A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
arts photography books
Happy years of a prosperous and democratic Czechoslovakia, founded in 1918, lasted, however, only two decades and were followed by a Nazi occupation in 1939 and by a Communist putsch nine years later. A totalitarian Communist regime brought Czechoslovakia into a cultural isolation.
The country managed to get rid of it only a little and only for a short time during the period of a political liberalization in the 60ies, when, in the international context, representatives of a new wave of a Czechoslovak cinematography shined up - Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová and Jiří Menzel or playwrights Milan Kundera, Josef Škvorecký and Václav Havel.
But Soviet tanks ended bloodily a relative freedom of the Prague spring in
August 1968 and introduced two decades of the so-called normalization, when,
under the rule of one party, there were so many obligations and so little was
The scene of photography in Prague has changed radically after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989. On one side, the system of support for amateur photographers´ movement, subsidized by the state, practically disappeared and the number of various amateur photographers clubs and circles markedly decreased. On the place of the oldest photographic gallery in Europe there is, nowadays, the Hugo Boss shop. A non-commercial photographic quarterly Revue Fotografie (Photography Review) ceased to be published, prices of photography books and photographic material have increased many times. On the other hand, the actual photography life, in the Czech metropolis, is richer and more animated than ever before. Any kind of ideological censorship has come to an end and possibilities of international contacts have opened broadly. New photographic galleries came into being, specialized studies of photography are being provided by three schools and several high schools in Prague, it is possible to buy, in large bookshops, books on photography and magazines from the whole world, auctions of photographs are being held regularly. The most important is, however, that photography has left its closed ghetto and, like in many other countries, it belongs to dominant features of the contemporary fine arts. Photography exhibitions appear regularly also in the most important art museums and exhibition halls, the photography found finally its way to permanent exhibitions of the Czech art, a lot is being written about photography in art magazines, collectors and even public collections are willing to pay all the time higher and higher amounts for high quality photographs.
This boom does not appear, however, everywhere. There is a very belittling relationship towards photography till now in the National Gallery in Prague. Milan Knížák, its controversial director, who used to be, once upon a time, a non-conform artist and today is a self-oriented autocrat not allowing different points of view, refuses to establish a specialized collection of photographs in this most important Czech artistic gallery. Prague has, today, in a giant functionalist Fair Palace, one of the most extensive exhibition areas for modern and contemporary art in Europe, with an excellent collection of Picasso´s cubistic paintings, works of van Gogh, Rousseau, Klimt and Léger and a very big exposition of the development of the Czech art of 19th and 20th centuries, but the absolute majority of photographs by Drtikol, Rössler, Funke or Sudek being exposed there are technically miserable reproductions and not their originals because they are not owned by the National Gallery and the Gallery does not exercise a least effort to obtain them at auctions or by purchases directly from photographers or their heirs. Although this fact is being considered by professional people as a shame, something unimaginable in other top museums of modern art, the actual management of the National Gallery did not do anything to change this situation even if photographic works are already being collected by various other Czech galleries and museums (for example the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, the Gallery of the Capital City of Prague, the Moravian Gallery in Brno, The Museum of Arts in Olomouc, The East-Bohemian Gallery in Pardubice, The Silesian Land Museum in Opava, the Museum of Art and Design in Benešov etc.). Into a new permanent exposition in the Kinský Palace at the Old Town Square, dedicated to a landscape in the Czech art, the National Gallery incorporated once more photographs in unified reproductions, which neither by their format, nor colour scheme correspond to their originals. Mr. Knížák includes exhibitions of photographs into the exhibition programme of the National Gallery only very seldom and without any apparent conception. As really important expositions, adequate to the importance of this institution, can only be considered retrospectives of Annie Leibovitz, Antonín Kratochvíl and Josef Koudelka. They were, however, realized without Mr. Knížák´s support. He even said that such „reportage and genre photographs“ did not belong to the National Gallery at all. These words of him aroused a lot of negative reactions in daily press and in specialized magazines as well.
