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A Czechoslovak Variation on Fifo

The International Photography Exhibition (Prague, 1936)
Fedora Parkmann
Traduction de James Gussen
Traduction(s) :
Un avatar tchécoslovaque de 
la “Fifo”. L’“Exposition internationale de photographie” à Prague en 1936

Résumé

Organized by the Mánes Artists’ Association, the International Photography Exhibition, which opened in Prague on March 6, 1936, paints a varied picture of modern photography in Czechoslovakia. Following the famous exhibition Film und Foto in Stuttgart, also known as Fifo, the curators brought photographs from all fields together on the gallery walls. But they departed from the German model by emphasizing the social usefulness of the works, since they now regarded formal invention alone as insufficient. This is because the inclusive vision inspired by Fifo now unfolded in an avant-garde context particular to Prague, on the one hand informed by the remnants of a social and activist repertoire that triumphed around 1933, at the height of the economic crisis, and on the other by the coming of age of an experimental photography heavily influenced by surrealism. Through a selection of works that reflected this contradictory situation, torn as it was between modernist experimentation and social and activist photographs, the organizers seemed to call for a possible reconciliation of the two practices. A look back at the way utilitarian, artistic, and engaged uses were combined at the exhibition will help to illuminate a didactic trajectory that clearly aims at the ideal of a synthesis of form and content.

Texte intégral

The author wishes to thank Olivier Lugon.

  • 1 Acclaimed foreign photographers like Hans Bellmer, Raoul Hausmann, Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, Ale (...)
  • 2 Lubomír Linhart, ‘Úvodem’ [Introduction], Mezinárodní výstava fotografie [International photography (...)

1Organized by the Mánes Artists’ Association, the International Photography Exhibition, which opened in Prague on March 6, 1936, painted a varied picture of modern photography in Czechoslovakia. Following the large anti-pictorialist exhibitions that had taken place all over Europe in the 1930s and whose model was the 1929 Stuttgart Film und Foto, known as Fifo, this exhibition presented documentary and creative photographs alongside one another, eliminating any spatial hierarchy between the works
of amateurs, professionals, and the avant-garde. Divided into three sections according to the photographers’ country of origin, the show comprised 308 images by 56 Czechoslovak photographers, 160 by 40 foreign photographers1 – the countries represented were Germany, Belgium, United States, France, Great Britain, Netherlands, and Switzerland – and 108 by 38 Soviet photographers; within each section, the works were arranged alphabetically by the photographer’s name. In all, 608 photographs from all fields were exhibited: utilitarian photography, propaganda reporting, and political photomontage rubbed shoulders with images from movements including surrealism, the New Vision, and the New Objectivity. As the Marxist theorist Lubomír Linhart wrote in the introduction to the catalogue, the exhibition offered a survey of ‘the social function of photography in its broadest sense, as well as the medium’s impact on society.’2 But through this choice of works, which was disparate to say the least, torn bet­ween modernist experimentation and social and activist photographs, the organizers seemed to call for a possible reconciliation of the two practices. A look back at the way utilitarian, artistic, and engaged uses were combined in the exhibition will help to illuminate a didactic trajectory that clearly aimed at the ideal of a synthesis of form and content.

  • 3 Matthew S. Witkovsky, Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918–1945, June 10–September 3, 2007, Wash (...)

2The event took place within an avant-garde context particular to Prague: on the one hand informed by the remnants of a social and activist repertoire that triumphed around 1933, at the height of the economic crisis, and on the other by the coming of age of an experimental photography heavily influenced by surrealism. The organizers based their efforts on a twofold legacy: that of Fifo, which was evident in their multidisciplinary ambitions and in the desire to glorify formal innovation, and that of the social photography exhibitions moun­ted in Prague in 1933 and 1934, from which they retained a fondness for social documents and a left-wing political engagement. These exhibitions, which were organized by Lubomír Linhart under the aegis of the Film-Photo Group of the Left Front – a group comprising socialist and communist sympathizers – presented documentary photographs depicting the poverty of the working class and idealizing workers. Paradoxically, these images, perceived as weapons in the struggle for social equality, were juxtaposed with experimental photographs brought together in a section called ‘Studies.’ In Matthew Witkovsky’s opinion, the experimental work was included in the exhibition as part of a teleological progression intended to culminate in social photography after passing through modernist practices.3 While the same tension between form and content was also present at the 1936 exhibition, it was less conceptualized and above all less insidious, because the two approaches intermingled. The activist document was no longer accorded a place of honour at the later exhibition. The question of class struggle, less central since the disbanding of the Film-Photo Group of the Left Front, was set aside in favour of a celebration of the utility of the medium in the broadest sense, patterned in part after Fifo. Conversely, in recognition of the progress made by the Czechoslovak avant-garde photography groups, the 1936 exhibition accorded a more prominent place to experimentation in a clear attempt to showcase the aesthetic potential of the medium. It sought to impose the idea of a photography that was modern in form and had a role to play in society, whether by dint of its utilitarian dimension or its social engagement, which – while still anchored on the left – now ran more toward antifascist and nationalist demands in response to Germany’s heightened hegemonic designs.

