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Slovak Photography Is Developing a Reputation

Review: "Slovak Photography 1925-2000," Prague City Gallery, December 2002-April 2003. by Lizzy Le Quesne 8 April 2003 PERIOD PIECES

This sweeping exhibition documents developments in an art form in a Central European land and in the land itself. Aiming to demonstrate the development of photography as an independent art in Slovakia, it encompasses the major periods and styles, from early black-and-white photography of people and buildings through abstraction and experimentation to vivid color and manipulated images. It also, by default, provides a somewhat patchy and haphazard but nevertheless fascinating view of the dramatically changing aspects of the country and its people in the 20th century.

Recurring themes include Catholicism, the Roma minority, and the essential rural landscape. Co-curator Vaclav Macek says, “The show demonstrates changes in Slovak society, from the mostly rural society of the '20s to a mostly industrial society in the '90s. The viewer can also follow the tragic moments of our history--World War II, communism, 1968--and also changes in everyday life."

In part, Macek says, the exhibition works as "an emotional history of Slovak society in the 20th century."

In its initial showing at the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava and even more so now in the Czech capital, the exhibition inevitably raises the issue of a joint or separate Czech and Slovak heritage of art photography.

“The importance of the presentation [in Prague] has its roots in the close relationship between Slovak and Czech photography. Many Czech photographers taught in Slovakia and many Slovak photographers lived and worked in Prague. The exhibition tries to present the idea that the Slovak tradition lived not only in the shadow of the Czech tradition. The show presents close links but also differences between the two national cultures," Macek says.

The show's three major sections--modernism, postmodernism, and "post-photography," incorporating digital, video, installation, and interactive pieces--are further subdivided and interpreted by detailed wall texts pointing out popular themes and linking them to historical events

The show begins predictably with several images of Slovak peasant life, some impossibly romantic. One portrays three women wearing pristine starched headscarves and complex layers of exquisitely embroidered traditional dress as they stand and chat idly on a grassy bank outside a well-kept thatched cottage. The scene, in romantic imperfect focus and bathed in bright sunlight, evokes a powerful sense of an era long lost. Such cottages still dot the Czech and Slovak hillsides, though most are now either derelict, surrounded by concrete-panel apartment blocks, or fast being enlarged and rendered in fresh new plaster. Czech photographer Karel Plicka lived for many years in Slovakia and famously photographed the land. His lush and glamorous pictures from the late '20s show the beginnings of modernism in their focus on the abstract textural forms of these same subjects. Peasants in the fields are photographed from behind with folds of blowing cloth in stark light and shadow; an image of Roma in traveling wagons offers the tactile juxtaposition of rich, decorative woven fabrics in silk or wool with bare skin. The clothing and the fabrics have a Middle Eastern flavor and these pictures in general, though in black and white, are very reminiscent of slick contemporary photographs of the Arab world. This particular view of the exotic is moving further east.

A strong aspect of Slovak work of this period was social documentary, Macek says, more so than in the Czech-speaking lands, where artists such as Frantisek Drtikol and Josef Sudek were making elegant and romantic explorations into modernism. Although she left Slovakia to study at the Bauhaus (a heart of playful modernist invention), Irena Bluehova made photographs there with a powerful sociopolitical edge that combine expressive titles with sympathetic images of poverty. Her Portrait of a Cleaner at the Bauhaus (1932) is remarkable. The young woman’s face is photographed from below and thus ennobled, while her weathered skin, cracked lips, and sad eyes are predominant. In Haymaking, the peasant woman looking into the camera appears small, hunched, and deformed in a vast field. Russian immigrant Sergei Protopopov made stunningly original photographs of miners in the Slovak coalfields. Entirely naked except for a small square of cloth tied over their genitals and perhaps a hat, sometimes boots, the men toil in pairs, yoked to the same arduous task, often pictured so that they appear to be joined at the hip. Very modern in their sculptural depiction of the male body, these images also expose great labor. Pavol Poljak’s tiny Winter Under the Water Mill crackles with early darkness, deep snow piled around ramshackle country houses, and a thin, pale moon.