Mr. Knížák justifies the non-existence of a collection of photographs in the National Gallery by the fact that a big collection of photographs is owned by the Museum of Decorative Arts. Indeed, it is the most important collection of the Czech photography in the world, among whose approximately 65 thousand pictures there are more than 23 thousand photographs by Josef Sudek, more than 5 thousand works of František Drtikol (he dedicated these photographs to the Museum already during the Second World War) and thousands of period originals of further important Czech photographers (there are, however, also some rare foreign works, for example an album of rayograms „Les champs délicieux“ by Man Ray. Although the Museum has been collecting the photographs already since the beginning of the 20th century, the first specialized photography curator was Anna Fárová only in 1970. She started to buy intensively for almost symbolic prices mainly works of avant-garde photographers and organized several important exhibitions, for example, a retrospective of Drtikol and Sudek and a show „Personalities of the Czech Photography“. Today, the function of the manager of the photography collection is exercised by Jan Mlčoch. The Museum organizes exhibitions both in its own exhibition hall of the historical building, not far from the Old Jewish Cemetery, (Josef Koudelka, František Drtikol, Jaroslav Rössler), and participates in expositions in several Czech and foreign galleries. On the occasion of the last year´ s 120th anniversary of its foundation, the Museum became, last year, the main organizer of a giant exhibition „The Czech Photography of the 20th Century“ which presented, in three exhibition areas in Prague, more than 1 200 works by 423 photographers. (A narrower version of this exposition will be presented, in 2008, in the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn). A small show of development of the Czech photography makes part of a permanent Museum´s exposition „Stories of Materials“. The Museum of Decorative Arts runs also, in two rooms of a former flat of Josef Sudek, in the Úvoz street, not far from the Prague Castle, a chamber photograph gallery for which Jan Mlčoch is preparing small expositions of works by Sudek or medallions of authors represented in the Museum´s collection. The main problem of the Museum of Decorative Arts is not only a lack of financial means for a more pronounced extension of the photographs´ collection (it receives, today, most new exhibits as a gift), but also literally a catastrophic lack of space for storing collections, for the curator´ s work and his/her assistant and for researchers. Jan Mlčoch proposed, therefore, to build a new building for the Museum´s collection of photographs, but the realization of this plan is, for the time being, very uncertain.
In Prague, there are further public collections of photographs as well, but they cannot, however, compete, by their importance, with funds of the Museum of Decorative Arts. They are mostly oriented historically (the National Museum, the National Technical Museum, the Museum of the Capital City of Prague, the Náprstek Museum), only a smaller collection of the City Gallery Prague is oriented towards a contemporary creation of plastic artists working with photography. Of a more universal character is the Collection of the Union of the Czech Photographers which is, nowadays, stored in the National Archives. Among its roughly ten thousand pictures, dominate works of leading amateur photographers since the 20ies of the last century till present days, but we find there also several period originals of classic authors of the Czech photography. A specific place is occupied by a collection of photographs of the PPF Property Company. The collection came into being from the initiative of the richest Czech entrepreneur, a dollar billionaire, Petr Kellner, who is the main owner of this company (apart from many other companies including the Czech Insurance Company). Mr. Kellner started to collect photographs of Josef Sudek and, later on, institutionalized his collecting interest in one of his firms. If somebody wanted to compare the quality and range of this collection with, for example, famous corporate collections of the Gillman Paper Company or the Hallmark or with a collection of the singer and composer Elton John, he/she would probably be disappointed