The eternal return. Recurrent patterns in Czech photography of the Twentieth century
If writer Franz Kafka is universally recognized as one of the major references in Czech literature – and culture in general – of the first half of the Twentieth century, the same can be said about novelist Milan Kundera relative to the period that starts with the famous Prague Spring and reaches to the present day. Despite the fact that the latter has lived in exile since 1975, there is a close connection between these two authors, and the influence played by Kafka was acknowledged by Kundera himself (i).
The individual’s anguish, anxiety and fears towards both the outer and inner world, the terror of an absurd bureaucratized universe, the sense of loneliness and inappropriateness are some of Kakfa’s characteristic themes that arose from the specific socio-political conditions of his times and left a permanent mark on the way his compatriots have been looking at existence. Together with Kundera, many postwar Czechoslovakian authors brought these considerations into their works and reinterpreted them through various artistic practices, sewing a fil rouge between the modernist and post-modernist ages that has given shape to a unique coherence in terms of concepts and expressive modes.
Referring more precisely to photography, some fundamental patterns can be distinguished and found throughout the course of the last century, especially in the works of the avant-garde artists and in the more recent photographic experimentation from the ‘90s. The significance of void and absence is one of these traits, which led to the establishment of a strong trend towards abstraction. The heredity left by Jaromír Funke – who in the ’20s was a pioneer in his attempt of representing the “essence of vision”, using elementary geometric forms as they were the basic building-blocks of the universe – is undoubtedly the starting point of many conceptual compositions of younger generations, where the structure of the material and the light processes are analyzed through a minimalistic experimental approach.
Alongside the coldness of shadows and shapes, another predominant element that runs parallel like an underground stream is the presence of human body and its intrinsic erotic power. It was an obsession and a cage for Kafka, who in The Metamorphosis (1915) turned the internal rage at his own physical weakness into alienating images of the male body, while Kundera “specialized in that brand of emotionally distanced, often farcical eroticism” (ii) that reached its highest point in The book of laughter and forgetting (1979). The body is an absolute and controversial protagonist in Czech photography since the appearance of the avant-garde movements: in the ‘20s, František Drtikol’s elegant nudes were considered extremely daring for their time, showing the naked body in its original state and natural beauty; Miroslav Tichý’s stolen portraits of women from the ‘60s placed themselves well outside of the artistic mainstream for a long time, while more recently Jan Saudek’s rich and often grotesque scenes were accused of spreading pornography.
In fact, irony is an important component of this game, as well as an inescapable characteristic of many Czech authors, accompanied by the tendency to mock stereotypes and clichés. Although often obscure and enigmatic, Czech soul is also sarcastic and playful, having developed humour in response to a cumbersome bureaucratic system that used to praise conformity and rules above individuality and free-thinking. Václav Chocola’s example is paradigmatic in this sense: a photo-reporter of some reputation of his time, he was arrested by the communist regime and spent one month in prison for his documentation of Jan Palach’s funeral in 1969, but he continued to work, producing unforgettable images. Under very different conditions but adopting a similar approach towards the weirdness of life, Slovak photographer Peter Župník – a member of the 1980s so called “New Wave” generation – unveils the poetry hidden in our world by playing with the unexpected and bizarre side of everyday situations.
Even if in the present day we are facing an increasing flattening of visual culture due to the hyper-production of images, the Czech photographic spirit tries to survive, as if it was driven by the concept of the “eternal return” described by Kundera in The unbearable lightness of being (1984), where, in an infinite universe, everything is guaranteed to recur endlessly. This perspective surely casts an almost idealistic shade on creative production and on the role of the artist, which is put in the position of assuming the responsibility of the past on his or her shoulders, and at the same time is asked to surrender to the will of fate. Following this vision, we can apply to photography what Moravian author Jan Skácel wrote in 1966 about poetry: Poets don’t invent poems / The poem is somewhere behind / It’s been there for a long long time / The poet merely discovers it.
(i) Cfr. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, Grove Press, New York, 1988
(ii) Harold Bloom, Aaron Tillman, Milan Kundera (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views), Chelsea House Publications, New York, 2003