VALUES FOUND AND LOST

Classic modernism appears in the works of Milos Dohnany. Using dynamic angles and fabulously sharp focus and contrast, he composes still lifes of objects and materials--packs of cards, molded glass, corrugated cardboard--playfully accenting the texture and abstract form of industrially produced objects. In Waiting Room (c. 1937), he photographs an empty railway station from above. A fierce diagonal shadow slices the image from corner to corner and a lone man with hat, overcoat, and packages stands motionless in the murky center. The world spins around him. Early modern thought, acknowledging a fundamentally subjective and self-centered response to the world, is elegantly echoed.

The 1950s and '60s brought a return to "everyday poetry" (as the wall text puts it) under the restrictions of the time, with passionate portraits of children, lovers, and misty, rainy, or snowy views of Bratislava. Those by Jan Cifra are beautiful and atmospheric in their simplicity, depicting musicians battling through blizzards or looking out through a steamy cafe window at wet trams. Some, such as the glassy-eyed and golden-haired child portraits of Eduard Pavlacka, are very sentimental. Bohumil Punskailer’s 1960-1967 cycle The Settlement Under Bratislava Castle, though, documents the inner city with droll brilliance: Wild children play in the streets and a young and anxious bride totters on the cobblestones, jerking her partner’s hand to stop and interrogate him as scruffy teenagers stare impassively. From the same period, the awkwardly posed portraits of naked pre-pubescent Roma girls by Pavel Hudec-Ahasver are cheap and exploitative, perhaps presaging postmodern concerns of artifice and calculated sexuality.

Evidence of “people’s values getting lost under the forced socialization of the Slovak countryside” appears in several works. Otakar Nehea’s Respect for the Harvest (1962) is an elegant shot--half graveyard, half cornfield--touching on the idea of mass consumption of food and of lives. Martin Martincek obsessively photographed the dying traditions of rural communities. He made beautifully multi-toned landscapes of peasants' strip fields, and in his cycle The Religious Life of the Highlanders (1968) he shows priests in full dress tripping along muddy tracks to isolated houses and women kneeling deep in prayer before small shrines in the open fields. Harvest simply depicts a hilltop graveyard of wooden crosses tossed upon a sea of windswept grain, in ravishing focus and exaggerated contrast. Many photographers at this time were prevented from working professionally in the cultural freeze following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Color begins to appear at this time as well. Dusan Slivka’s soft, near abstract landscapes subtly glow in unusual hues of blue and green. Simple slabs of color and texture divide the frames, sometimes with a detail such as a path or a pile of earth. In one image, a pale luminescent turquoise sky sits above a steep bank of fine, hairlike, dry grass, the colors and textures resonating exotic and dreamlike. And color plays an important role in official photographer Pavel Melus’ shots of mass gymnastic displays, where each of the thousands of bright red- or purple-clad performers is a tiny fragment of a huge geometrical design.

The late '70s and the 1980s was an explosive period for apolitical, experimental Slovak photography, and a kind of reversal of the situation in the 1920s and '30s, Macek says. This time it was Slovak photographers who pushed closer to the forefront of international trends, brushing up against conceptualism, while Czech work was stronger in documenting social themes.

“In the prewar period in Slovak society, photography had not yet developed the status of an art form. Photography was seen more as a medium of communication," he says, contrasting the situation in the much more industrialized Czech society, where "very strong modernist movements included photography along with other art forms, exploring the possibility of expressing new sentiments regarding industrial society. … At this time in Slovakia we had made just the first steps toward building an industrial landscape." By the 1970s, "the first strong Slovak generation of graduates of the Art Academy started to influence trends in photography," he says.