From a Copy of Fifo to the Development of a Social Program

  • 4 Alexandr Hackenschmied, ‘Fotografie ve Stuttgartě’ [Photography in Stuttgart], Fotografický obzor, (...)
  • 5 A. Hackenschmied, letter to Mánes of May 29, 1935, box 76, Prague, Municipal Archives, Collection o (...)
  • 6 A. Hackenschmied and Jiří Lehovec, typewritten preliminary proposal, received by Mánes on February (...)

3Originally, the photographers and filmmakers Jiří Lehovec and Alexandr Hackenschmied conceived the exhibition primarily as a variation on Fifo. Hackenschmied above all had visited Fifo in 1929 and was the moving force behind its principal Czechoslovak incarnations.4 With the help of the photographer Ladislav Emil Berka, he organized, at the Mansarde Aventine in Prague, the exhibitions New Photography in 1930 and Modern Photography in 1931, which combined scientific images and Czechoslovak avant-garde photographs. Finally, in 1934, toge­ther with Jiří Lehovec, he conceived the project of a third exhibition patterned after Fifo, this time on a grand scale and intended for the general public. The pair envisioned it as a show of force in support of ‘a vital photography nourished by the everyday life of our contemporary world,’ thus betraying a direct relationship with the Stuttgart model.5 It drew its inspiration from the latter in dividing up the objects exhibited into four different themes: artistic photography; applied photography; a technical and commercial section, with information on the modes of production (equipment, printing, and illustrated press); and, finally, a historical section containing early images and cameras.6

  • 7 Antonín Dufek, Česká fotografie 1918–1938 [Czech photography 1918–1938], June 26–August 23, 1981, M (...)
  • 8 L. Linhart, ‘Úvodem’ (note 2), 5.

4Ultimately, the project’s slow development, which stretched over almost two years, witnessed a succession of no fewer than eight prominent figures of the Czechoslovak photography scene, many of whom had previously had, or continued to have, links to Marxist currents. After Hackenschmied and Lehovec had proposed a preliminary program for the exhibition – Lehovec was a member of the Film-Photo Group of the Left Front at the time – their work was carried on by two other former members of the Left Front Lubomír Linhart and František Povolný, the painter Emil Filla, the surrealist František Vobecký, the progressive photographer Jaromír Funke, the activist amateur photographer Jiří Jeníček, and the professional photographer Josef Sudek. The theoretical direction of the exhibition was ultimately ent­rusted to Jiří Jeníček, known for his reformist efforts on behalf of amateur photographers, and the Marxist thinker Lubomír Linhart, who wrote the catalogue’s introduction. While some of the exhibition’s curators were neutral, the fact that most of them were socialists encourages an ideological reading of the event, which the photography historian Antonín Dufek rightly describes ‘as the high-water mark of the left-wing avant-garde.’7 It was, after all, a more active engagement of photographers in society, whether through utilitarian or photojournalistic practices, that the exhibition called for when it set out to glorify the ‘social function of photography.’8 It remains to be seen what place is occupied by experimental practices within this program.

  • 9 Jiří Jeníček, Fotografie jako zření světa a života [Photography as a vision of the world and life] (...)
  • 10 L. Linhart, Sociální fotografie [Social photography] (Prague: Knihovna Levé Fronty, 1934), 67.

