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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue
Art Books

Czech and Slovak Photo Publications 1918–1989

Czech and Slovak Photo Publications 1918–1989
Manfred Heiting
(Steidl Publishing, 2018)

The first page of Steidl's survey announces 2018 as the 100-year anniversary of Czechoslovakia's founding (October 28, 1918) and 50-year anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Prague (August 20, 1968). These fissures guide our reading of Steidl’s 509-page compilation. Eight essays, written in Czech and in English, outline the entanglement between political compulsions and images published in a nation consistently redefining itself throughout the twentieth century.

For editor Manfred Heiting, Czechoslovakia’s story is one of “invasions, a series of leaders with divergent views about freedom, a land split into pieces, and constant striving after a natural identity.” Although instability hindered preservation, especially for publications that ran counter to ideology at each juncture, Heiting documents over 800 publications. Books of particular historical or cultural significance are given more space. Photographer Zdeněk Tmej’s Abeceda duševního prázdna (Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness) (1946), for example, documents prisoners at Breslau, a Nazi work camp where Tmej was taken in 1942. He smuggled two cameras in and fashioned a darkroom within his confines—his chronicle of wilting men is elegant, human, an unpredictable juxtaposition of formal beauty bruised by historical narrative.

Each publication survived decades of forceful censorship in part due to its content—the privately-published edition Emílie přichází ke mně ve snu (Emilie comes to me in a dream) (1933) by Jindřich Štyrský, containing ten original silver gelatin prints of surreal photocollages printed in only 69 copies, is a rare bird among a multitude of nationalist pamphlets elevating labor and machinery to inconceivable ends. Práce je živá (Labor is Alive) (1946) and Czechoslovakia Today (1963) praised the factory worker, mimicking graphically-innovative promotional material manufactured by Bat'a Shoe Company and RAKO ceramics at the height of industrial production in the 1930s. Romantic notions of the land, be it the city in Praha a Pražané (Prague and the Praguers) (1960) or the countryside in Zemĕ a lidé (Land and People) (1946), imparted a sense of stability when the national identity of Czechoslovakia was at stake. Visual information defined political and social expectations at each transition in the nation's history.

Heiting admits this survey cannot possibly be complete, but rather provides a baseline of publishing history. Czech rare book dealer James Steerman introduces Václav Kopecký, the Czech Minister of Education and Culture, who, in 1949, seized 500 private publishing houses and reduced them to 31. The compression shifted optics toward “ideological purity,” tethering benign landscapes and domestic industry to Czechoslovak worth. Five catalogues produced by the Ministry of the Food Industry between 1954 and 1960 announce innovation in dairy, poultry, tobacco products, meat products, canned foods, and bakery products of the day. The food posed on a marble surface is both hypnotic and gross, an exaltation of modernization with unforeseen formal consequences.

These paradoxical photo publications are punctuated by publisher Václav Neubert, whose books, pamphlets, posters, and brochures appear throughout the survey publication. His imprint, V. Neubert and Sons, opened in 1877, a year before Czech painter Karel Václav Klíč invented the grain photogravure. Neubert rebranded Klíč’s technique as the hollarotype, legendary for its depth in shading and velvety tones. Neubert's output, contingent upon the quality of his presses, defined the merger of civic life and ideology in photography during the first fifty years of Czechoslovakia's history.

Neubert occupied the "grey zone," fluidly interfacing with both the state and independent artists to maintain his business. His collaborators included the Czech Railways, the Czechoslovak Ministry of Public Works, and the Czecho-Slovak Army. Tvář Československa (The Face of Czechoslovakia) (1948), for example, contained iconic black-and-white landscapes of both city and countryside by national treasure Josef Sudek, now canonized as a "poet-photographer." Distributed by Orbis, a state-owned venture, in a print-run of 15,000, The Face of Czechoslovakia was slippery propaganda, rallying citizens behind a singular Czechoslovak identity as Communist ideology crystallized. But this book was a wolf in sheep's clothing: Sudek's photographs of imperial building exteriors, church facades, and ominous lakeside views are bittersweet images that could burden Communist objectives with a dismal tone.

Many publications in this survey equate a successful nation with a strong personal constitution. Scholar Petr Roubal, in the first chapter of this survey, discusses the infrequent public displays of non-competitive physical exercise in Czechoslovakia, the first of which was documented in 1912. A booklet with photographs and punchy design was produced and distributed to preserve each gathering. Throughout Heiting's survey, archival information is offered in a text block at the bottom of each illustrated page—details about printer, language, edition size, print run, and price are particularly valuable here. With this information handy, dramatic shifts in ideology over time correspond to the character of the photographs. These stadium-sized demonstrations beckoned “the emergence of a new, single national identity” by visualizing harmony. The frequency of these spectacles peaked between 1921 and 1961: aerial shots of a singular mythic mass are replaced by densely layered scenes with strong human bodies in the foreground. They are visual evidence of Communism's thrust, forcing a shift from "unified and uniformed national community" to "obedient sovereign" participants reinforcing Party policies through spectacle.

According to Roubal, these regular slips into the “iconocentric”—apparent in depictions of industry, national landmarks, the countryside, and physical exercise—demonstrate “national grandeur” as a force “above political parties and social classes.” The state perpetually commissioned photography in these categories, which should inspire a deeper investigation into gentle sabotage and coded subversion. Vladimír Hipman’s photographs for Škoda (1936) glorify Škoda’s heavy industry and ship building facilities, capturing the factory floor devoid of people, ossified. Giant propellers and engines lose their imposing scale and transform into sleepy golems, basking in the silence and dewy light of the factory floor. František Dostál’s Lidé pravdě podobní (Czech Folks) (1988) and Trvalé bydliště Praha (Permanent residence: Prague) (1986) were deceptively self-deprecating, printed in high-contrast and lacking fine detail, observing generalities with a peculiar sense of humor.

Contemporary books in this anthology suggest the fallout of the iconocentric image. Fewer than 50 books were published between 1970 and 1989, most of which were inoffensive coffee-table books. Instead of corrupting folklore, authors and publishers against the State went completely underground—these alternative (and illegal) samizdat publications are not mentioned here, to the chagrin of archivists. If anything, this publication raises questions about the dangers of cultural manipulation, of a media landscape pollinated by unspoken state influencers. It demands we be more aware of the ways in which visual language informs a connection to place and self—for better, for worse, and sometimes against our better judgement.


Lynn Maliszewski

LYNN MALISZEWSKI is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, NY.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

All Issues