How isolation inspired the quiet domestic photographs of Czechoslovakia’s enigmatic post-war artist

Jan Svoboda’s painterly, experimental photographs could be described as a meticulous study in nothingness — yet this conceptual approach was equally an expression of political resistance.

At the Photographers’ Gallery exhibition of Czech photographer Jan Svoboda in London, there is a work that depicts two empty glass bottles. Shot against the light, they are shadowy and indistinct. An eerie afterimage of Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes — the 20th-century Italian painter who devoted himself to simple domestic objects — they are suggestive of a quiet, private melancholy. It is a photograph that conceals as much as it reveals, as enigmatic as its author; a window into the intense, intimate practice of an artist who is recognised as one of the high points of post-war Czech art, but who is little known outside his native country today.

Against the Light! (Literally) (1963). Courtesy Moravian Gallery, Brno, © Artist’s Estate

Against the Light (Literally) (1963), offers an early example of Svoboda’s painterly, experimental approach to photography: going contre-jour, rejecting established norms of photography in post-war Czechoslovakia to deconstruct the processes and forms of the medium. Fittingly, it is from this work that the new exhibition takes its name. It follows 38 years after the last major presentation of Svoboda’s work in the UK (also at the Photographers’ Gallery), representing a rare opportunity outside the institutions of Prague and Brno to chart the development of the artist’s singular oeuvre from existential still lifes to conceptual, self-reflexive works that explore the boundaries of photography.

Svoboda would continually return to the objects he was surrounded by to experiment with composition and tonality,

Svoboda came to photography through poetry. After studying set design at the college of Applied Arts in Prague, and two years of military service, during which he wrote poetry inspired by Czech and French Symbolists, he bought a camera. Although he initially intended only to use his photos to illustrate his poetry, in 1957, an encounter with the work of celebrated photographer and founder of the progressive Czech Photographic Society, Josef Sudek, when he was 23, encouraged him to pursue photography as his primary concern.

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Like Sudek, Svoboda would come to consider himself as an artist, and he looked beyond photography to Czech painters such as Bohumil Kubišta and Václav Špála, or to Cezanne — whose work and ideas on colour theory are quoted frequently in Svoboda’s photography — and Morandi. Soon his poetry would come to be repurposed as titles for the still, contemplative studies of potted plants, glasses and teapots, taken largely in the flat he shared with his first wife, lending a literary dimension to his work and emphasising his painterly approach to photography.

For Svoboda, the creative process did not end with the click of the shutter; the camera was a tool like a paintbrush, and his practice involved the skilful manipulation of the developer and enlarger as much as his 1920s Mentor plate camera. Each print was crafted individually, the tonality and dimensions informed by the composition.

Melancholy, 1963, an important early work, sees the image darkened almost to the point of unintelligibility, intentionally eroding the photograph’s ability to depict. Some years later, in An Attempt at the Ideal Proportion III, 1971, Svoboda further developed this strategy, the flattened tonal range denying the illusory depth inherent to photography, the physical space of the simplified composition approaching the surface of the print – causing the photograph to “oscillate between two- and three-dimensionality,” as Pavel Vančát, the curator of the exhibition, says, “between depiction and reality.”

A Half VII

Svoboda’s conception of the photograph as art extended to the exhibition and sale of his works. Produced as one-offs or in strictly limited editions, signed by the artist, Svoboda’s prints were sold for a higher price than other photographs at the time, and were often accompanied with the destroyed negative (although even with a complete negative, it would be difficult to recreate the exact darkroom processes and methods by which they were produced).

Svoboda worked alone, his intense and almost obsessive activity largely limited to his home and studio

Presented at the Photographers’ Gallery according to specifications previously given by Svoboda, the prints appear to float a few centimetres from the wall, mounted on a board supported by metal bracing rather than framed — more two-dimensional sculptures than photographs. It’s an approach that attests to Svoboda’s consciousness of the physicality of a photograph, an interest in its materiality that is refreshing at a time when our experience of image is almost exclusively digital.

