Focus on the collection: Victor Kolář

Born and raised in Ostrava, Czechia, Victor Kolář fled to Austria during the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, later emigrating to Canada. He remained in Canada until 1973, at first living in Vancouver’s Chinatown, then working as a manual labourer in northern British Columbia.

Although he had practised photography in Ostrava (studying at the Photographic Institute there), Kolář only started taking photographs in earnest while in Vancouver. Around 1969–1970, he moved to Toronto and began working in a photo lab as a technician, where he met other photographers, in particular Michael Semak.

Encouraged by the interest and support of Semak and others (including William Ewing), Kolář applied for grants and received funding that enabled him to travel to Montreal. He stayed there for two years, during which he corresponded and met with Cornell Capa. He moved back to Czechoslovakia in 1973, after the country declared an amnesty for returnees.

Victor Kolář, Montreal (Place Ville Marie - Corporate), 1972, printed 1998, gelatin silver print, 28.8 x 40.3 cm. Victor Kolář, Montreal (Place Bonaventure), 1973, printed 2010, gelatin silver print, 29.4 x 39.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Victor Kolář Photo: Courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery  


Kolář excelled at street photography, seeking out unusual scenarios and the small dramas that inform urban daily life. For example, a security guard, lit eerily from below, appears in a Dr. Strangelove-style setting. Seven businessmen appear perplexed about how to take care of a baby crawling on their office floor. And Mickey Mouse stands poised to conduct some unknown symphony. The works astonish for their vision of Canada from an outsider’s point of view. Subject matter appears estranged and dysfunctional, as if held in suspension.

Like Robert Frank’s The Americans, Kolář’s images often have a spontaneous, snapshot quality to them, and exploit dramatic angles and lighting. At the same time, however, constraint and order is suggested through attention to composition and technical excellence. The earlier work Train Ostrava gives insight into Kolář’s talent for photography at a young age, prior to his arrival in Canada. Men with bag + soldiers Ostrava is an example of his work following his return to his homeland.

Victor Kolář, Train, Ostrava, 1963
Victor Kolář, Man with bag + soldiers, Ostrava, 1974

Victor Kolář, Train, Ostrava, 1963, printed 2014, gelatin silver print, 29.4 x 40.1 cm. Victor Kolář, Man with Bag and Soldiers, Ostrava, 1974, printed 1977, gelatin silver print, 25.5 x 37.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Victor Kolář Photo: Courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery


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Victor Kolář is a well-recognized Czech photographer whose work is found in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), the International Center of Photography (New York), the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris), Musée de l’Elysée (Lausanne), the Museum of Decorative Arts (Prague), and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London).

His experiences in Canada were seminal for his artistic development. Upon his return to Czechoslovakia, he immediately made contact with the arts circle in Prague. Kolář worked at a variety of jobs before becoming a professor at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) in Prague, where he has greatly influenced generations of photographers and filmmakers.

Victor Kolář, Montreal, Quebec, 1972, printed 2010, gelatin silver print, 28.8 x 40.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Victor Kolář Photo: Courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery

In the words of the artist:

“After five years in exile, I had learned my life lesson and, with the experiences I had gained, I was able to survive the Communist regime in my country. With my sharp eye, I was able to photograph things and situations domestic photographers couldn’t see at all. If I hadn’t returned home, I wouldn’t have been able to produce the body of work I have produced thus far.”

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