The Intimate World of Josef Sudek, Jeu de Paume, Paris, 7 June – 25 September 2016 and The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa until 19 March 2017.
Josef Sudek (1896-1976) is the most internationally recognised Czech photographer. His life spanned a period of intense artistic activity and historical upheaval in the Czech lands, and both these forces decisively informed his work. Despite a healthy association with other photographers and artists, Sudek was essentially a loner and it is the sense of apartness and patient solitary introspection that dominates his work and lends it a true sense of timelessness and poetic significance. The name Sudek stands alongside the titans of twentieth-century photography, as a member of that elite group which includes Brassai, Brandt, Doisneau, Kertesz, Atget and Steichen. Yet Sudek somehow stands alone even from these masters, his work pervaded with an indefinable fragile beauty and seductive melancholy which led to him being variously dubbed the Poet of Prague, or the Magician of Prague. Above all Sudek was an inspired manipulator of light and darkness whose painstakingly wrought images communicate both a sense of existential grief at the human condition and an irrepressible wonder at the resilience and capacity for renewal of the natural world. Sudek appeared to possess an indefatigable will to express emotion via the image, to identify above all what is sensed not seen.
‘The Intimate World of Joseph Sudek’ as the chosen title for this exhibition debuting at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, might equally have been ‘The Lost World of Josef Sudek’, such is the sense of a world, or more precisely a pre-touristic, ‘authentic’ Prague now tantalisingly out of reach. The show includes some 130 works spanning Sudek’s protracted career from 1920 to 1976 and is a window onto the very personal relationship the photographer enjoyed with his surroundings, both intimate and on a wider scale. Many of the images gathered here were taken inside Sudek’s wooden studio at 30, Ujezd Street; most assiduously composed still lifes of simple objects: a glass of beer and a hunk of bread, an egg on a plate, a flower, a blossom sprig, even the sculptural improvisation of discarded wrappings of charcuterie consumed for lunch. But in Sudek’s trademark style of subtle contrasting of shadow and light, all harbour an understated profundity, a dignity and grace, a resolve to remain human at all costs. In true Rilkean fashion, Sudek is also able to reveal the ‘thingness’ behind objects, to elicit from them some half-understood utterance of their inner life. Other images look outside, recording the ordinary little courtyard garden with its twisted pear tree spied through the misted window, as seasons change and the years and decades pass. These ‘Window’ images, Sudek’s longest running series, are famous in their own right; genius transforming ordinariness into visionary suggestion.
Other works are concerned with the landscape of Prague itself or adventures further afield, for Sudek was a habitual wanderer within and beyond the capital. Practically speaking, Sudek was obsessive in terms of the finished print and employed a variety of methods for achieving mastery over the pigmenting process. He preferred to employ a large unwieldy format camera equipped with a glass focusing screen which enabled the image to be captured within a black border, leaving it slightly blurry, or indistinct like a half-recalled passage in a dream. Sudek loved classical music above all other art forms and his judiciously curated collection sustained him through the darkest periods of his life. A connoisseur always ready to share, his Tuesday evening record gatherings became legendary, even surviving two totalitarian regimes. Here the master would lovingly choose discs from his archive for respectful guests, then perched on a wooden stepladder would contentedly drink in the melodies.
During the First World War a soldiering Sudek lost an arm when a grenade exploded close by. Determined to lead an independent life, Sudek adapted to his disability, symbolically managing to tie his own shoelaces and uncomplainedly lug cumbersome photographic equipment around the streets and gardens of the Czech capital. Sudek started out as a book binder but was soon drawn to photography and in 1920 chose to join the amateur photographers club in Prague. He then entered the school for graphic arts where his reputation was that of a maverick, a rough diamond. Sonja Bullaty, who had worked as an assistant to Sudek in the forties, described him as ‘an ordinary man of the people’, and provides the delicious anecdote of Sudek being forcibly ejected from a photographic vernissage by a policeman taking him to be a trespassing tramp.
Although Sudek was fully abreast with modernist movements in photography during the twenties and thirties, absorbing what he needed from them, he eschewed the artificial, favouring a limited theatrical space where natural shadow and light form a spectacle of their own or transform the subject. This ethos can be seen in his early photographs of rural landscapes along the Elbe and streets in largely working class districts of Prague. The first grey or sepia-tinged landscapes are supremely melancholy, devoid of human forms, a lonely poplar or willow blackly naked against the sky, flood water on tilled fields in which pearly clouds are reflected. The first city scenes show inky silhouettes of passers-by or market vendors blurred by the misty grainy atmosphere, as if caught at the very point of their imminent vanishing. In ‘Prague street’, (1924) a single female figure in silhouette and a passing tram provide the central subjects in motion framed within the immovability of a huge dark arch through whose Gothic portal the sunlight streams, elevating the scene to the spiritual realm.