Svoboda’s shift from making photography a means of expression to becoming the subject of his work was marked in 1969, with the creation of The Other Side of a Photograph. Depicting, literally, the back of one of his photographs, abraded, with tape stuck to it and signed by the artist in blue ink, the work speaks of a late-Modernist self-reflection of the medium — exploring photography through photography — as well as, in a rare moment of humour, being Svoboda’s only known work in colour.

An Attempt at the Ideal Proportion III (1971). Collection of Miroslav Velfl, Prague

Svoboda was active in the artistic community in Czechoslovkia — in 1964, he became the only photographer to join the Máj group of artists — and his conceptual approach to photography developed in parallel with his contemporaries working in sculpture and film. But Svoboda’s practice was also marked by his reclusive lifestyle. Until his retrospective at the Brno House of Art in 1975, when he hired an assistant to help prepare for the show, Svoboda worked alone, his intense and almost obsessive activity largely limited to his home and studio.

The domestic setting gave him the idea to turn his ubiquitous subjects into an exercise in depicting nothing. In London, a series of images taken from his Tables series show how Svoboda would continually return to the objects that surrounded him to experiment with composition and tonality, repeating his work with the object until, like a word said over and over again, it was stripped of its meaning, leaving only the mute, inexpressive form — the photograph now destroying rather than constructing meaning.

Modern art had tentatively flourished in years that followed the Nazi-occupation and de-Stalinisation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when it had been banned by the authorities, and Svoboda developed his practice in a relatively fertile period for Czech art. By the end of the 1960s, however, the period of political liberalisation known as the Prague Spring was met with hostility by the Soviet Union, and in 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded by countries under the Warsaw Pact. Though Svoboda’s work did not explicitly challenge the regime, the oppressive, strictly regulated atmosphere of these years permeates his later work. “He hated the regime,” curator Pavel Vančát explains, “he tried to ignore it, but it definitely had an influence on him. He felt stuck in a place where nothing better could happen.”

Picture That Will Not Return XXXV (1972)

Picture That Will Not Return XXXV, from 1972 — an image showing Svoboda’s photographs, torn and scattered on the floor — embodies the melancholy of newly-occupied Prague. But what is at first an expression of the futility of photography, of its ability to depict, is then, conversely, depicted; reaching, as Vančát observes, “the very limits of an image’s existence, as well as the boundaries of his oeuvre.” It is in this carefully composed image of apparently spontaneous destruction that Svoboda realised the extent of his recursive practice, the culmination of his obsessive search for the end of photography.

In the same year, Svoboda took a job as photographer of the collections at the Museum of Decorative Arts, and his artistic activity became inconsistent and fragmented. With the exception of a few exhibitions — the retrospective in Brno in 1975, The Photographers’ Gallery in 1982, a comparative exhibition with Sudek, given in his honour when he left the museum, in 1983 — Svoboda appeared to retire from the Czech art scene. His last solo exhibition in 1987, as he became ever more isolated, his health failing, became a mediation on his career. Exhibiting only his earliest and latest work, the show included one of his most personal images: Found Still-Life, Self Portrait, 1985, showing photographs from the artist’s life, placed on his catalogue – a return to the direct symbolism and romanticism that had always run in parallel to his conceptual approach to the medium.

Svoboda died a few weeks after the fall of the Communist regime in 1990, at the age of 55. “He was a victim of complete physical exhaustion,” Vančát says. “All his life he had been fighting to be respected, to be acknowledged as an artist. He always expected more, and it led to this bitterness with the world, to alcoholism and depression, and ultimately his premature end.” Thirty years after his death, it is hoped that with this second exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, Svoboda’s role as a pioneer of conceptual photography will finally be recognised internationally. “What he did at the time was completely unique,” Vančát continues. “And remarkably his ideas — the image as an object, as an illusion — are just as relevant today. There is a lot we can still learn from him.”

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