5According to Jiří Jeníček, the organizers chose to combine artistic and documentary images in the interest of a ‘dialectical’ reflection in which the works would confront one another.9 This construction of Marxist doctrine was customary for Linhart, who had already espoused it in his 1934 book on social photography: ‘One must reject bourgeois [that is, artistic] photography but not outright, rather in a critical, dialectical manner.’10 He thus intended to make a right and wrong distinction by juxtaposing contradictory elements. This position explains why documentary photographs and experimental images by avant-garde artists were interspersed on the gallery walls, even though the two catalogue authors, Jeníček and Linhart, seemed to be opposed to purely aesthetic practices, which they wished to subordinate to a social use of photography. The result was a survey of photographic production condemned by its detractors for its incoherence; this was further compounded because formal, experimental, and documentary photographs fell wherever alphabetical order happened to dictate.

Serving Society

  • 11 Anonymous, ‘Mezinárodní výstava fotografií’ [The international photography exhibition], Rudé Právo,(...)
  • 12 This is undoubtedly how the following remark by Jiří Jeníček is to be understood: ‘We made a specia (...)

6‘Dryly objective photography and photojournalism … are amply represented at the exhibition’: this prevalence of the photographic document, observed by a commentator, attests to the privileged status accorded to applied photography, whether scientific or journalistic.11 To glorify such photography is to attribute a use to the medium and a role in society to the professional photographer. This is the justification for including a photograph by Max Thorek, the great advocate for juried salon photography, in the catalogue; the organizers deliberately ignored his pictorialist work and included him under the status of a doctor, presenting a photograph of a surgical operation as the sole specimen of his oeuvre12 (An Operation, no. 488 in the catalogue).

  • 13 J. Jeníček, ‘Výstava mezinárodní fotografie v Mánesu’ [International photography exhibition at Máne (...)
  • 14 Anonymous (ma), ‘O moderní fotografii’ [On modern photography], Lidové noviny (polední vydání), no. (...)
  • 15 C. de Cordis, ‘Jean Schlemmer,’ La Revue Moderne illustrée des Arts et de la Vie, no. 12 (June 30, (...)
  • 16 Anonymous (ma), ‘O moderní fotografii’ (note 14), 4.

7In the case of scientific photography, the social argument was complicated by an underlying reverence for modern beauty. According to Jiří Jeníček, the intention was to show that the purely utilitarian photograph could hold its own against the experiments of the avant-gardes: ‘X-ray images are accorded the same importance as purely aesthetic photographs,’ and ‘the document becomes the equal of the photographic abstraction.’13 It must be said that the advances of the New Vision had been assimilated by many critics, who now felt that photography, by ‘registering the variety of nature’s forms, brings to light the fantastic beauty of details hidden from the human eye.’ Hitherto invisible, confined as they were to exhibitions intended for professionals, these images constituted an entirely new imaginary universe and, because of their visual appeal, acquired a new status beyond that of mere technological instruments.14 In France, La Revue Moderne illustrée des Arts et de la Vie (the Modern Illustrated Review of the Arts and Life) devoted a number of articles to the various exhibitors, including the professor Jan Schlemmer, whose images obtained in the course of photochemical research were included in the exhibition. The editor C. de Cordis saw in these ‘photographs, whose purely scientific character is not for me to comment on …, a certain value – obviously not deliberate – from the perspective of decoration. There is definitely something here that artists are unaware of and would have an interest in getting to know: the beauty of the invisible, which can teach a modern temperament valuable lessons.’15 Thus, the scientific photograph was seen to be just as capable of provoking ‘strong aesthetic emotions’ as the specifically artistic image, bringing to light a modern beauty from the objective contemplation of nature.16

  • 17 L. Linhart, ‘Moderní fotografie a její výstava v Mánesu’ [Modern photography and its exhibition at (...)
  • 18 Ibid.
  • 19 Anonymous (F.K.), ‘Fotografie,’ Pražské Noviny, no. 79, April 2, 1936, p. 5.
  • 20 Anonymous (R.W.), ‘Prager Foto-Skandal,’ Die Zeit, Sudetendeutsches Tagblatt, no. 65, March 17, 193 (...)

