Illumination in the darkness
Endicott exhibit explores Czech, Slovak images
BEVERLY - Shakespeare, that supreme geographer of the imagination, never wrote with keener poetic truth - or more cartographic nonsense - than when he assigned a coastline to Bohemia in "The Winter's Tale." Bohemia, which along with Moravia and Slovakia makes up the country formerly known as Czechoslovakia, has about as much to do with the ocean as Iowa does.
Unlike Iowa, Bohemia and environs have long demonstrated a remarkable capacity to unite the mundane and magical, the forthright and inscrutable: to set sail on dry land. Surely nowhere else could have managed to bestow on Europe both pilsner and the golem. Anyone who has read Kafka or Milan Kundera has experienced something of the region's special quality of dark playfulness - or should that be playful darkness? So, too, will anyone who sees the 30 images in "20th-Century Czech and Slovak Photography." It runs at Endicott College's Center for the Visual and Performing Arts through March 31.
Czechoslovakia had extensive acquaintance with darkness. Its portion of Central Europe had long been a pendant of empire: the Austro-Hungarian in the 19th and early 20th centuries, later the Third Reich, then the Soviet Union. That history of political domination is evident in the show. Sometimes it's overt, as in Zdenek Tmej's "Wounded German Soldier," from 1945. Other times it's somewhat less so, but only somewhat.
Jan Lukas's "Before and After" juxtaposes an image of the vast crowd that attended the funeral of Czech president Eduard Benes in 1948 with another of the same site, now empty of people, after the Communist coup that year. Pavol Hudec-Ahasver's "Untitled," from 1969, reads like a farewell to the Prague Spring. That upwelling of liberalization was one of the happiest episodes of the '60s - and ended in one of the saddest: the arrival of Soviet tanks in Prague in 1968. Hudec- Ahasver's photo shows a group of young people, artists by the looks of them, casually arranged around a pair of paintings. The feeling manages to be both melancholy and amused. The unremarked-upon fact that two of the sitters just happen to be nude simply adds to the subversive effect.
Czechoslovakia's problematic political location had a more welcome consequence, making it a vibrant cultural crossroads. The Endicott show gives a good sense of the numerous foreign visual styles and influences that went into Czechoslovakia and then came back out distinctly Czech and Slovak.
In the interwar years, Prague was a hotbed of experimental photography, and one can see the effects of abstraction, Soviet Constructivism, and Germany's New Objectivity. Zdenko Feyfar's "Man in Shadow," with its angled, aerial perspective and crisp use of light and dark could have come direct from the Bauhaus. There's also the lingering impact of Art Nouveau. Prague rivaled Paris and Vienna in its embrace of the style; and the show includes one of Frantisek Drtikol's sexy-sinuous nudes, which in their toothsomely libidinal way offer a kind of missing link between Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
Above all, there was surrealism. Czech and Slovak photographers wasted no time in appropriating the style for their own. It's there early (Karel Hajek's "Ahoy!," from 1935 - and what exactly is that accordionist doing on that young woman's forehead?), and it's there late (Miro Svolik's "And Fly," from 1986).
Surrealism also had an ideological utility, allowing for an allegorizing of messages that might not otherwise have evaded censorship. Josef Fousek's surreal photomontage "Outcry," from 1976, shows a boot superimposed on an open-mouthed face. You don't need to be a Kremlinologist to figure out whose boot and whose face.
That Czech and Slovak photographers should have taken so naturally to surrealism seems all but inevitable. Prague is a fantastical city, partaking of both the modern and medieval. To walk its streets is to know that "surreal" can be as much building code (the Old Jewish Cemetery, the Tyn Church) as artistic category. For all that Paris may be the most beautiful city in Europe, Prague is the most beguiling. Anyone who doubts that should look at Karel Plicka's 1939 cityscape or Zdenek Vozenilek's "Prague Winter Scene." The latter could be a Breughel, assuming Brueghel had lived until 1958 and traded in brush for camera.
Czechoslovakia produced two great photographers: Josef Sudek and Josef Koudelka. In a strange omission, Koudelka isn't represented here. Sudek is, many times over. That is, his surpassing lyricism can be felt in so many of the photographs noted above, as well as in such others as Rudolf Janda's exquisite "Early Spring in a Siberian Spruce Virgin Forest" and Dana Cabanova's delicate portrait "Untitled."
The one photograph in the show that Sudek actually took, "Street Still Life," could hardly be simpler in its elements. On an otherwise-empty sidewalk, a large basket rests atop a baby carriage. The carriage sits alongside a tall triangular-shaped box and a crate of some kind. That's it, except for a couple of leaves by the curb. Yet the effect is wondrously complex. The balance among the elements is so right they could be inside Giorgio Morandi's studio. And the sense of implication and mystery - well, it's as if the carriage were some kind of vessel, a vessel soon to set sail from (where else?) the coast of Bohemia.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.