Winter 2015
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Josef Sudek and The Life of Objects

Josef Sudek, 1964

Josef Sudek, 1964

At nineteen years old, Josef Sudek was drafted by the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War and served in the Italian Front between 1915 and 1916, until he was badly wounded by shrapnel in his right arm. The event was traumatic, not only for his severe injury, but for what he witnessed. In his words, “I lost my arm during the eleventh offensive. We were ordered forward and as we charged our own artillery started shelling us… I felt as if a rock hit me in the right shoulder. I started looking around but all the guys who had been standing were now dead.” Sudek’s wound became infected with gangrene and finally, after a long battle, his arm was amputated at the shoulder. After his surgery he was left to recover for three years at a variety of veterans hospitals in Czechoslovakia. Yet it was during this time, in disability, that Sudek began photographing intently.

Born in 1896 in the town of Kolin in the countryside of Prague—what was then called Bohemia, Sudek, the son of a house painter who died when he was a young child, was raised by his single mother and her relatives, an old childless couple who owned a bakery. When he was fifteen, he left for Prague to train as a bookbinder and there another apprentice introduced him to photography. Sudek began to photograph in the years before his drafting and took pictures during the war, however,  it wasn’t until he was hospitalized that he began to develop his talent, photographing fellow patients and invalids.

There are conflicting accounts of the years between 1920 and 1926, following Sudek’s recovery. Some weigh his friendship with another young photographer Jaromir Funke, whom he met in 1918, and his social life revolving around classical music—he was able to cultivate a large classical music collection despite the recesses of the war and hosted weekly soirees at his home—as an indication of his overall happiness and well-being, while others account for his exclusion from Prague’s Amateur Photography movement along with Funke and their establishment of the avant-garde Czech Photographic Society as a sign that he was unsettled and contentious. Certainly this period was difficult for Sudek, as he was disabled and displaced, unable to take up his trade of bookbinding and disinterested in other trades. Notably in 1921, Sudek deregistered himself from the Roman Catholic Church and in the same year received First Prize in the landscape category for work in an exhibition at the Czech Amateur Photographic Association. From 1922 to 1924, he managed to pursue photography as a student at the State School of Graphic Arts in Prague, living off of a small disability pension and intermittently supplementing his income with commissions from commercial photography jobs. In the following years, Sudek continued to photograph recovering and invalided soldiers at veterans hospitals and began photographing the cathedral of St. Vitus as it was being constructed. “That’s where it began,” Sudek said. “That’s where I experienced an epiphany.” In 1924, together with Funke and Adolf Schneeberger—also expelled from the Amateur Photography movement, the three founded the Czech Photographic Society.

Svaty Vit, 1928

Svaty Vitus, 1928

In the Fields
The incident of 1926 that could be considered a reverberation of his war trauma mirrored a shift in his work, relationships, and his investigation of his inner world. After 1926,  he would make brief trips to the countryside of Prague, but he refused to leave the city’s environs, and he never traveled again. He moved into a wooden cabin in the backyard of a tenement building, where he would continue to live and predominantly work for the next thirty years. There he produced his two famous cycles “The Window of My Atelier” and “Labyrinths,” series of photographs of the scenes on his windowsill and on his window glass—vases of wildflowers, ethereal rows of hanging laundry, twisting apple trees—and the interior of his studio cluttered with sculptural stacks of papers, other photographic relics, and artwork. The change in his work from 1920 until the year of his crisis is most visibly different in his series of the veteran’s hospital and Bohemia, in which his subjects are depicted either as ghostly silhouettes shrouded in clouds of light or shadowy figures conjoined in clusters.

From Sudek’s lucid but exiguous account of the incident of 1926, it is clear the artist suffered deeply and was perhaps attempting to reconcile his loss by reconnecting with his original trauma. When traveling through northern Italy upon the invitation of friends to attend concerts by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on tour, the photographer disappeared halfway through a concert near Milan, in a dissociative state, to return to the fields where he was wounded and search for his arm. Sudek explained the profound realizations he had in the midst his search and its permanent effect as follows:

“When the musicians of the Czech Philharmonic told me: ‘Josef come with us, we are going to Italy to play music,’ I told myself, ‘fool that you are, you were there and you did not enjoy that beautiful country when you served as a soldier for the Emperor’s Army.’ And so went with them on this unusual excursion. In Milan, we had a lot of applause and acclaim and we travelled down the Italian boot untill we came to that place—I had to disappear in the middle of the concert; in the dark I got lost, but I had to search. Far outside the city toward dawn, in the fields bathed by the morning dew, finally I found the place. But my arm wasn’t there—only the poor peasant farmhouse was still standing in its place. They had bought me into it that day when I was shot in the right arm. They could never put it together again, and for years I was going from hospital to hospital, and had to give up my bookbinding trade. The Philharmonic people apparently even made the police look for me but I somehow could not get myself to return from this country. I turned up in Prague some two months later. They didn’t reproach me, but from that time on, I never went anywhere, anymore and I never will. What would I be looking for when I didn’t find what I wanted to find?”