because with the exception of Josef Sudek, Drahomír Josef Růžička and Jan Svoboda, the most important Czech photographers including Drtikol, Funke or Rössler are represented by second-class works and later enlargements or they miss in this collection completely. Collecting photographs is, till now, not very common in the Czech Republic although the number of people buying photographs as a hobby or for speculative reasons keeps increasing. If at auctions in Prague´s Auction Hall Dorotheum, Griesen or Václav Prošek appear recently, from time to time, photographs of Sudek, they happen to be, in many cases, sold for higher prices than is the case in New York, London or Munich and their buyers stem less and less often from abroad.There is a minimum of galleries in Prague where it is possible to buy photographs with a guarantee. Until recently, the Czech Centre of Photography belonged to them, whose owner Jiří Jaskmanický was admitted to the Association of International Photography Art Dealers AIPAD and participates in Photography Fairs in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But the Czech Centre of Photography did not have a lot of success in Prague, it had to change address several times into always less and less attractive premises and, in the end, disappeared as a gallery with regularly organized exhibitions. After the fusion with a German company, it continues, nowadays, only as the Griesen Auction Agency. Even the Leica Gallery Prague, which as the only Czech gallery was participating in the Paris Photo Fair, dedicated itself to the selling of photographs as its secondary activity. The Gallery was opened, in the end of May 2002, in areas of a part under construction of the Supreme Burgrave House of the Prague Castle. At this place, already from the beginning of the 90ies, the Administration of the Prague Castle was introducing important photography exhibitions, such as for example retrospectives of Inge Morath, William Klein, Antonín Kratochvíl and Erich Lessing or thematic expositions „Bitter Years – Europe 1938-47 Seen by Czech Photographers“ or „Certainty and Searching in the Czech Photography of the 90ies“. The Leica Gallery Prague came into existence mainly thanks to an initiative of a Czech-born Jana Bömerová, who, after her return from a seventeen-year-long emigration in Germany, opened, in Prague, together with her German husband, the Amadeus Prague Company representing products of the Leica Kamera AG. After successful experience with organizing exhibitions in the headquarters of the Amadeus and a demanding preparation of a big Salgado´s exhibition „Exodus“ in the Mánes Exhibition Hall, she managed to rent, from the Administration of the Prague Castle, extraordinarily attractive and vast, yet rather dilapidated premises directly in the area of the seat of the Czech kings and presidents which she rapidly reconstructed and started to introduce there expositions of leading world photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, Anton Corbijn, Edward Steichen or René Burri and she wanted to complete, every year, these authors by one Czech exposition. She has scored the biggest success with a perfectly prepared retrospective of Helmut Newton, which attracted approximately 80 thousand visitors and, unlike some other exhibitions, was also financially successful. But the administration of the new Czech president Václav Klaus has not, after mere two years, extended to the Leica Gallery Prague its lease contract for the Supreme Burgrave House and disregarding protests by the public obliged it to leave the Prague Castle. Attempts to find adequate substitution areas came to grief and that is why Jana Bömerová decided, last spring, to introduce a selection of Salgado´s cycle „Workers“ in a really unusual environment – in three adapted wagons. During half a year, she presented there, at many Czech and Slovak railways-stations, the Salgado´s humanistic snapshots to 47 thousand people. She was hence encouraged to further rent these wagons in which she wants now to exhibit photographs of Antonín Kratochvíl, a Czecho-American member of the Agency VII. Unfortunately, this original form of the LGP´s exhibitions, as the gallery is called now, does not bring a lot to Prague as such and it does not allow either to offer for purchase a rich selection of books and photographs for which the Leica Gallery Prague was famous.
