Preface by Miroslav Ambroz
Jan Saudek was born in the spring of 1935, in Prague, that magical, forgotten city somewhere in the mid-dles of Europe where, as he says himself, he lived, lives and will go on living…
His childhood, spent with his brother Kaja, was none too happy. His father was a jew and bank clerk, but after Hitler’s armies occupied Czechoslovakia he was reduced to sweeping the streets, and had to put up with insults and humiliation. Towards the end of the war he was taken away to a concentration camp. Jan and Kaja were also placed in a transfer camp on the Polish border. Fortunately, the war did not last much longer. After the liberation- foreign aid parcels began to arrive in Czechoslovakia, and the two brothers enjoyed not only the chocolate they contained, but also the comics it was wrapped in. These cartoon char-acters “speaking into bubbles” were to affect their whole lives. The pair began drawing their own comics adventures, whose heroes were they themselves. Up to 1948 American papers and magazines such as Time and Life were on sale in Prague, and when, sometime in 1952, Jan was given a little plastic Baby Brownie, it was the photographs in Life that he looked to for inspiration. He was especially enthusiastic about the pictures by Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Werner Bischof, Gisele Freund and Eugene Smith. But he was unable to make even the most superficial acquaintance with the history of art photog-raphy; though he was a photography apprentice, it was in a printing works, which was quite a different kettle of fish. There they still used the wet colloid process.
The fifties were marked by Stalinism, where a single view prevailed, and all others were not only wrong, but hostile. In the sphere of culture the epoch is identified with total darkness. The Ninth Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1949 laid down a firm ideological lines the only recognized form of art was socialist realism. Many journals were abolished (including the only one dealing with art photography, Ceskoslovenska fotografie), and for many years contact with the world outside was virtually cut off. The Iron Curtain had fallen.
All art prior to 1948 was declared schematic, subjective, bourgeois academic pseudo-art, devoid of guiding principles and, what was worse, anti-proletarian. Examples of the correct interpretation of the theory of socialist realism were published pictures with titles such as “Women Feeding Pigs”, “Stakhanovite Signing Her Socialist Contract”, “Ploughing Away the Hedgerows”, or “Meeting at the Factory”.
“It was a terrible time,” Saudek recalls. “You have no idea; the way we live today is like somewhere down in the America… everything you see around you… people talking out loud, cars in the streets none of that even existed. In those days the only people who went round in cars were the police, plain clothes men and government VlP’s in their limousines. Later I heard they’d all been hanged. The party first secretary or someone had swung on the end of a rope like a common criminal. It was a very passionate time. It dragged on into the sixties, then it began to change.”
It was towards the end of the fifties that Jan got hold of the catalogue of Steichen’s exhibition “The Family of Man”, held in 1955 in New York. It was a mosaic-like apotheosis of life, introducing photography as a sort of universal language. DeepIy affected by the message contained in the published photographs, and inspired by the potential of photography as a medium, he tried to create his own humanistic photography, in which man, his dreams and his desires play the dominant role. At the time he also got his first real cameras a Flexaret Va, a binocular reflex with a 6 x 6cm format – in fact, an ordinary people’s camera. He sensitively arranged his pictures, so that they looked like documentary shots of human situations, mainly concerning himself with the visual power of the resulting shot, often to the extent of a certain symbolism. He is attracted by contrasts; his camera lens moves in to take the detail of a child’s defenseless little fist clutched by a muscular male hand, the coarse and the soft, the fragile child’s feet and the metaled army besots striding along together beside the railway line, a pair of lovers joined forever by their bonds. Man in the feeling of loneliness and in the problems of cohabitation, human offspring bom into a merciless world where love and hate exist alongside each other, as do birth and death. He does not wish to fascinate with absurdity, dreamed up scenes and irrational, ambiguous pictures which in fact say nothing, as do many photographers of arranged and subjective scenes, a wave of which appeared at the end of the fifties and the start of the sixties. Above all he wants to tell stories.
In 1963 he had his first exhibition in the small foyer of the avant-garde Na zabradli theatre in Prague. In the same year the ubiquitous secret police moved in. After a search of his flat they confiscated negatives. A trial, followed in which Jan was accused of spreading pornography. The negatives were lost for ever, though there were no pornographic shots among them. The second half of the sixties saw a relaxation in all areas of society. People started to live a little. In the meantime Jan had qualified as a reproduction photographer, done his national service, worked in agriculture, tried to write and to paint, to sing and dance, got married, devoted his attention to gymnastics and girls, arid along with his brother kept up an interest in cartoon strips, creating his own inimitable style, paddled a canoe and shocked his peaceable fellow—citizens by wearing some of the first jeans with multicolored shirts and sunglasses, Cliff Richard style. After the stifling 1950’s people began to breathe more freely; rock and roll, mini-skirts and coiffures were “in”, just as they were elsewhere in the world. Kaja finally had the chance to publish some of what he had been working on and carefully putting away in a drawer for all those years. They had fairly large exhibitions together in Prague, Brno and 0lomouc. In 1969 Jan went to the USA, where he had his first exhibition outside Czechoslovakia, in Bloomington, Indiana, USA, returning filled with inspiration and the resolve to get to the top.
