Josef Sudek – a passionate man: Jeu de Paume

by Kim Steele

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Rarely does a photographer look so inward to create his or her images. In the many years I have viewed photography, I have not been so emotionally moved by the sentiments of a series of images depicting the inner sanctum of a visual artist. The range is extreme here in this retrospective: well hung and captioned in this lovely intimate space, Jue de Paume – within stones throw of The Louvre. (The Intimate World of Joseph Sudek: until September 25, 2016)

So often I have thought that a photographer needed to go nowhere in order to create powerful images.   The compelling photos of our time have focused on conflict and refugees, which are raging around the world and are indeed powerful. Done years ago, Salgado’s work on refugees speaks so distinctly today. Josef Sudek has trained his camera on his inner landscape. This was due in part, to his confinement to his apartment during the occupation of Prague by the Nazis. His series My Window depicts this intimacy with great courage and skill. Employing everyday objects – they can appear sentimental or destructive. They are eloquent in their tenderness, and passionate in their convictions. He expressed various photographic movements in this endeavor.

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Rue de Prague, 1924, photograph by Josef Sudek

Sudek was a technical virtuoso employing various printing techniques, including pigment prints using carbon tissue. His color images here have never been heretofore exhibited.   I imagine him printing in the mode of Cameron – in the kitchen sink while fetching water nearby. The adversity prevalent in his work arises from heart. He was drafted into the Hungarian Army in 1915 and served on the Italian Front until he was wounded in the right arm. Infection set in and eventually surgeons removed his arm at the shoulder. But somehow Sudek managed to carry his large format camera atop a tripod around the city. A vision! A physician friend, Dr. Peter Helbich gave  his own private assessment of the connection between Sudek’s life and his work.”Ever since he lost his arm,” Helbich explained, “Sudek has felt estranged from the rest of humanity, and his photography is a means to bridge the gap. It is the reason for the melancholy in his photographs,” said Helbich. “Sometimes I think if he had not lost his arm, he would not have become the great artist he is.” Josef Sudek, by Charles Sawyer [originally published in Creative Camera, 1980]

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Studio, 1940, photograph by Josef Sudek

His early work was influenced by the powerful movement titled “Pictorialism” – spearheaded by Alfred Stieglitz‘ groundbreaking magazine Camera Work. But later, Stieglitz and Steichen opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, breaking from this earlier tradition, it eventually became known as 291, after its address. This movement spanned the turn of the century until the early 1920’s. During this time Sudek was visiting his mother in Kolin, while traveling and photographing along the Elbe River. He experimented in gelatin and bromoil prints favoring the soft tone and moody swathes of shades. Indeed Romantic in style, there underlies a sadness and loneliness that permeated his work thought his life. Sudek preferred to work in series. There are seven represented here.

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Kolin, 1922. photpgraph by Josef Sudek

For this reviewer, The World from my Window is the most powerful emotionally, though not the most graphic or compelling visually. The melancholy nature of the images are heartfelt and tender, like tears or droplets on the window behind a solitary rose. The subject is not the visual world but his inner one. There is a cycle of Nature’s dimension to the work, seasonal changes with hope announced by spring or contrastingly, darkness shrouding the potential danger afoot. His still-lifes beckon the same spirits.

 

Night Walks bespeak the Nazi occupation of his city from 1939 until the end of the War. The ‘enforced’ darkness intrigued him in it’s mystery; the curfews could have cost his life if he were caught. Not inconspicuous with the large camera and his hunched figure, his small courtyard of Sudek’s home provided a secretive subject where he could concentrate on mutable plays of light and darkness, acting as ‘equivalents’ of his emotions. There is a wonderful video of Sudek in the exhibition that is endearing, which demonstrates his love for classical music, while entertaining friends in his atelier. A shy man, he never married and rarely included people in his photographs. There are a few portraits in the exhibition, titled Friends and Artists that are quite well executed and reflect a deep connection to them, full of intimacy and empathy.

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Prague at Night, 1950, photograph by Josef Sudek

The St. Vitus Cathedral was a haunt Sudek frequented. Its large interior lent itself to his continued exploration of light and dark, as in his psychological dimensions. He often visited other nearby locales. These included the forest of Beskid Mountains and Hukvaldy, home of Sudek’s favorite composer, Leo Janáček; although he was an urbanite, Sudek admired Nature’s force.

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Still-life, 1968, photograph by Josef Sudek

Sudek was a hoarder. Despite his small studio, he collected object for possible ‘still life’ studies. This included feathers, paper, tinfoil, glasses, seashells, string and shoe molds. Once again, he found beauty in everyday objects. This could have been influenced by his Dada comrades. Sudek also experiments with compositions and light in a “Modernist” convention. There was a foretelling of Cubist direction here, later explored by Rodchenko and Oppenheimer to a greater degree, but Sudek foraged in those explorations. His concentration of pure form and illusory perception evidenced by some surreal subjects and choice of subjects (broken dolls similar to Bellmer) that bespeak transition and impermanence, these concerns were always just below the surface of Sudek’s later images. There is always the strain of devastation and destruction that Sudek witnessed in the battlefields of First World War and later, as a witness the Second World War, in his work, regardless of the subject. It translates to a melancholy of spirit in his work.

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Statue, v. 1948, photograph by Josef Sudek

Sudek enjoyed some recognition later in life, as he did modestly throughout his career, in the early seventies, including an exhibition at the renowned Eastman Kodak House. He died 1976. Sudek is a lesson for young photographers trying to find a vision. It can be as close as your kitchen counter.

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