Selling of photographs had an important place also in the activities of the
Prague House of Photography. The idea to create this centre of photography arose
shortly before the Velvet Revolution in the spring 1989 when a group of
photographers round Pavel Baňka, Jaroslav Beneš, Josef Moucha and Ivan
Pinkava decided to invite further colleagues into a so-called „Get-Together of
Free Photography“ whose aim was to build a new photographic gallery, publish
catalogues and portfolios, incite sales of photographs and provide different
forms of photography courses. Soon, they managed to find areas in a historical
house in the Husova street, in the very heart of the Old Town, in which on June
5, 1991, the gallery Prague House of Photography was opened. It was a non-profit
gallery run by a group of four dozens leading photographers and photography
theoreticians. The exhibition programme was being put together by elected
five-member managing board, the operation itself was directed, in the beginning,
by the director Suzanne Pastor, an American living in Prague, she had experience
in this branch from her work in the Rudolf Kicken Gallery in Cologne. The
expositions of world-known photographers alternated, in the gallery, (André
Kertész, August Sander, René Burri, Michal Rovner, Michael Kenna) with
exhibitions of classic authors of the Czech photography to which Czecho-English
catalogues were being edited (František Drtikol, Jaromír Funke, Eugen Wiškovský,
František Vobecký, Tibor Honty, Václav Zykmund and others) and with
expositions of contemporary Czech photographers. An important place belonged
also to a yearly show called New Names which helped to discover a lot of
nowadays already famous young authors. The Prague House of Photography was also
publishing portfolios of limited editions of new enlargements made from
negatives of Drtikol, Funke, Rössler and Wiškovský. It participated in
organizing Summer Schools of Photography for interested people stemming from
abroad and it was selling photographs of its members and other photographers. In
the year 1998, the Prague House of Photography had to leave its original
premises in the pedestrian zone and after having changed address two times, it
settled down in rather more distant premises in the Haštalská street. But
these were flooded during the catastrophic deluge in August 2002 and could not
be used for exhibition purposes during several years. A new active director Eva
Marlene Hodek found a temporary substitution premises at the Wenceslas Square
No. 31 where the PHP works till now. Principally, she managed, after long
discussions with the Ministry of Culture and the Prague Town-Council, to obtain
enormous areas in the Revoluční street nr. 5, where a demanding
reconstruction is coming to an end. After the opening of the new Prague House of
Photography with a new statute, planned for 2007, there will be more than 1000
m˛ exhibition surfaces on two stories, a library with a reading-room, a
bookstore, dark rooms and classrooms for organizing photographic workshops,
there will be archives and offices. Among the first authors to exhibit there
will be Carl De Keyzer, Michael Kenna and Martin Parr.
The only serious competitor of the Prague House of Photography, in the
capital city of the Czech Republic, will stay the Langhans Gallery Prague. It
exists from 2002 in a house in the Vodičkova street where as early as in
the 19th century there used to exist a big photo atelier run by a leading
portrayist Jan Langhans. In 1991, the house was, in the framework of the
restitutions, given back to his great-granddaughter Zuzana Meisnerová-Wismerová,
a Czech documentary films and television programmes director living alternately
in Zurich and in Prague.
Further Prague´s galleries are substantially more modest. For presentations of works of young authors penetrating only with difficulties into prestigious exhibition halls, the Velryba Gallery is of major importance, having its headquarters in impressively adapted underground premises of a popular café with the same name in the Opatovická street nr. 24, in the downtown of Prague. The Gallery in today´s conception has been existing since the year 1998 when its owner, Pavel Micka, agreed with officials from the FAMU Department of Photography to alternate there, in monthly intervals, exhibitions of the FAMU and other photographic and graphic and plastic arts schools. Young photographers receive sometimes opportunity to exhibit in the Studio of Josef Sudek as well. The most famous Czech photographer received, in the year 1927, an older wooden photo atelier on the courtyard of one of apartment houses in the Lesser Town. Till his death, in the year 1976, he was creating there publicity snapshots, clarion clean still-lives with glasses, shells or eggs. Even magic photographs from the cycle „Window of My Atelier“ in which he was capturing through dewy or frozen window a ground apple tree and other trees and bushes on a sad and grey courtyard. A fire, that broke out in the studio nine years after the photographer´ s death, blundered away plans to found there a Sudek´s museum. The already mentioned rich PPF company built, in the end, a replica of the studio where small expositions have been taking place since September 2000. But not, however, those of Sudek´s vintage prints, but rather of new enlargements of his works, of works of contemporaries of Růžička, Rössler and other authors as well as contemporary Czech photographers of young and middle-age generations.
