Frantisek Drtikol - Dreams of shadow and light

Frantisek Drtikol

In this edition of Czechs in History we look at the life and work of Czech photographer Frantisek Drtikol, arguably one of the most important photographers of the early half of the 20th century. Born in 1883 in the mining town of Pribram, west of Prague, Drtikol would go on to study photography in Munich, where he would be heavily influenced by the Art Nouveau. Early on he divided his time among both drawing and photography, but focused primarily on the latter upon his return home; both as an art form and as a means for making a living. In the year 1910 he opened his famous photo studio in Prague, where he shot portraits of some of the most important figures of his day: Czechoslovakia's first president T.G. Masaryk, his foreign minister Edvard Benes, the composer Leos Janacek and many others whose names are legend now.

Even so, Drtikol's talent as a photographer of portraits is just one part of the reason why his work is so celebrated today. His artistic photographs were more daring: pushing the boundaries of the avant garde, first, by concentrating on more and more expressive nudes, then, eventually, eliminating the live model entirely. Drtikol embraced coming geometric ideals of the Art Deco movement, and began using cut-outs and softness of lighting or contrast to create dream-like compositions. Compositions that - at times - seemed to express different modes of being, even, different planes.

But, the human form remained central - at first - the human expression, the human face. From portraits to the first nudes returning his gaze; Drtikol wrote:

"The eye is a great, beautiful chapter. And one that you never finish reading. I find that its range of expression keeps expanding, depending on how the sharpness of my own eye improves and how my empathy for other people deepens. The glint of an eye... A model once came to me: a gaunt, plain face, a thin body, but uncommonly pretty eyes - large and sad. I would have liked to place those eyes somewhere in a void, so they could live a completely separate life, so they could live through their sad beauty."

One of the genuine pleasures in seeing a retrospective of Drtikol's work, then, is the comparison between the real and the abstract side by side: prints of live models, posing coyly for the camera, in juxtaposition with bodies in motion: fleeting, elongated shapes that one realises with a jolt are just shapes stretched across an unreal span of space - a shadow caught in a sliver of light.

Stanislav Dolezal is a foremost expert on Drtikol's work, who spent many months poring over the great photographer's negatives and prints while putting together a recent exhibition that received acclaim in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Germany, an exhibition titled Eyes Wide Open. He explains the important turning point in Drtikol's career:

"In 1930 Frantisek Drtikol stopped using live models but began creating figures that he inserted into his compositions instead. At the time he said it was the first time that he was really happy with his photographs. However, he didn't fully give up on live models: he occasionally incorporated them still. He mixed and matched real elements with stylised details."

The photographer's own writings, published in English for the first time under the title Eyes Wide Open, offer a clue into his relationship with his models. He wrote that he wanted to photograph them in their most natural state - the nude as God created them, "nakedness as beauty itself". But, already it was clear that the model was just one important element:

"I am inspired by three things: decorativeness, motion, and the stillness and expression of individual lines. I then use the background and props - simple objects such as circles, wavy lines and columns - accordingly. I let the beauty of the line itself make an impact, without embellishment, by suppressing everything that is secondary... or else I use the body as a decorative object, positioning it in various settings and lights. This is how I create all my pictures."

Ultimately, for Drtikol live models were not always malleable enough to capture his ideas, leading to frustration and delay - elements he sidestepped in the latter phase of his work when the figures he introduced became flattened, elongated and stretched, sometimes in rhythmic patterns meticulously placed throughout the frame.

Anna Farova is a well-known Czech art critic and historian deeply involved with Drtikol's work throughout much of her professional life.

"The figure is part of all of the other elements in the frame that are balanced in a way, I would say, that is most pleasing for the eye. Light, composition, contour - all fill in the frame, complementing each other. As photographer Josef Sudek said 'Drtikol was a painter who happened to photograph' and I think that is very true."

Drtikol's later period, for which he was duly recognised, also echoed his spiritual focus: the photographer had become increasingly fascinated with Buddhist literature and thought, says Stanislav Dolezal and these principles found their place in the photographer's work.

"You could say he 'breathed' life into his figures, he gave them 'life'. In the 1930s Drtikol became more and more in touch with the spiritual side of things and in his photography he tried to show the ephemeral quality of the soul. At this point he had come far along his spiritual path."

But then, in 1935, Frantisek Drtikol abruptly gave up his photographic career to return to painting: never again would he capture the world's attention as he had since the 1920s. Why did Drtikol give up photography at the height of his talent, after more than 25 years? There aren't any easy answers:

"It's difficult to know the full reason, but we know that the 1930s saw economic crisis and we know that Drtikol's studio, which had been so successful till then, began to fail. Until then it had been very fashionable for Prague residents to have their portrait taken by Drtikol. Now though, as reality set in, he had less and less time for his own work. He gave up photographing completely; however, he still held courses and lectures on photography and composition for amateurs, so he didn't completely lose touch."

Frantisek Drtikol sold his studio in 1935 and slowly drifted into obscurity. It seems difficult to believe, given the immense power of his photographic work, but he died practically forgotten in 1961. A rediscovery and renewed appreciation of his work would follow only after, largely thanks to the work of art historians like Anna Farova. Today, there is no mistaking his place in the 20th century canon: a great Czech photographer who captured the female form in motion and "in flight".