Josef Sudek, The World at My Window – Pierre Dessureault

[Spring-Summer 2017]

Josef Sudek, Prague la nuit / Prague at Night, v. / c. 1950–1959, épreuve argentique / silver print, 12 × 17 cm

Josef Sudek, Prague la nuit / Prague at Night, v. / c. 1950–1959, épreuve argentique / silver print, 12 × 17 cm

by Pierre Dessureault

In the early 1920s, when Josef Sudek was becoming established as a photographer, Prague had emerged as a point of convergence for avant-garde movements from France, Germany, and Russia. After the dismantlement of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the Great War, members of these movements were interested in rethinking art – both how it was practised and its relationship with life. Pictorialism, New Objectivity, and research done by the Bauhaus inspired the dominant figures of Czech photography of the time. To illustrate this, the version of the exhibition presented in Ottawa1 includes a section called “Sudek’s Circle,” featuring Adolf Schneeberger’s pictorialist portraits, as well as compositions and photograms by Jaromir Funke and by Jaroslav Rössler, one of the towering figures of the Czech avant-garde. Although Sudek always kept his distance from “schools,” in his early practice he borrowed certain strategies from two major movements that made a unique impression on interwar photography.

In the pictorialist-inspired work that Sudek produced in the 1920s, he was interested in the surface of things modulated by all types of light. He systematically used blurriness in his landscapes and his views of Prague, the island of Kolín, and the veterans’ hospice, dissolving forms into an ethereal atmosphere or into depths of darkness. Although his images of the restoration of the Saint-Guy cathedral (1924–28) also give light a starring role, the treatment is completely different. In both the general views and the detail pictures, the light is materialized in long streaks; it invades the space, cuts it up into planes, hollows out perspectives to establish vanishing lines, and gives a model for depicting the monumentality of Gothic architecture with all the precision of which the medium is capable.

In Sudek’s commercial work, produced in studio from 1927 to 1936, he implemented the principles of New Objectivity. In his search for innovation, he may have taken to heart the words of his contemporary, Albert Renger-Patzsch: “Let us therefore leave art to artists and endeavor to create, with the means peculiar to photography and without borrowing from art, photographs which will last because of their photographic qualities.”2

1 The Intimate World of Josef Sudek was produced by the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in collaboration with Jeu de Paume for presentation in Paris (where the exhibition was titled Josef Sudek: The World at My Window) from June 7 to September 25, 2016, and at the NGC in Ottawa from October 28, 2016, to March 19, 2017. The exhibition was designed by Ann Thomas, Vladimir Birgus, and Ian Jeffrey. An imposing catalogue was produced by 5 Continents Éditions of Milan in collaboration with the NGC. It should also be noted that most of the works in the exhibition were from the NGC’s collections.
2 Albert Renger-Patzsh, “Goals” [1927], quoted in Wieland Schmied, Neue Sachlichkeit and German Realism of the Twenties, exh. cat. (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978), 86.

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