But the liberal atmosphere of the late sixties in Czechoslovakia came to an end with the arrival of Soviet tanks in 1968. The famous “Prague Spring” was over. With its passing came the somewhat sad demise of a whole generation which had met with a broad response both at home and abroad, especially in the sphere of literature, theatre, film, painting and sculpture. Magazines were again stopped from publishing, exhibitions censored without reasons being given, plays taken off programs; books and films disappeared for ever inaccessible store-rooms or to the pulp-mill. No wonder many left their homeland, to vanish somewhere in the distance. The coming of the 1970s seemed to mark the end of a period in the work of Jan Saudek. His marriage was breaking up, and he took refuge in the basement of an apartment house in the suburbs. He began to photograph almost, exclusively indoors. It took him sometime to realize that he had to turn the lamp towards the ceiling in order to produce a soft, diffuse light, and he painted the room grey in order to suppress contrasts even further. The walls; were damp and the paint cracked; fungus made grotesque patterns on the wall. There is a window that doesn’t go anywhere, a wooden floor with a simple mattress and an atmosphere of total isolation from the world around. When he started to make his photo-graphic confession about 20th-century man in this “studio”, he could scarcely have foreseen that he would live there for a full seven years.
In front of the crumbling walls, which become, in the Shakespearian sense, an unchanging stage, on which only the actors change, he photographed the people the “belly of the night” threw up: adolescent girls, women marked by life, pregnant women, couples, and even himself. His arsenal was a very limited one; a few discarded theatrical cos turners, a corset, some dolls, a straw hat, a single 500—watt bulb, an ancient monophonic record player, few crackling records with rowdy rock and roll music and cheap alcohol. During the daytime he worked in a factory and most of his photographs were taken at night during feverish sessions; they contain a little Celine’s bitterness, a little of Fellini’s bizarreness, a little rawness and gentleness, romance and nostalgia.
They are heavily charged with eroticism, without being in the least reminiscent of pornographic magazines. Saudek is fascinated by the whole reproduction cycle of procreation and death, maturation and aging, and he differentiates between the world of man and the world of woman. He is interested in the human body, especially the female body and its metamorphoses; he celebrates female beauty in a whole mosaic of pictures. Saudek glorifies and heroises woman. He depicts her as innocent, provocative, maternal, faithful, enigmatic, proud, dressed, but most of all undressed. “Nakedness is the most natural thing in the world; it makes a woman a woman and a man a man, regardless of whether it is today or a hundred years ago. I undress woman so that she will be eternal” he says himself.
Sometime in the middle of the seventies his work began very distinctly to express the phenomenon of time, the transience of the forms and values of life itself. Franz Kafka wrote: “The decisive attribute of this world is its transience. In this sense centuries mean no more than the present moment. The continuity of transience cannot be any comfort; the fact that new life arises; from ruins is not so much a proof of the persistence of life, as of the persistence of death.” Saudek goes back, and as if in a circle records the same model in the same place at a different time. This gave rise to his first sequences, which he later developed in several variants. Perhaps most effective is the series of three shot is called “Ten Years of Veronica” . He tries to capture the change which has irrevocably stamped itself on the face and body of his model, and how time has even gnawed away at the wall behind her. The theme is also pregnantly expressed in the sequence “Story of Flowers II” , where he photographed a still life with arranged flowers which gradually open, then wither, and then their petals fall, in a series of five shots. In the sixth there is only a framed photograph of the once beautiful blossoming flowers. Time flies, moments are irepeatable, but something does remain. Saudek tries to defy the general passage of time, to stop it – his photographs are the yearning for eternity.
From 1977 he began to hand-tint his prints (it is not without interest that he first played with the idea as early as in 1953). This development is quite logical, on the one hand because Saudek paints as well as being a photographer, but on the other hand because tinting reinforces the artificial effect of his fabricated pictures; they are a further step away from reality and towards romanticism. He went back to his negatives from the fifties and sixties and began adding colour, giving them a new form. He tried to rid them of the here-and-now element, to prevent them from being datable, inclining more towards a certain univer-sality of time and place rather than a specific identification. His encoded message, the stories or images are thus in essence a mystification, with the formal marks of the classical studio work for family albums at the start of this century, reinforced by the artificial coloring which gives them an unreal yet nostalgic atmosphere. They are absurd in their time dimensions in front of the disintegrating wall a procession of people from the second half of the twentieth century passes in the borrowed costumes and poses of their great-grandparents. This absurdity creates a special tension the present and the past, and poses the question of the very essence and meaning of human existence.