The Sudek´s name is carried by the Chamber Photography Gallery of the House of Photography of Josef Sudek in the Meiselova street, seated in one ground floor room in a house where Franz Kafka was born. The Gallery is being run by the Foundation of the Czech Press Photo under the leadership of Daniela Mrázková, ancient editor-in-chief of the Revue Fotografie and the Fotografie Magazín. The interior of this exhibition hall reminds, nowadays, more an overcrowded shop of photographic books, magazines, posters and authors´ photographs, too than an elegant gallery. The level of the exhibition programme oscillates strongly, besides banal macrophotographs of insect, there appear excellent works of Graciela Iturbide or high quality photographs of grant winners of the Mayor of Prague, attributed annually to one Czech photographer depicting different aspects of life in the Czech metropolis. Recently, good exhibitions of documentary photographs appear, all the time more frequently, in a gallery situated in the St. John Nepomuk chapel of the Franciscan Monastery at the Jungmann square. Martin Wágner, its lessor, presents there oft snapshots showing uneasy life in countries of the former Soviet Union. Even in the very ambulatory of the Franciscan Monastery, there take place very often major expositions of photographs. We end the total enumeration of photography galleries in Prague by the Fotogalerie Pasáž (the Passage Photo Gallery), being run completely without any conception, its owner Elen Michajlovová adapts herself mostly to average customers´ taste and exhibits and offers oft pseudo art nudes. Recently opened Gallery Caspari Centrum and Gallery of Václav and Tomáš Jírů have not managed to prove their conceptual intentions yet, they present mainly works of their owners.
In Prague, photographic exhibitions continue, more frequently, not to take place in specialized galleries, but in more universally oriented exhibition halls and museums. A completely principal place among them belongs to a giant Galerie Rudolfinum (Rudolfinum Gallery) in a beautiful neo-Renaissance building on the Vltava River embankment. Petr Nedoma, the Gallery´s director, has been running it, since the beginning of the 1990s, as an exhibition hall of a type of the Kunsthalle of the top European level, where excellently installed principal exhibitions appear. In its programme, an extraordinary place belongs to exhibitions of the most important world and Czech authors as well. Thanks to the Rudolfinum Gallery, the inhabitants of Prague could acquaint themselves with originals of works by Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Jürgen Klauke, Bettina Rheims and Serge Bramly or Annelis Štrba or Rineke Dijkstra, they, they could see a breakthrough show of a contemporary Chinese photography, prepared specially for Prague, an exposition of mystical works of František Drtikol, a big show of the Czech photography from the period 1850-1950 „Story of a Modern Medium“ and also impressively installed exhibitions of photographs of authors of middle-age generation of Ivan Pinkava or Václav Jirásek. The Rudolfinum Gallery does not have, in Prague, any other gallery that could be equal to it as far as the introduction of vast accompanying programmes for large public is concerned. The only institution to compete with it, in terms of quality of major photographic expositions, is the City Gallery Prague. The latter mentioned Gallery presented, on its premises, for example, the exhibition of the Czech avant-garde photography from the period 1918-1948 „Modern Beauty“ which was presented in Barcelona, Paris, Lausanne and Munich as well, shows of German and Slovak photography of the 20th century, collection of photographs of baroness Lambert „Revenge of Veronica“, a retrospective of Serrano, selection of photographic collection of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, an exposition of contemporary American photography, and, together with the Museum of Decorative Arts, the already also mentioned giant exposition „The Czech Photography of the 20th Century“. Czech visitors of museums and galleries have, in this way, much more opportunities to get to really know top photographic works than basic works of contemporary painting or sculpture. A role is being played here not only by a viewers´ popularity of photographic exhibitions, understandable to a large public, but also by a fact that to organize an exhibition of an important world photographer continues to cost only a fraction of costs necessary for the exhibition of Picasso´s or Bacon´s paintings or Botero´s sculptures.