8Forensic photography, for its part, eluded this celebration of the aesthetic value of macro- and microphotography, but it constituted an additional argument in favour of the medium’s utilitarian use: ‘these three collections [those of the Police Directorate’s Criminal Investigation Division; the Institute for Forensic Toxicology, Chemistry, and Microscopy; and the Central Office of Police Investigations] are a powerful demonstration of photography’s role in the area of security.’17 In addition, the organizers attempted to pique the viewer’s interest by emphasizing its sensationalistic side. The exhibition fed the onlooker’s fascination with criminality by piling up ‘photographic evidence of acts, documents, and counterfeit banknotes, and images that help to identify weapons and other instruments used in a crime, the criminal, the time it was committed, etc.’18 In doing so, it aligned itself with the sensationalistic articles of the tabloid press, which reported continuously about the services rendered by the medium of photography. While the political connotation of this police documentation jumps out at us today, most critics did not attempt to dissociate it from the rest of the scientific images in order to focus on this aspect. For the art critic of the newspaper Pražské Noviny, both the forensic as well as the x-ray photographs offered a means ‘for enriching our knowledge by revealing what cannot be seen with the naked eye.’19 Only an editor of the pro-Nazi newspaper Die Zeit took offence at the political implications of including a set of photographs from government agencies, an issue that will be discussed later in this essay.20

9Similarly, the exhibition privileged photojournalism, glorifying its documentary interest and showing the progress it had made in the course of the decade. During these years, the image had become the primary vehicle for news, thanks especially to new forms of presentation such as the series. Press photography now covered all areas of interest to the modern age – politics, sports, theatre and film, industrial and social reporting – but it was represented at the exhibition by only a few of its most famous practitioners, with Karel Hájek and Pavel Altschul notably absent. In fact, the exhibition did not paint a particularly neutral picture of Czechoslovak press photography but showed a preference for the field of social reportage, which was indicated by a large number of photoreports on both rural and mining regions: Jaromír Funke’s Landscape Near Kutná Hora (no. 22), Vladimír Hipman’s report for the Mining and Metallurgy Company (Báňská a hutní společnost) (nos. 36–40), Jiří Jeníček’s Documents of the Coalfield of Northern Bohemia (nos. 65–68), František Pekař’s Landscapes of Southern Bohemia (nos. 111–14), as well as Pitching the Barrels and In the Jáchymov Mine by Jan Posselt (nos. 132–33). In the area of events, priority was given to those with a social connotation: the death of a miner by Jaroslav Kohlík (no. 80), as well as a strike and a workers’ Olympics by Alexandr Paul (nos. 106 and 108). By contrast, sports photography was represented by a single snapshot of a horse race (no. 107). The portraits of politicians, of which there are relatively few, were neutral: portraits of presidents of the republic (nos. 18 and 105) and the prime minister (no. 333). There were only three portraits of actors (no. 158 and nos. 334–35), despite that photographs of the new avant-garde theatre, actively documented by Alexandr Paul in particular, were hugely popular in the illustrated press. Even if the thematic range of documentary and journalistic photography, which demonstrated its participation in society in general, was by and large respected, the balance was, as we have seen, clearly tipped in favour of social subjects. That said, the emphasis was no longer on the representations of human hardship displayed at the social photography exhibitions of 1933 and 1934, but rather on topographical and sociological reports.

  • 21 Anonymous (R.A.Š.) [Robert A. Šimon], ‘Mezinárodní výstava fotografie v Praze’ [The international p (...)
  • 22 Ibid.

10If the scientific photographs and illustrated reports were very well received by critics, it was because a favourable consensus had begun to emerge around the photographic document. As the critic Robert A. Šimon reported in the semi-monthly amateur magazine Foto-Noviny, most commentaries on the exhibition, whether in the photography columns of the major daily newspapers or in specialized journals and magazines, agreed upon the importance of providing the photograph with content, preferably linked to current events; Šimon recommended exploiting ‘the capacities of photography that are still too often ignored – in particular the opportunity it affords to capture a given moment objectively.’21 By contrast, again according to Šimon, the observers were united in condemning the display of a ‘whole knick-knack shop’s worth’ of images that for them amounted to no more than formal games.22 And with good reason: the glorification of the informative value of the photographic document and of a practice centred on the snapshot seemed difficult to reconcile with the experimental explorations of the avant-gardes.