At the start of the nineteen eighties further sequences appeared, revealing his love of comic strips. They consisted for the most part of series of six to twelve pictures forming small studies, stories usually having a shocking end, not lacking in grotesque humor or a deeper philosophical message.
Later he confined himself to two pictures only, in the manner of mirror images of the same scene, com-bining illusion and reality, Pairs of models in theatrical poses, allernately dressed and undressed, reminis-cent of old stereoscopes, are a provocative paraphrase of the studio double portrait. A further aspect enters here, a sort of simultaneity of views of the subject from two sides, a duality of reality. Saudek wants to present recto and verso at the same time. These manneristic games with human bodies are at the same time erotic manipulations revealing Saudek’s internal images. In this manner he progresses to “Cards” a series of many photographs where the separation of pictures is abolished by copying the negatives in such a way that they overlap, thus forming a new superreality in which the figures are reflected in themselves, one growing out of the other. They are placed opposite each other like the figures on cards, so that a woman can be seen at the same time dressed and in the nude, from the front and from the rear… and again he seeks the eternal opposites: age and youth, masculinity and femininity, virtue and vice, weakness and strength. This polarity of vision, this tension opens up to him a broad field of motifs and becomes a source of inspiration and a means of defining irreality within the framework of reality.
“Between men and women a merciless struggle is being waged”, he once wrote on one of his photographs… and his works, filled with an almost baroque passion, seem to tell of that unrelenting war and to constitute a deep probing into human sexuality. His figures seem to float in space, attracting and repelling each other at the same time, longing for each other, and at the same time turning away from one another. They fall they creep up from their crumpled rags to the clouds which intermingle with the crumbling plaster… The window is open, and the woman surrendering herself is like a mediaeval icon with the suppliant man on his knees before it. The drama of the projections wells up from an intense experience, gestures and desire.
Saudek tries to put everything into his photographs; he has sacrificed his life to his art. He is living out one of his stories, and thanks to his amazing strength of will and self-discipline (and perhaps also stubbornness), he is able to work even at moments of desperation when others might, turn to alcohol or drugs… In the greyness of days any flash of light on a hill in the distance is a spark of hope which is capa-ble of lighting the fire of vital energy. Often an encouraging letter is enough, and since Saudek is a graphomaniac: waiting for the postman is a time of suspense, and Saturday and Sunday are the worst days of the week, since there is no post. The isolation in which he lives in his own country, where he is practically unknown and the official critics ignore him, is no more than a natural defence against external influences, an attempt to preserve his own internal richness — a natural reaction today, when man is assailed on all sides by information, pictures; images and views are imposed upon him, and he is robbed of the most precious thing he has, his own imagination, his identity. “I’ve built walls which no one can penetrates” Simon and Garfunkel sing in one of their songs. Saudek doesn’t like travelling, and you won’t find him at exhibitions and vernissages (and certainly not his own). He wants to live in his own world, and does not want another one to be forced down his throat.
The whole environment in which Saudek works, the world he has laboriously built, is like a thirteenth chamber, where everthing is allowed, where nothing is real, where there are no rules and no limitations, where reality is a game and games are reality, where day is night, with a shining moon painted on the screen of the starry sky. Where the present is the past, lies are truth, where you can easily forget the whole world. Here in an underground cell, far from the turbid life of the street, his models became willing players in his gairie, faithful accomplices to his dreams, to his tales where the common denominator is love, hope, desire, passion, fulfilment… everything which defies desperation, emptiness and death.
Saudek is above all a passionate disciple of female beauty. His contribution consists mainly in being able to make any woman beautiful through the magic of love. He does not therefore photograph only beautiful, slim girls who fulfil the criteria laid down by the fashion magazines; for him every woman is the most beautiful in the world simply because she is a woman. Woman steps out of the mould stains on the plaster, appears like a phantom, like the demon desire with her body revealed and beckoning from the open window, in front of which Saudek himself kneels with outstretched arms, his muscles tensed as if he had been struck by a bolt of ecstasy, expressively demonstrating his blinding by femininity. This absolute adoration of woman appears in many works but along with it comes another viewpoint: the expression disappointment, desperation. Woman is a weight he at first carries on his back with pride, faithfully, but later the weight begins to wear him down… he gives way, plaintively begs for mercy, grieves. Woman is the target of his thoughts, the substance to which he turns his being. In this his work is perfectly autobiographical; many pictures seem to illustrate his life: a life filled with scandals, dramatics cenes, tension, amorous adventures. And, just as each moment of happiness is bought with hours of unhappiness, so his photographs are something he has had to pay for with considerable suffering.
