It is difficult not to be moved by the work of Josef Sudek. The Czech photographer, who died in Prague in 1976 at the age of eighty, had such a way with light and eye for composition that common things commonly arranged became testaments to the idea that beauty is everywhere, available to those who can see it. Curated by the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Maia Sutnik, Josef Sudek: The Legacy of a Deeper Vision pulls entirely from the gallery’s own collection, which includes almost 1,000 prints by the photographer. This struck me as a point of pride; Sudek is an acknowledged twentieth-century master but not a household name in North America, and that his work is held locally in such profound measure speaks largely to the astute collecting practices of the gallery. As might be expected, with a trove of this size and quality at hand, the show is enormous — room after room, the walls a night-sky blue and the lights dim, is hung with photographs, more than 175 in total. Their dimensions are often diminutive and never grand; the frames are a simple black and the space uncluttered with additional material. Despite its size, the exhibit therefore feels restrained, a function of the subtlety of Sudek’s work and Sutnik’s feeling for its effect. It does not command us to look, but if we do, the rewards are great.
Josef Sudek, Apple on a Tray, 1932. Gelatin silver print. 7 x 11.6 cm.; Courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario, Anonymous Gift, 2000; Photo: Courtesy of AGO/Estate of Anna Farova © 2012.
Sudek, originally a bookbinder by trade, was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army in 1915. Wounded in combat, he lost his arm the following year. With the disability pension he received as a result he was able to take up and dedicate himself to photography, working primarily as an artist rather than in any commercial capacity — though he did create a remarkable body of advertising photographs prior to the end of World War II — and with a bulky, large-format camera despite the amputation. Sudek is known as a photographer of the city, “the poet of Prague,” and indeed he documented its streets and sites, if not its people — people figured rarely in Sudek’s frame — but he also photographed still-lifes, the Mionsi Forest of the Czech Republic’s Beskid Mountains, and, repeatedly, the view from his studio window. The AGO exhibition includes examples from these series, as well as images of the capital’s Kinsky Gardens, St. Vitus’s Cathedral, and Charles Bridge. It is a tour of the broad subject matter that Sudek favoured, the formats his depictions took, and the meditative, melancholic sensibility that defined his oeuvre across five decades of production.
Josef Sudek, The National Theater Across the River, 1950-1960. Gelatin silver print. 29.1 x 23.1 cm.; Courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario, Anonymous Gift, 2000; Photo: Courtesy of AGO/Estate of Anna Farova © 2012.
The photographs from The Window of My Studio series are almost heartbreaking. What we see, literally, is a window, wet with condensation or water droplets, either reflective of the space inside or almost invisible, and the courtyard beyond it — a single branch, a gate, laundry hanging like curtains around a tree. But this is time passing, or a private garden recast as a life. The pictures were taken between 1940 and 1954, before Sudek seemingly emerged from his atelier, post war, to once again take pictures of the world as an insider. The intimately scaled pictures of Prague at night are similarly haunting. Like Sudek’s courtyard, the city here is not a city. But it is not a metaphor, either — instead it appears like a realistic representation of a dream. No one lives here. Windows and street lamps are lit just to glow, or to illuminate a path or winding stone street that might be taken, a door that might be opened, if you like. Fog, snow, and the fairytale architecture of Prague — silhouetted black against a less-black sky — combine in these photographs to render a space so muffled and private it seems almost wrong to look at it. I feel like an intruder, experiencing a place as if I have no right to. For the Glass Labyrinth series, made between 1968 and 1972, Sudek composed prisms, wine glasses, mirrors, and other smooth, reflective or refractive objects into arrangements that again seem more personally expressive than they should, or rather than they would in the hands of another photographer. Light and shadow are corralled and captured, and we are invited either to understand how, or to forget the materialism of the subject altogether and just revel in the beauty of Sudek’s vision. I’m more inclined toward the latter, and this exhibition makes it easy.
(Image on top: Josef Sudek, The Villa at Hvězda (Belvedere), 1950-1955, Gelatin silver print, 10 x 29.9 cm; Courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario, Anonymous Gift, 2000 / Photo: Courtesy of AGO/Estate of Anna Farova © 2012.)