Formal Invention and Utilitarian Value: An Impossible Equation?

  • 23 L. Linhart, ‘Sociální fotografie’ [Social photography], Magazín DP, no. 2, (1933/1934): 10.
  • 24 The political photomontage developed around 1925; it employed a ‘formalist-sociological method’ tha (...)
  • 25 Abstract representations obtained by the photographer František Povolný by chemically manipulating (...)
  • 26 J. Jeníček, ‘Výstava mezinárodní fotografie v Mánesu’ (note 13), 17.

11This prevailing skepticism regarding creative photography was even shared by the authors of the catalogue who explained their position in other writings prior to and concurrent with the exhibition, even though they remained convinced that formal virtuosity was an indispensable element of all photographic images. A few years earlier, Linhart claimed that formal invention was necessary as a guard against lapsing into ‘a slavish naturalism, mere factuality, and a disavowal of the slightest creative intervention in photography,’23 adopting the theories of the propaganda image formulated ten years earlier by the Russian avant-gardes, who argued that the power of formal suggestion increased the impact of the discourse.24 There is no question, however, of remaining content with that power, at the risk of falling into the formalist trap. For his part, Jiří Jeníček, in an article on the exhibition, deplored the uselessness of these ‘photograms, fotografiky,25 and abstract photographs, unless they are given a utilitarian character, some practical application, whether in advertisements or some other type of applied photography.’26 Jeníček’s and Linhart’s remarks reflected a position that was far from banning formal originality for its lack of legibility, as in the USSR in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They simply reduced it to the status of a pedagogical tool that had to be incorporated into a utilitarian or social action. Many of the Czech avant-gardists present at the exhibition bore the double label of artist and activist, whether by virtue of their membership in the Film-Photo Group of the Left Front, their participation in the social photography exhibitions, or the documentary work they did in addition to their formal experimentation. But while their position was certainly politicized, was it sufficient to satisfy the aspirations
of a Linhart or a Jeníček or of observers opposed to the aestheticism of experimental photography?

  • 27 Vítězslav Nezval, Měsíc 3, no. 8 (1934): 10–11. Quoted in Bronislava Gabrielová, ‘Příspěvek k dějin (...)
  • 28 Václav Neumann, ‘Velké zklamání’ [A great disappointment], Národní Listy, no. 78, March 19, 1936, p (...)
  • 29 Only one of the members of F5, Karel Kašpařík, who was not represented at the 1936 exhibition, soug (...)

12If the members of the Photo-Group of Five (Fotoskupina pěti ou f5), an avant-garde group from Brno – three of them, František Povolný, Bohumil Němec, and Jaroslav Nohel, were present at the exhibition, along with Otakar Lenhart, a former member – practised experimental photography, they situated it within a twofold struggle for a new perception of the world and for the breaking of social chains. This was pointed out by the surrealist poet Vítězslav Nezval in his preface to the 1934 exhibition of the Photo-Group of Five: ‘the emancipation of the spirit that their art aspires to can only be fully realized together with the liberation of man, his social liberation.’27 But for the conservative critic Václav Neumann, as for many others who did not take into account this dual identity, their experimental works came down to a game that consisted of ‘scratching the negative, altering it chemically, taking two different pictures on a single negative, and all other forms of infiltration.’28 It is true that none of the titles of the images sent to the exhibition referred to a social subject; instead, they suggested the photographs’ technical complexity, inspired by the photogram, solarization, and collage. In his Self-Portrait (no. 100), Jaroslav Nohel presented his personal interpretation of solarization, which he used to create plays of textures and establish semantic correspondences between them: the skin of the face, when solarized, took on the semblance of stone, while the pores of the skin became grainy. The titles of the other images exhibited also suggest their experimental character: a Photogram (no. 136) by František Povolný; a Fotoreliéf (no. 93) – a graphic alteration on the surface of the negative that produces a relief effect – and photomontages (nos. 89–91) by Otakar Lenhart. Even if we know little about the political activities of these photographers, it is clear that their activism remained distinct from their experimental photographic work.29 Although such a position was indefensible in the eyes of the advocates of a photography that places form in the service of content, Jeníček and Linhart tolerated it in the exhibition, just as they granted a dominant role to Man Ray.