Saudek provokes with his disdain for the conventions, the taboos, the hypocrisy we have become accustomed to wear like a mask… he lays bare his own feelings, proves that his human family is made of the same material, that for many it is a strange company of visionaries, eccentrics, tragic heroes, actors of life seeking the thread that leads out of the labyrinth of life; but is the world any different? His pictures are perhaps the desperate attempt of a mere mortal to combine in a single cry the whole world of experience of life, all the joy, the self-denial, the yearning, all the love and desperation, the torture, all those short moments of extreme irritation and the long, interminable moments of uncertainty and want, all the evil, but above all the admiration for and fascination with beauty, which blinds him and which he tries to snatch away from reality and record on a piece of photosensitive film.
After 1989, when the totalitarian regime collapsed in Czechoslovakia and freedom finally returned to the country, Jan Saudek’s work can finally be shown in public. His ensuing success and popularity have even brought him the opportunity to moderate his own TV talk show. In this medium too, Saudek proves to be a great storyteller, who knows how to comment in an amusing way on a range of issues. During this time he has started painting oils again after many years. He has published several bulk monographs and arranged countless exhibitions in many countries around the world. Saudek has also started writing short stories that interpret his life experiences in a somewhat self-ironic way.
His photographic work in the new millennium is becoming increasingly grotesque, often intentionally teetering on the edge of kitsch. It is becoming ever clearer that his primary profession is as a storyteller. Humor is a vital ingredient in his photographs, which serve as illustrations, and he often accompanies his pictures with a short text.
Many photographers tried to follow, or even directly copy, his distinctive style. But none managed to do so as starkly as one woman, who turned up one day to offer herself initially as a model and assistant, until she became a sort of female incarnation of Saudek himself. She changed her name and began to photo-graph, write, and speak like him. She soon took over his daily affairs and finances, and began trading with his images and copyrights. After the subsequent breakup, Saudek discovered that his royalties were going to someone else and that he had lost property and negatives. The incredible story is now the subject of a film, which begins shooting this year.
For many people what Saudek shows in his photographs has very little to do with what the vast majority of them understand by the medium, since they are used to regarding photographs as, up to a point, an objective reflection of reality, or a transfixation of the world, a document of an event, whether signifiant or random; its being recorded makes it a glorification in its own right, shifts it to another level, cut off from the flow of events, with pretensions to being an accurate proof of what once was. Saudek’s photographs are often shocking from this point of view, as a proof, as evidence of what actually existed at the moment of exposure in front of his camera’s lens. But his work should be understood in the whole context of European culture as a rebellion, a provocation against intellectualism, as a call for a return to sensualism.
May 22 2:00 ~5:00pm
Eroticism and Yardstick: Conversation between Jan Saudek and Liu Zheng
An Exclusive Interview by Southern Weekend
Academic Host: Wang Ge ( Visiting Scholar in Germany and Post Doctor For Philosophy)
Guests: Jan Saudek (artist), Miroslav Ambroz (curator), Martin Hosek ( Counselor for Culture, Embassy of Czech), Liu Zheng (artist), Wang Yin( journalist from Northern Weekend and poet), Wang Xue ( journalist from Lens Magazine), Zhang Yueran ( writer)., Lv Le ( director), Amber ( Director), Hua’er (Artistic Director of see+)
Venue: see+ gallery
May 23 6:00 ~8:00pm
Sweet Dew in Black Coffee: Joint Exhibition by Jan Saudek & Liu Zheng Opening Reception
Jan Saudek and Liu Zheng will be present at the opening ceremony( admission is by invitation only).
Venue: Ambassy of Czech Republic in China
May 24 2:00~5:00pm
Press Conference of Exhibition of Photographs by Jan Saudek
Guests: Jan Saudek (artist), Miroslav Ambroz(curator), Wang Yin(journalist from Northern Weekend and poet), Amber(director), Hua’er( Artistic Director of see+), etc.
Venue: see+ gallery
May 25 4:00~6:00 pm
Opening Reception of Exhibition of Photographs by Jan Saudek
Jan Saudek and Miroslav Ambroz will be present at the opening ceremony( admission is by invitation only).
Venue: see+ gallery
Reservations required. Please note that you can enter for the opening ceremony through contacting http://weibo.com/seegallery on line.
Courtesy of the artist and see+ gallery, for further information please visit www.seegallery.net or contact email@example.com, Tel: 010~59789266 / Fax: 010~59789166.