From 1924 to 1928, the Cathedral of St Guy underwent major restoration. Sudek produced a series of sublime images of the interior during these works, concentrating on the strata of light streaming through the windows over the workers and their paraphernalia. Sudek artfully communicates this ‘landscape within a sacred space’, on the back of social comment in the form of the noble labourer or craftsman in his domain. One telling image shows a laden wheelbarrow atop a giant mound of earth inside the nave, the dark pile anointed by light from the vertical windows, as if the lowly wheelbarrow had become sanctified. Social comment is further reinforced in the sensitive images taken at the war invalids hospital, where Sudek intermittently sojourned between 1922-27.
Between 1927 and 1936, Sudek worked for a publishing house and was co-editor of the magazine Praha Panoramaticka. He worked on publicity for a glass maker, experimented with the use of mirrors, took advantage of the glut of geometric forms offered by industrial sites around Prague and even dabbled in cubist styles alongside his close friend the painter Emil Filla (1882-1953). The Second World War inevitably left its grave mark on Sudek, when the German occupation of Prague ushered in a period of darkness, marked by denunciations, round ups, black outs and lethally enforced nightly curfews. Filla was summarily dragged off to Buchenwald and wagonloads of Jewish victims from Theresienstadt passed in the depths of night en route for Auschwitz. In response to this horror, one of Sudek’s striking images taken through the window of his studio merely shows a block of impenetrable darkness harbouring ominous lesser shadows, relieved only by a central watery eye-like patch of ghostly white light, like the moon obscured by cloud or that trembling uncertain glow a candle flame casts on a wall.
But Sudek came through unscathed and during the fifties made an acclaimed study of Prague by night, showing an unpeopled nocturnal city, strung with glowing lamps and the mysterious dark avenues and embankments of Kampa island. He also finally got hold of a much desired panoramic camera and the result was a series of impossibly wide views of the city and surroundings. In the shot of the National Theatre facing the road bridge across the Vltava, the incredible effect of the panoramic lens causes a miraculous vertiginous sweep of contrasting cobbles and tramlines. This sense of intimate communication with landscape can be extended to the images Sudek created in the fertile domain of the Kinsky and Seminary gardens beneath Petrin Hill, but still more dramatically in the primeval forests beyond the capital, notably the series from the ancient Mionsi Forest, where he was assisted by the physician and photographer Dr Peter Helbich. Sudek saw the Mionsi Forest as an ancient ‘cathedral of the spirit’ and termed the irresistibly photogenic ruined trees he found there as ‘Vanished statues’. The violently torn stumps and mutilated firs were poised on the brink of destruction and soon to be absorbed by the bucolic meadow. Lying in wait like a patient hunter for the right balance of light and dark to ensure a romantic ghostly image, Sudek captured their eloquent last moment, as one might capture a doomed community or race.
Sudek succumbed to bladder cancer in 1976, ironically caused by exposure to chemicals used in processing. Almost every year since his death there has been an exhibition of his photographs somewhere in the world. This mild-mannered, private man, entirely lacking in pretence or ambition, proved himself a master interpreter of light and its absence. In these two coalescing spheres of presence and absence of hope and despair, his pictures consistently unearth some heroic humanistic token from the oppressively dark seam of the twentieth century. By his example, Josef Sudek encourages belief in that old ideal, the nobleness of the dedicated life, and in his art he encourages us not to look but rather to feel, to treat the image as a bridge connecting us to a deeper level of humanity.
Will Stone is a poet, essayist and literary translator. Shearsman Books have recently reissued his poetry collections in new editions and published his third The Sleepwalkers in March 2016. His translations with Arc, Menard and Hesperus include works by Verhaeren, Rodenbach, Trakl, Rilke, Nerval and Roth. Pushkin Press published his Stefan Zweig Montaigne in August 2015 and Zweig’s 1930’s essays as Messages from a Lost World in January 2016. His Selected Poems of Georges Rodenbach will be published by Arc in 2017 and an expanded collection of the poetry of Georg Trakl by Seagull Books in 2017. Will also contributes to Poetry Review, The TLS and Apollo magazine.