In the 1980s, Daniel Fischer placed paintings of landscapes or buildings in their real setting and rephotographed them to create a strange composite world of artifice and reality. Jana Zelibska adorned reproductions of Victorian pornographic photos of women with dramatic cropping, sickly pastel colors, and tiny light bulbs set into the vagina or nipples. These and other images of twisted decadence are already developing a mystique with passing time. They have a whimsical and overdone theatricality that well expresses the end of an era.

The system's rotten final years were treated directly by some photographers. Jan Reco’s simple pictures from the cycle Mental Houses (1980-86) are heartrending, showing the daily stress, fear, and indignity many very old people in institutions faced. An intriguing cycle by Pavol Breier shows the drunken and feckless inhabitants of a tiny rural backwater. Lounging in the fields, males of various ages are equally absorbed in and defeated by obscure and seemingly pointless tasks, or else roll inebriated, together with their horses, in the snow.

GETTING DISORIENTED

Some early-'90s "post-communist" work is very reminiscent of the happenings of the 1960s, another liberating, celebratory period. Pavel Pecha’s cycle My Intuitive Theater (1990-1994), for example, shows people engaged in bizarre rituals amid expansive and windswept fields: riding a bicycle in midair, taking crucifixion-like positions, attaching themselves to precarious and complex networks of platforms and rope.

The "post-photography" work, though furiously exploring new techniques, reveals a clear return to simpler and more obviously humane content. There is a sense of artists trying to grapple with the complexities of contemporary life and of altering the viewer’s relationship with the image to acknowledge and explore the increased awareness of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity in human experience. In line with philosophical developments such as phenomenology, many of these final works reveal both the subject and the viewer as unstable. Many artists are appreciating and expressing the complex joint experience of being and seeing, of being both an object and a perceiving subject.

Dusan Zahoransky’s installation Moments From a Journey consists of a circle of images hung in the space at eye level. The photographs show busy city streets with reflections in shop windows, phone booths and cars, fast movement and moments of stillness. Each shot is printed three times in decreasing sizes, each hung independently from the ceiling in a row. The first two have a central cut-out so that there is a sense of looking into a tunnel. It is a fascinating comment on the experience of seeing, of clutter, of memory. Movement created by the viewer’s turning to view the full circle and the pictures themselves gently swaying on their strings is thrilling and disorienting. The viewer is thrust into the center of the visual experience.

Filip Vanco’s crisp black-and-white portraits of parts of human bodies are benevolent, setting new definitions for beauty. In Ivor Diosi’s Vierka, the viewer appears in the frame. Captured live by a hidden video camera, the image distorts and shifts as though seen through water.

Other contemporary photographers are returning to critical social commentary. Martin Kollar considers the continuing urbanization of the land. His Banska Bystrica (2001) shows a Roma family sitting in a circle on the pavement outside an enormous Tesco store as they grill sausages on an open fire. Martin Tiso’s Escapes are life-size portraits of men and women, who instead of eyes are equipped with toy plastic slide viewers. Looking into these, one sees pages from consumer catalogues: cheap jewelry in the eyes of the evidently poor older woman; exotic holidays in those of the man; a mountain bike or electronic toys for the boy … our modern dreams.

"Slovak Photography 1925-2000" successfully incorporates many strands in an expansive, far-reaching exhibition. Macek explains that he and co-curator Aurel Hrabusicky aimed "to present the true value of Slovak photography in the 20th century. The show documents that Slovak photography is not a false notion and that one can follow the different curves of its development."

The first comprehensive book on the history of Slovak photography was published as recently as 1989, the curators say, and even then its author, Ludovit Hlavac, could not mention emigre photographers, banned artists using photography as a medium, or critical social themes. The exhibition aims to correct this record.

Macek adds, “We can say that the show documents the freedom of Slovak photographers who are more concerned with their impressions and messages than the burden of traditions or the burden of stated boundaries or definitions of photography.”
Artist and cultural writer Lizzy Le Quesne has also written on contemporary dance for CER.
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