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Photo Exhibit Shows Czech Avant-Garde

A new exhibit at the Phillips Collection proves that Prague was second only to Paris in its surrealist and avant-garde photographic art.

“Object as Subject: Photographs of the Czech Avant-Garde— is a showing of 30 photographs from 10 artists, an exhibition that reflects the country’s artistic and industrial cultures.

“Czech photographers were as open to exploring new possibilities as other photographers around the world,— exhibit curator Elsa Smithgall said. “They were in the thick of things. They were ascribing to what was going on in the world.—

Many of those working in Prague in the 1920s and 1930s were quite taken with the work of Man Ray, who Smithgall said became a cult figure for Czech artists. (The Phillips is also currently showing an exhibit on Man Ray and his work with African art.)

Like others during that time, Czech photographers were doing sharper, more focused images, which were a departure from the softened, painting-like pieces from earlier periods.

The Czech style was unique, however, in “the way they were engaged with objects for their abstract potential,— Smithgall said. “Objects became a laboratory for experiments with abstraction.—

Several of the pieces at the Phillips reflect the region’s rapid industrialization following the establishment of Czechoslovakia as an independent country in 1918.

Arnost Pikart, for example, made beautiful photographs out of radiator equipment and industrial tubing.

“They’re seeing in nature and in the industrial world the beauty of architecture,— Smithgall said.

Several of the artists whose work is being shown in this exhibit were part of what Smithgall described as the Czech amateur movement. These were photographers who were not classically trained in this field, but worked in another area and developed their photographic skills separately. Pikart was a musician originally, and Eugen Wiskovsky was a high school teacher with a passion for psychology.

Those interests spill over into his art, including a photograph titled “Bolts.— It is intentionally unclear what the bolts are holding together, but his style and intimacy with the object make it quite beautiful.

“Wiskovsky liked to have a surprising perspective. He was very interested in psychology and the impact his pieces might have,— Smithgall said. “You may not be able to make sense of it, but you can appreciate the beauty of it.—

It is also interesting to see the influence artists had on one another. Jaröslav Rossler began as an apprentice to Frantisek Drtikol, who favored using undulating lines in his photographs. Rossler borrows this technique in a commercial advertisement he photographed, and examples of both artists’ use of the lines are on display in the exhibit. Drtikol’s was not the only style that seemed to inspire Rossler — he was one of only a few Czech artists to experiment with rayographs, the technique pioneered by Man Ray where objects are placed on light-sensitive paper, Smithgall said.

As innovative as the Czechs were, the exhibit is something of a throwback to a more basic, straightforward style of photography.

“They’re showing it to you just as the artist saw it through that photo lens,— Smithgall said.

This technique stands in stark contrast to contemporary photography, in which artists often manipulate and alter images to create different effects.

“There is this movement to something pure that I think is quite beautiful,— she said of the older work.

According to Smithgall, Prague is simply not recognized as having been a center of surrealist and avant-garde art at this point.

“I would venture to say it’s still not widely known,— she said. “I just think their contribution has been overlooked for 20 years.—

The same can be said of much Eastern European art, she noted, but said the Phillips Collection is committed to bringing pieces from that region forward. Her dream, she said, is to have a piece from a Czech artist in the Phillips’ permanent collection.

While “Object as Subject— is much smaller than the Man Ray exhibit the Phillips is also currently showing, it provides great insight to the overlooked Czech tradition, and complements the larger story of surrealist and avant-garde art.

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