism and pictorialism. The value Drtikol placed on these photographs is seen in the fact that an enlargement of one young male nude was a permanent decoration in his Prague studio. Drtikol also often photographed himself without clothes - from the photographs just before World War I, when, like the American photographer Fred Holland Day or the Czech painter Josef Váchal he posed himself as the crucified Christ, to the shots from the 30s, when he photographed himself as a yogi. These individual photographs not only document the changes in his body, but also the development of his religious and philosophical views. Although male nudes were published only sporadically in the period between the wars, surprisingly many were made - especially in comparison with the following decades, when they virtually never appeared in exhibitions or books and magazines. At first the nude had a quite secondary role in Czech avant-garde photographs and photomontages. It was practically never seen in the picture poems by the members of Devětsil, and appeared only exceptionally in works influenced by constructivism, functionalism and the New Objectivity - of course, if we leave aside František Drtikol, who didn't consider himself an avant-garde artist, but in many of his modern nudes from the second half of the 20s reacted idiosyncratically to various avant-garde impulses. A certain exception is found in two 1927 nudes by Jaromír Funke. The first uses a typically constructivist dynamic composition of diagonally crossed arms with distinctive skin structure, the face of the model looking into the camera, and a detail of her breast; the second has a daring cut-out of breast and arm, abstracting the depicted reality into effective elementary lines. Constructivist diagonal composition principles were also used in Funke's little-known photograph from 1930, in which the dynamic depiction of the seated model is emphasized by the tilted frame in the background, as in a series of expressive nudes from 1938, which make inventive use of gentle deformation of shapes behind panes of glass. Surrealism, with its openness to erotica and sexuality, brought many exaggerated erotic motifs to Czech art in the 1930s. Among the boldest works using photography at this time, matched internationally perhaps only by the work of Hans Bellmer, are a series of collages by the painter, photographer and writer Jindřich Štyrský to illustrate his 1933 limited edition book, Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream (Emilie přichází ke mně ve snu). Štyrský showed intense interest in erotic art, sporadically publishing the periodical Erotic Revue (Erotická revue) and from 1931, the book series Edition 69 (Edice 69), which always appeared in a sexually allusive 69 copies. For Emilie, Štyrský made a set of color collages in which he juxtaposed cut-out fragments of pornographic photographs, primarily German and English, with other motifs -- a skeleton and a coffin, multiplied popping-out eyes, or a crawling soldier in a gas mask -- and set them against incongruous backgrounds such as a starry sky, an underwater world or the ruins of an empty house. The result is a series of shocking, grotesque and innovative scenes. Many objects, such as a detail of a plant by the famous German photographer Karl Blossfeldt, a light bulb or a photograph of lips, acquired erotic symbolism here by association. All twelve of Štyrský's collages for Emilie (the 59 copies of the standard edition included reproductions of only ten collages measuring 9 x 12 cm) are now abroad, mostly in New York's Ubu Gallery. Fearing problems with American customs officials, the gallery is reluctant to lend them, not only to recent exhibitions Czech Surrealism and Czech Avant-Garde Photography 19181948, but even to the controversial 1995 exhibition "Feminine-Masculine" held in the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1995. This is unfortunate, because Štyrský's works would undoubtedly have been among the most daring and imaginative exhibits from the interwar period. Erotic motifs also play an important role in the extensive set of over 370 collages by Karel Teige, made from 1935 practically until the artist's death 16 years later, and with minor exceptions were not published during the lifetime of Teige, the main theoretician of the Czech avant-garde. Many of them contain fragments of the female body - unlike Štyrský's collages never pornographic details - on a background of diverse landscape and architectural scenery, together creating a new imaginary world full of visual metaphors, erotic symbols and feverish visions, but also personal experiences, dreams and feelings made visual. Teige used details of photographs by artists such as Man Ray, Lászlo Moholy-Nagy, André Kertész, Raul Hausmann, Florence Henri, Alexander Rodchenko, Karl Blossfeldt, Jaromír Funke, Miroslav Hák, Karl Ludwig and others, which, however, he integrated into a new context. He recognized the limits of his own creative talent, and the technique of photomontage suited him perfectly. Nude photographs in Teige's collages are only beginning material, which he cut up, fragmented, and then re-composed into shocking scrums in unexpected connections, loosely reminiscent of his automatic texts. Many collages contain details of breasts and legs, sometimes also torsos without arms and legs, eyes, mouths, or heads joined with prostheses. Not all of Teige's collages are first-lass works, sometimes they are merely visual anecdotes or half-baked exploitation of erotic symbols, but a number of them can be classified among the leading examples of erotic Surrealist collages, whose creators included Pierre Boucher, Raul Ubac, Paul Éluard, Maurice Tabard, Georges Hugnet, Max Servais and Nicolas de Lekuona. Photographs of assamblages from 1935-37 by the professional tailor and amateur painter and photographer, František Vobecký, are in some aspects close to Teige's Surrealist collages, although generally they are more lyrical and the semantic ties between individual components in them are usually clearer. Vobecký's works also very often include cut out fragments of nude female bodies. He placed them first on backgrounds of photographs of water, sky or various structures, and later on backgrounds of various engravings. Details of the nude photographs are complemented with small three-dimensional objects, as well as photographs of other objects - of course, the photographer often intentionally leave it uncertain whether there is an actual object or only a photograph of one. Vobecký's works generally appear as dream visions, symbolizing erotic longing, nostalgic memories and celebrations of women. They are not as daring as Štyrský's erotic collages, and their range of motifs is not as rich as Teige's, but despite that they have justly acquired an international reputation. Until recently the wider public was not familiar with the nudes of Václav Zykmund, a co-founder of the group Ra, bringing together a younger generation of artists influenced by Surrealism. After the lyrical photomontages from the mid-30s, in which he connected photos of nude female torsos with shots of a tree or paving, Zykmund created (probably in 1937) a set of delicate and chaste female nudes, in which he captured the elementary lines of breasts, back, arms or legs, in surprising details and angles, suppressing the tonal scale to a series of delicate shades of grey. In one photo he depicted the delicate touch of two hands, in another he juxtaposed (evidently influenced by the works of Man Raye) a breast with a mask. His own nude self-portraits with a pillow are from the same period; they are part of Zykmund's individualistic works, anticipating not only later happenings or body art, but also some features of the wave of staged photography from the 1980s.