Far less satisfaction arouses the contemporary situation in the Czech photography press. After the disappearance of a legendary quarterly Revue Fotografie (Photography Review) that thanks to a Russian-language version was also a principal source of information on photography works in the whole Soviet Union as well, there was, in the Czech Republic, no similar photography magazine oriented towards high quality photographs and not to tests of object-lens or competitions for beginning amateur photographers. Only thanks to generous subsidies of Miroslav Lekeš, a benefactor of art, an exclusive magazine Fotograf (Photographer) started to be published, four years ago, in Czech and English versions, edited by Pavel Baňka. Each thematically oriented number (till now, six of them were published) brings a number of medallions, printed in high quality, of Czech and foreign photographers, theoretical articles, critiques of exhibitions and books and information on the most important festivals of photography. From a number of technically oriented magazines stands out the DIGI Foto whose editorial staff strives to include into each number articles on the most important events of the world of photography and interviews with important photographers, curators and theoreticians. The traditional monthly Fotografie Magazín, under the leadership of its new editor-in-chief Richard Guryča, also seems to strive to publish displays of high quality works of classic authors and young representatives of the Czech photography as well. Further further photographic magazines such as Photolife, Foto Video and Art Photography, oriented towards amateur photography, to nudities indulging vulgar tastes, travel snapshots and pictures of animals. Much more high quality information on photographic events can be obtained from graphic and plastic art magazines Ateliér and Art & Antiques.
The quantity and quality of books on photography from the Czech Republic arouses admiration and envy in many much bigger countries as well. Two small publishers have, however, the principal merit in this field: KANT of Karel Kerlický and Torst of Viktor Stoilov. Whereas the KANT is oriented, today, towards perfectly printed monographs, books on history and present time of photography and big catalogues, which it publishes in co-production also for such prestigious publishing houses such as The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press or Arnoldsche, the Torst Publishers concentrate mainly on small monographs of Czech photographers which by their conception and format follow up with a famous Prague edition Umělecká fotografie (Artistic Photography), appearing since the year 1958. For the publicity of the Czech photography it is of tremendous importance that all their books appear with English texts as well and are also distributed abroad (for example, by the New York company D.A.P.). In Prague, till now, there does not exist a specialized bookstore with photography literature, but a good choice of Czech and also foreign publications on photography is provided, for example, by the Palace of Books on the Wenceslas Square or the bookstore in the House at the Stone Bell at the Old Town Square. Times when it was possible to buy cheaply rare books of Sudek or Funke in Prague´s second-hand bookshops or at auctions are gone for ever and prices of many publications do not differ remarkably from those in Paris or New York. The best opportunities to acquire photography publications sold out a long time ago are provided by auctions organized by the Antikvariát Václav Prošek (the Václav Prošek Second-Hand Bookshop) or Antikvární veletrhy (Antiquarian Fairs) organized every autumn.
Another object of envy of photographers from Eastern and Central Europe is a big quantity of Czech schools where photography is taught. The oldest one, although, nowadays, not the biggest any more (the biggest school with 170 students from the Czech Republic and from a number of other countries is the Institute of Creative Photography of the Silesian University in Opava), is the already mentioned Department of Still Photography of the Film and Television Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) in Prague, to which, in the 1990s, directly in the Czech metropolis, a competitor grew up in the form of a newly established Atelier of Photography at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design and recently at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague as well. Apart from superior schools, there is, in Prague, a number of state and private high schools where photography is taught. The Graphic High School, founded already in 1921, has, among these schools, the longest tradition.
So, this is the actual photography scene in Prague. From the range and the level of a photography setting in New York, Paris or London, it is and surely will be far. But it is certainly the most lively in its whole history till present times.
read also :
mail David Norden phone +32 3 227.35.40