  • 30 Antonín Dufek, ‘Man Ray et la photographie tchèque,’ in Prague, 1900–1938: Capitale secrète des ava (...)
  • 31 Minutes of a meeting on September 12, 1935, book of minutes of Mánes committee meetings from Januar (...)
  • 32 Josef Gočár and Kamil Novotný, president and secretary general of Mánes Artists’ Association respec (...)
  • 33 Josef Toman, secretary of Mánes Association, facsimile of letter to the editors of an unidentified (...)
  • 34 J. Gočár and K. Novotný, facsimile of letter to Man Ray of February 12, 1936 (note 32).
  • 35 Man Ray, letter to Mánes of February 17, 1936, box 76, Prague, Municipal Archives, Collection of Má (...)
  • 36 Václav Neumann, ‘Ještě o výstavě v Mánesu’ [A postscript to the Mánes exhibition], Národní Listy, n (...)

13The work of the Czech modernists had its antecedents in surrealism and particularly Man Ray.30 The efforts made to secure the famous photographer’s participation as well as the place of honour reserved for him at the exhibition are clear indications of this recognition. On September 12, 1935, it was announced at the Mánes Association that Man Ray had promised to submit one hundred photographs to the show,31 thanks to the poet Vítězslav Nezval’s intercession with André Breton and Paul éluard.32 At this juncture, a communiqué dated October 4, 1935, reported that the organizers were also considering a retrospective of the photographer’s work that would run in conjunction with the exhibition.33 A letter written in broken French, sent to the artist by the Mánes Association to convince him to participate even when he wished to cancel, confirms that he was still regarded as a leader: ‘In Czechoslovakia, a coalition of modern photographers is forming against the conservative ones, and you will surely appreciate how much it would mean to us to have your works at the forefront of everyone’s photographs.’34 In the end, Man Ray only partially kept his promise, apologizing to Mánes‘ [for being] so busy these days that [he] simply [didn’t] have the time to put together such a large contribution.’ As a result, his contribution was limited to a hastily assembled collection of twenty-seven photographs, none of which seemed to be new.35 There were eight portraits, six photograms, and thirteen other images, including a number of solarizations, a contribution, according to the critic Václav Neumann, that ‘was neither thrilling nor added anything remarkable to the show.’36

  • 37 J. Jeníček, ‘Výstava mezinárodní fotografie v Mánesu’ (note 13), 17.
  • 38 Anonymous (R.A.Š.) [Robert A. Šimon], ‘Mezinárodní výstava fotografie v Praze’ (note 21), 60.
  • 39 Jan Blažek, ‘Mezinárodní výstava fotografie’ [The international photography exhibition], Národní po (...)
  • 40 Ibid.
  • 41 Anonymous (ma), ‘Českoslovenští fotografové mezi cizími’ [Czechoslovak photographers among foreigne (...)

14For many observers, the reputation enjoyed by Man Ray no longer justified the honours heaped on him at the exhibition. The photographer’s reception was divided between respect for his pioneering work and the sense that he now belonged to the past. Thus, it is symptomatic that Jiří Jeníček regarded Man Ray as ‘a revolutionary who has fallen back in line,’ while still recognizing ‘the importance of his advances for photography’s future tasks. One has only to observe his concrete approach to the portrait or the discretion of the aesthetic of his photograms, which can be adopted by applied photography.’37 By contrast, Man Ray’s works did not find favour with the critics whose writing was addressed to amateur photographers, and who, offended that the organizers had castigated amateur photographers seeking to reproduce impressionistic effects,38 denounced the work of the avant-garde as mere imitations ‘of current pictorialist movements, which co-opt the plastic sources of surrealism,’ refusing to concede that photographic surrealism had its own independent inspiration.39 As a result, they condemned not only ‘the emptiness of Man Ray’s toys’40 but also all photography conceived as a ‘game,’ in favour of that which is of ‘service’41.

  • 42 K. Hermann, ‘K Mánesu’ [On Mánes], Fotografie, no. 4 (March 30, 1936): 62.