While nudes in the 20s, apart from photos in the fading pictorialist style, were dominated primarily by pure photographs, rejecting special techniques and alteration of negatives or prints, under the influence of the New Objectivity and the view of Alfred Stieglitz, in the 30s and 40s experimental nudes began to appear more often, using the Sabattier effect, negative enlargements, or a combination of photograph and photogram. We find them in, for example, work by members of the Brno Fotoskupina pěti (Photogroup Five), Josef Jiří Kamenický and Bohumil Němec, the Olomouc avant-garde photographer Otakar Lenhart, the member of the České Budějovice group Linie (Line) Oldřich Nouza, but also the successful advertising photographer Bohumil Šťastný and other artists. Through the use of special techniques and unusual picture composition, they tried to accent imaginative, not traditional aesthetic values. In these works the Czech photographic nude was considerably distant from the previous period's predominant lyrical enchantment with the beauty of the female body. The end of democratic Czechoslovakia and the beginning of the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939 was, of course, a fundamental turning point for Czech culture and art. Despite all the persecution of many artists, rejection of avant-garde work by the Nazi regime and its Czech followers as degenerate art, strict censorship and sharp restriction of opportunities to publish, paradoxically World War II was not as fatal a reversal in Czech art as the ascent of Communist totalitarianism in 1948. This also applies to nude photography. During the war, archaic pictorialist photos, nudes in the spirit of the departing styles of New Objectivity and functionalism, experimental photographs using special techniques, idealized glamour nudes, Surrealist photographs and photomontages and distinctly stylized nudes with imaginative application of sharply delineated lights and shadows - and, of course, expressly erotic photos - grew up in parallel. Not all had the same opportunity to be published, but with personal courage it was sometimes possible to publish even expressly avant-garde works. Josef Ehm and Jaromír Funke, who then edited Fotografický obzor (Photographic Horizon) and succeeded in at least temporarily changing this conservative monthly into a modern expert magazine, published an issue in 1940 devoted to avant-garde photography, which included Ehm's magnificent photo Imaginární prostor (Imaginary Space), one of the best Czech nudes of the time. This was one of the first works in Ehm's countless high quality nudes from the 40s, in which the photographer, following Man Ray's example, inventively used the Sabattier effect to emphasize the distinctive curved lines of the female body. Karl Ludwig made many nudes before the war and during the three years after it; we find in his work effective glamour magazine photographs, depicting sunbathing models on the roofs of Malá Strana in Prague, young women and men in the spraying water of a river weir, or idealized nudes of dancer, as well as beautifully light-modeled sculpture-like details of female bodies, anticipating the dominant style of Czech nude photographs in the 1960s. In that period, Skupina 42 (Group 42) member Miroslav Hák also made markedly stylized nudes with sharp contrasts of light and shadow; he also used sandwich montages (in 1942 Karel Teige included one such nude in an album of ten original enlargements of works by five Czech photographers Modern Czech Photography or, like André Kertész, used distortions in a crooked mirror. During the short period of renewed democracy after the liberation of Czechoslovakia in May 1945 most of these currents in Czech nude photography continued to develop; opportunities to publish increased considerably and Karel Ludwig and Miroslav Hák finally had their first - and for a long time last - monographs. All the trends in Czech nude photography were stopped or considerably slowed down in 1948 after the ascent of Communist totalitarianism, when the cultural ideologues of the time proclaimed the nude to be bourgeois residue, and its exhibition or publication became impossible for many years. But that is another chapter.
THE NUDE IN CZECH PHOTOGRAPHY 1918-1938 Vladimír Birgus