Czech photography of the 20th century summarized in three exhibitions

Miroslav Hak, Mask, 1938

The Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague together with the City Gallery has prepared a major photography exhibition. The show reviews the development of Czech photography through the 20th century.You can see more than 1,200 photographs including pictures by the best known Czech photographers beginning with the Art Nouveau Frantisek Drtikol, the avant-garde Jaroslav Rosler or Jaromir Funke, continuing with Josef Sudek's famous still-lifes and ending with contemporary artists such as Josef Koudelka or Tono Stano.

To some extent the exhibition builds on a recent show in the Rudolfinum Gallery which covered the very beginnings of Czech photography in the 1840s and mapped its development until the mid of the 20th century. But this exhibition takes a rather different angle says the director of the Museum of Decorative Arts Helena Koenigsmarkova:

"This exhibition was more focused on the technique - photography as the new medium. On the other hand, in our exhibition we show the styles - photography following styles of different periods of the 20th century."

In order to distinguish the different photography styles and periods, the organizers decided to divide the exhibition into three parts. Each of them is representing different era and each is placed in a different museum building. The first part opened in the Museum of Decorative Arts earlier this week.

"The exhibition which starts here is from the beginning of the 20th century and goes on till the 1930's, before the second World War. The other part is dedicated to the years after the war - the period of Communism, Socialist Realism etc. as well as new waves in photography. The final part at the Prague City Gallery includes the last years of Czech photography - including the new approach to the technique and combination of arts and photography etc."

As we heave heard the first part features trends from the beginning of the 20th century such as Impressionism, Art Nouveau but also documentary photography of the 1910s and 1920's as well as the avant-garde movement.

The exhibition curator Vladimir Birgus gave me a little tour through the exhibition.

"The first pictures here are from so called pictorialism. It was a movement starting in 1890s, it was flourishing until the First World War and the most famous representative of this movement was Frantisek Drtikol. He studied in Munich and he was under influence of Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) from Germany. But later he returned to Prague and opened his own studio. He was internationally renowned mainly for his nudes. He made a lot of nudes in the beginning of the century; he published them in Czech magazines and exhibitions. But at the beginning of our exhibition we can also see some of his landscapes."

Avant-garde photography developed mainly in the 1920's and 1930's. We stopped in front of photo-collages that were made by well know avant-garde group called Devetsil.

"They are so called picture-poems. It is a special Czech collage made by Devetsil members. It was an idea of Karel Teige - the leader of Czech avant-garde - who wanted poetry to be more visual and visual art to be more poetic. He himself made several collages, we can see two of them here. They used, for instance, fragments of photographs, letters, maps etc. They liked themes like new technology, exotic countries and so on."

Works from between the wars, representing the avant-garde, surrealism and other movements of the time are widely featured in the second part of the exhibition at the gallery in the House at the Stone Bell on the Old Town Square. Czech photographers from this period had the advantage that their country did not suffer the restrictions on freedom of expression seen in Germany after the Nazis came to power. In this section, you can also find a number of photographs by German photographers who immigrated to Czechoslovakia at that time. But apart from art photography there are also less known documentary pictures which also deserve attention.

"For instance during the war a Czech photographer Zdenek Tmej spent two years in Germany. Young Czech men were then forced to work in Germany but he was the only one who took a camera with him and made excellent photographs of lonely people who lived very far from their families, from their lovers. They were forced to work all the day. He published a book about it in 1945. Even in the world photography it is something exceptional that somebody took photographs at the work camps in Germany."

Even though Czech art thrived under the freedom and democracy of the 1930s, later it also suffered the crippling restrictions of totalitarian regimes.

"We had a break in the development of photography from 1948. When the Communists took power, only Socialist Realism was proclaimed as a leading style of photography. Of course, even at that time - which was even more difficult for artists than the Second World War - some photographers continued in their work - for example Josef Sudek, Tibor Honty and others. So in our exhibition we are showing Social Realism in one part, and on the other hand - from the same period - we are showing works by Sudek."

This is already the third part of the exhibition. It will be shown at the Prague City Gallery in the City Library and as well as photography from the communist era it includes a section dedicated to contemporary photography. According to Vladimir Birgus photography here often overlaps with other sorts of visual art.

"Of course, we involved a lot of contemporary photographers but also artists who use photography. Many painters and sculptors not only in the Czech Republic but anywhere in Europe or in America now like photography and use it as a medium in their works. So in the end of our exhibition you can see works by Veronika Bromova, Dopitova, Kintera and many other famous middle generation and young generation Czech artists."

Whereas the first part of the exhibition in the Museum of Decorative Arts was already opened earlier this week, the other two sections - at the Stone Bell House and at the City Gallery will start next week. All three exhibitions will then continue to September or even October. But even if you don't happen to be in Prague this summer, a Czech-English catalogue surveying the development of Czech photography is going to be published soon.