The Life of Objects
Back in Prague, perhaps not healed, perhaps more introverted but still more audacious, Sudek began to more fully express himself personally and distinctively through his work. He completed his emblematic series of St. Vitus in 1928, which proved his power to control and portray light apart from his subject matter, almost as if it were a substance in of itself. This he achieved by inventive techniques, for example, waiting patiently, sometimes hours, for the light in the cathedral to reach the angle he wanted, then rushing about waving a cloth to raise dust to give weight to the light. Similarly, he referred to photography as meteorology to describe the significance of the atmosphere, and how a photographer must predict the right conditions for photographing and enlarging prints. His work became sharper with richer tones, and his compositions became more illusive. The foregrounds and backgrounds of his photographs, particularly in his “Window” series began to oscillate. These achievements were perhaps made more attainable by his focus on inanimate objects over which he had more control than living things. Most of his cityscapes became deserted, as he directed his camera at statues or replaced what would have been a living subject with such emulative sculptures.

Shell and Eyeball Arrangement, 1956

Shell and Eyeball Arrangement, 1956

In effect, Sudek’s substitution of the inanimate for the animate brought the objects he photographed to life in his mind. He called the enormous decaying trees in the woods of Bohemia “sleeping giants” and would take portraits of masks and statuary heads, transforming them into frozen, worn grotesqueries. His personification of objects is even more vivid in his studio photography, particularly after 1939, the oncoming of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Prague. As the city was oppressed by German troops, the artist retreated into his studio and insulated himself sentimentally with still lifes. To an interviewer, he explained, “I love the life of objects. When the children go to bed, the objects come to life. I like to tell stories about the life of inanimate objects.” He devoted endless hours to arranging and photographing the everyday—apples, eggs, bread, and shells—and special objects given to him by friends, such as feathers, spectacles, and watches, which he called “remembrances” of that person. A photograph from his series “Remembrances of Architect Rothmayer, Mr. Magician,” for example, portrays objects respectfully placed in a row on a desk, as if artifacts from an archeological site, from which the history of a life or character of a man could be divined.

“Everything around us, dead or alive, in the eyes of a crazy photographer mysteriously takes on many variations,” Sudek said, “so that a seemingly dead object comes to life through light or by its surroundings.” This statement is perhaps telling of Sudek’s relationship to death and life, as a result of the loss of his arm and the manner in which he suffered the loss. In the 1963 film, “Zit Svuj Zivot” (Living Your Life), a documentary portrait of Sudek by Evald Strom, we see a sensitive man describing his efforts to photograph the reality of the objects around him, not as if he were bringing the objects to life, but as if it was his purpose to represent the lives of objects as they truly are. Of the image of a vase of wildflowers, he says “This is a photograph of wildflowers, my attempt to photograph wildflowers,” and of an old lamp, “This is a celebrated lamp; it holds a lot of memories.” He also points out the absence of objects from the yard belonging to the residents of the surrounding tenement buildings that had been moved.

Glass Labyrinths, 1969

Glass Labyrinths, 1969

It has been said that photography was a means of redemption for Sudek, and his series of St. Vitus has often been used as the metaphor for his transformation, from ill-reconciled to reconciled over the loss of his arm: as the cathedral was resurrected so was Sudek. However, evidence of Sudek’s mystical relationship to life and death runs deeply through his work, throughout his entire career post his 1926 disappearance. Parallel to his futile search in the fields of northern Italy for his missing arm, much of Sudek’s efforts to photograph his perceived reality of objects meant bringing the past to the present, such as in his atelier series, and revealing absences, such as in his 1950s and 60s still lifes and night-scapes. In Sudek’s night photographs, light emanating from street lamps and in and out of windows appears as hovering orbs. In his panoramas of Prague, the city is a jewel of endless passageways mingling with the River Vltava, and in the forests, the sky hangs between trees like torn pieces of light. The lightest tones of his photographs are blank or empty relative to the subtle gradations of the very low; however this light, engulfed in dark, also has form, like an apparition.

So much has been said about Sudek’s personification of objects, but so little about what the photographer, known as the “Poet of Prague”, chose to omit. Whether consciously or not, Sudek presented the symbiosis of life and death in his photographs, as mysteriously and illusively as it is found in nature and found in man.

—Ashley Booth Klein


  All quotations from Sudek by Sonja Bullaty, published by Clarkson Potter, New York, 1980.