15Objectivity, utility, and content are all qualities that were henceforth prized by a majority of commentators. This shared enthusiasm succeeded in uniting the social movement, which while losing its radicalism was still embraced by a portion of the avant-garde, and the nationalist current that, in amateur circles in particular, was just beginning to emerge. The editor Karel Hermann, when faced with the spectacle of Soviet photography, asked, in the amateur magazine Fotografie, ‘where is our country’s propaganda?’ Similarly, the critics demanded a photography in the service of the national cause, something for which the Soviet photographs could easily serve as a model, even if it meant adapting the message where it didn’t suit one’s political allegiances. As Hermann explained in his article, ‘People have focused on the political dimension of Russian photography.… But what truly deserves attention is the well-thought-out and appropriate way it handles news photography.… Good examples are for men of good will to use.… That is why the presence of the Russians seems to me to be a good thing.’42 Thus, the critics’ expectations ultimately seemed to coalesce around a politicized form of expression and hence could only be satisfied by the political images presented at the show.

Political Issues

  • 43 A. Hackenshmied and J. Lehovec, typewritten preliminary proposal (note 6).

16It was the photographs of the Soviets and of John Heartfield, showcased in specially dedicated spaces, that constituted the most conspicuous examples of engaged works in the exhibition. Rendered even more striking by the visibility accorded them, their capacity to synthesize form and content was obvious to everyone. It must be said that these images were all the better received because they supported the official political position of Czechoslovakia, which, by the treaty of alliance concluded in 1935 with the USSR, stood alongside Moscow against Berlin and thus represented an ideal stage for the dissemination of communist ideology in the West as well as a haven for opponents of Hitler’s regime. However, the first proposal presented by Hackenschmied and Lehovec made no mention of the participation of Soviet photographers, any more than it envisaged dividing up the exhibition’s galleries by country.43 It may also be that the exhibition’s final layout owed a great deal
to the worsening of the conflict
with Germany and the consequent rise of nationalism.

  • 44 L. Linhart, facsimile of letter of December 23, 1935, to comrade Freund of VOKS, box 76, Prague, Mu (...)
  • 45 L. Linhart, ‘Moderní fotografie a její výstava v Mánesu’ (note 17), 222.
  • 46 Ibid.
  • 47 Čestmír Amort, Velká víra a naděje: Dokumenty o vztazích československého lidu k národům SSSR v let (...)

17While at the social photography exhibitions of 1933 and 1934 the Soviet contribution had primarily sought to support the revolutionary cause, in 1936 it gave rise to a mutual exchange of courtesies: the organizers’ pro-Soviet sentiments were answered by the pro-Czechoslovak attentions of their Russian interlocutors. It is thanks to the privileged contacts that Linhart maintained with VOKS (the USSR’s Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries) in his capacity as secretary of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR that Russia agreed to participate, submitting an especially polished contribution.44 In the radio lecture broadcast that accompanied the exhibition, Linhart expressed his gratitude for the favours shown to him, that is, the extent of the Soviet contribution, the largest ever sent to a foreign country – of a total of 250 photographs, 108 of which were hung – and the translation of the titles into Czech in Moscow.45 In addition, a number of photographs depicted the trip to Russia made in the summer of 1935 by Edvard Beneš, the Czechoslovak president at the time, who signed a treaty of alliance between the two countries. In them, the president is seen ‘next to Soviet statesmen and ordinary citizens with children, in cities or in the countryside.’46 Finally, according to the communist historian Čestmír Amort, the wife of the Czechoslovak president, Hana Benešová, visited the exhibition in 1936 with the chancellor of the republic and requested a print of each of the photographs of the president, which VOKS provided.47

  • 48 Anonymous (R.W.), ‘Prager Foto-Skandal’ (note 20), 1.
  • 49 Ibid.
  • 50 This difference in presentation can be seen by comparing the interior views of the exhibition publi (...)
  • 51 The photographs’ dimensions are mentioned in the correspondence with the Russian propaganda organs. (...)
  • 52 Anonymous (ma), ‘O moderní fotografii’ (note 14), 4.

