The Photographs of Josef Sudek: A Poetic Vision



Josef Sudek, Window of My Studio, c. 1940–54, gelatin silver print, 17.1 x 12.4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift from an anonymous donor, 2010. © Estate of Josef Sudek. Photo: NGC


Il pleure dans mon cœur

Comme il pleut sur la ville,

Quelle est cette langueur

Qui pénètre mon cœur ?



                                      — Paul Verlaine, 1874


The exquisitely vaporous photographs made by Josef Sudek from his studio window recall this famous lament of a weeping heart. Seen through rain-drenched glass, a gnarled tree trunk, snow-covered fence, the pensive figure of a man, and even a burst of spring blossoms, are all infused with melancholy.

Known as the Poet of Prague for his lyrical views of Bohemia’s capital, Josef Sudek was one of the 20th century’s most important and prolific photographers, and a key figure in the Czech avant-garde scene of the 1920s and 1930s. The Intimate World of Josef Sudek, currently on view at the Canadian Photography Institute (CPI) of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), is the first major show to examine the work and life of the photographer and his intimate circle of friends. Organized by Ann Thomas, the CPI’s Senior Curator of Photographs, along with Czech photography scholar Vladimír Birgus and independent art historian Ian Jeffrey, the exhibition garnered critical acclaim earlier this year when it appeared at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.

The Intimate World of Josef Sudek features 163 photographs made by Sudek between 1918 and 1976, most of them drawn from an extraordinary gift of over 1,700 prints made to the National Gallery by an anonymous donor in 2010. Several works by Sudek’s contemporaries — among them Jaromír Funke, Jaroslav Rössler and Josef Ehm — have been added for the Ottawa presentation to give an indication of the rich artistic environment surrounding Sudek. Also included are some rare Puřidlas — works sandwiched between planes of glass — which are on loan from the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, and a short 1963 documentary film, To Live One’s Own Life.

Josef Sudek, Prague Street, 1924, gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of an anonymous donor, 2010. © Estate of Josef Sudek. Photo: NGC

Josef Sudek was born in 1896 in Kolín, east of Prague, to a housepainter and a tailor’s daughter. While apprenticing as a bookbinder from 1910 to 1913, he began taking photographs, producing romantic landscapes, cityscapes and interior shots. He continued to use his camera while serving in the First World War, photographing fellow soldiers and the countryside. When a war wound led to the amputation of his right arm, his plans for a bookbinding career came to an end, and he turned to photography full-time. 

By 1922, Sudek was enrolled in the Central State Institute of Graphic Arts, studying under photographer Karel Novák. He co-founded the Prague Camera Club and later the Czech Photographic Society, while making a living through commercial photography. His first solo exhibition took place in 1932, and by 1940 he was focusing on his own subjects, including numerous book projects. It was in the 1970s that his work was first exhibited in the U.S., notably in a 1973 retrospective at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. Active until his death in 1976 at age 80, Sudek was one of the few Czech photographers of his era to achieve world fame without emigrating.

As the exhibition title suggests, The Intimate World of Josef Sudek presents the close, familiar environment in which the artist lived and worked: his studio, the courtyard below his window, the city streets he walked, and the surrounding countryside where he spent afternoons taking photographs. “He found a lot to sustain him in his immediate surroundings,” said Ann Thomas in an interview with NGC Magazine. “He found all kinds of qualities in very mundane objects, and made constant reference to them.”

The exhibition is organized thematically, with groupings devoted to his early photographs, portraits of friends, Modernist works, night scenes, still lifes, landscapes and cityscapes, as well as his famous views from his studio window. According to Thomas, these groupings precisely reflect Sudek’s artistic process: “It was the way he worked,” she says, “in projects, and rather obsessively.” He experimented with the same subject from multiple angles, under different weather and lighting conditions, and with varied printing processes.

Josef Sudek, Veteran’s Home, c. 1922–27, gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of an anonymous donor, 2010. © Estate of Josef Sudek. Photo: NGC

The first gallery features delicate prints from the early 1920s, when Sudek was exploring the soft-focus Pictorialist style and the warm carbon-printing process. Sunday Afternoon on Kolin Island (c. 1924–1926) shows a group picnicking in a halo of sunlight, while Veterans’ Home (c. 1922–1927) is almost entirely dark, save for slight forms illuminated by the sun: the outline of a man’s face, his lapel, and the plume of smoke rising from his pipe.

In Prague Street (c. 1924), a woman approaches a tramway in the middle distance, through a darkened tunnel. Ian Jeffrey describes this as a “slightly dangerous image.” Speaking over the phone from his home in the U.K., he told NGC Magazine, “If you’ve spent time in Prague, or in any of those cities with tramways, you know that, when trams take corners, there’s a terrible screeching of metal upon metal. So you have in this image a rather graceful, proportioned area, but with this suggestion of city noise.”

Further on is the series of nocturnal scenes that Sudek created during the Second World War, when Prague was subject to enforced blackouts. Unable to take his bulky large-format camera out into the street without risking his life, Sudek photographed the dimly lit courtyard beside his studio and the neighbouring apartments, where one or two lights shone in the windows, like symbols of resistance. 

Josef Sudek, Workers Inside St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague. Shafts of Light Illuminate the Space, 1928, gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of an anonymous donor, 2010. © Estate of Josef Sudek. Photo: NGC

In another grouping, photographs of Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral show sunlight streaming in through Gothic arches, illuminating scaffolding, workers, and their scattered tools, creating an atmosphere of sublime spirituality.

Vladimír Birgus writes eloquently in the exhibition catalogue about the importance of light in Sudek’s work: “It triumphs over darkness, radiating both from the sun and from streetlamps, streaming into windows, reflecting glass objects, and illuminating landscapes, trees and his beloved Prague. Light symbolizes spirituality and transcendence. Light signifies certainty and hope.” 

The counterpart of light does not necessarily have a negative value in Sudek’s work, according to Ann Thomas. “Darkness is the lament,” she says. “But he also loves that darkness. It must have expressed something to him about life. It’s a sort of celebration of being enclosed. And what I love about those photographs is that he finds, in the absence of light, a full repertoire of darks — a bit the way Rembrandt was known for finding shades of black.”

Josef Sudek, Portrait of my Friend Funke, 1924, gelatin silver print, 28.5 x 22.6 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 1985. Photo © NGC. © Estate of Josef Sudek. Photo: NGC

The Intimate World of Josef Sudek is bookended, in a way, by the artist’s circle of friends. Intense portraits of the painters Emil Filla and František Tichý hang in the first room, along with the striking Portrait of My Friend Funke (1924), depicting Jaromír Funke, a leading Czech photographer of the 1920s and 1930s. The final room displays a selection of works by Sudek’s photographer friends and apprentices, including Funke, Adolf Schneeberger, Petr Helbich and Jan Svoboda. 

The company of these people was greatly valued by Sudek, even if he was generally known as a solitary figure who lived alone in three small rooms for most of his life. He invited them to regular Tuesday-night gatherings around his gramophone, photographed them and their art works, and absorbed their knowledge. “The people Sudek knew were of the highest cultural importance,” says Ian Jeffrey, “and he placed himself as a learner at their feet.”

Josef Sudek lived through some of the most dramatic historical and social events of the 20th century, yet the scenes presented in this exhibition appear remarkably protected from those upheavals. It is indeed an intimate world, and a rich and poetic one at that.

The Intimate World of Josef Sudek is on view until February 26, 2017, in the Canadian Photography Institute Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada. Also on view in the CPI Galleries is Cutline: The Photography Archives of the Globe and Mail, until February 12, 2017, and PhotoLab 1, on view through winter 2017.

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