18At the other end of the political spectrum, the editor of the pro-German daily Die Zeit bitterly remarked that the inclusion of photographs from state agencies – the Prague police directorate and the investigations division of the national police – exacerbated the exhibition’s official character.48 The presence of police photography at the exhibition went beyond the scope of the utilitarian discourse represented by the rest of the scientific images, inasmuch as it was capable of taking on a nationalist significance while also reinforcing the diplomatic rapprochement with Moscow. The editor of Die Zeit was also one of the few to voice reservations about the Soviet photographs, denouncing their propagandistic char­acter and expressing his indignation at the ‘two walls [covered] with images of the “Soviet paradise,”’ which depicted life in Russia ‘as pleasant and harmonious … [in an effort] to give the impression that Moscow is a paradise to which even our statesmen go on pilgrimage.’49 By contrast, even if other critics had reservations about the political orientation of the photographs, they were persuaded by their illustrative power, whose force lay precisely in their thematic variety in the service of a single cause. The array of Russian images presented at the exhibition documented the country’s geographic diversity, the daily life of its inhabitants, the power of its army and industry, and the great moments of its political life. Although these photographs were far from the bold experiments of the October Group, which had been banished from the Russian photography scene, they nonetheless demonstrated a tremendous formal vitality within the parameters defined by the regime. Although they obeyed the imperative of legibility, they made abundant use of the narrative virtues of the snapshot as well as of dramatic angles, oblique compositional lines, and close-ups that magnify action. These images seem that much more masterful because of their formal conception and the way they were exhibited; they were mounted directly on the wall like posters and displayed in two rows, one above the other, in sharp contrast to the presentation of the other images, which were neatly mounted on white cardboard and in some cases framed under glass.50 Their dimensions too – from 30 x 40 cm to 50 x 60 cm – were appreciably larger than the traditional format of 20 x 30 cm adopted by the other exhibitors.51 The size and dense hanging of the images accentuated the impression of movement and exaltation, narrative and illustrative qualities that were extremely well received by the critics, one of whom recognized ‘the effort to capture the major news items in the most expressive possible way. Hence the surprising boldness of these photographs, their search for new and novel perspectives.… They are the very best example of a vital photojournalism that doesn’t lack aesthetic qualities.’52 In the opinion of most commentators in the communist newspapers – like Rudé Právo (red law) – or other, less engaged observers, Russian photography presented the perfect expression of the fusion of social function and formal invention.

  • 53 L. Linhart, ‘Moderní fotografie a její výstava v Mánesu’ (note 17), 222.
  • 54 Michael Krejsa, ‘Comment les nazis réagirent au travail de Heartfield: 1933–1939,’ John Heartfield, (...)
  • 55 Anonymous (R.W.), ‘Prager Foto-Skandal’ (note 20), 1.
  • 56 Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts Bonn, A III 1b8, verbal note reproduced in John Heartfield, (...)
  • 57 J. Gočár and K. Novotný, facsimile of letter to John Heartfield of March 25, 1936, box 76, Prague, (...)
  • 58 J. Blažek, ‘Mezinárodní výstava fotografie’ (note 39), 9.

19Along with the Soviet photographs, Heartfield’s photomontages represented for Lubomír Linhart the other ‘collection predestined for the press, political struggle, and public life. It is an exemplary model of engaged photography.’53 These caricatures of the principal dignitaries of the Reich and their arbitrary policies caused an even greater stir among Nazi supporters than the Russian contribution. After emigrating from Germany to Prague in 1933, John Heartfield joined the exiled editorial staff of the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung and continued his polemical work. The German diplomatic staff had already obtained the suppression of his anti-Nazi photomontages once before, at the International Exhibition of Caricatures presented by Mánes from April 6 to July 3, 1934.54 In 1936, the editorial published in Die Zeit denounced Heartfield’s images for the ‘revolting distortion [with which he caricatures] the principal statesmen of the Reich, depicting them with an executioner’s axe and flames.’55 And indeed, a few days later Heartfield was the subject of a protest by the German embassy in Prague, which on March 19, 1936, verbally called upon the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs to withdraw from the exhibition the works listed in the catalogue as nos. 378 and 391, respectively The Dagger of Honor and They Judge the People, As Long As the People Do Not Rise Up to Judge Them.56 The request was forwarded to the board of the Mánes Association, which was forced to comply. The images in question were removed from the walls, and John Heartfield was informed of this on March 25.57 The magnitude of the reaction confirmed the power of Heartfield’s images, derived from the realism of the appropriated photographs, the simplicity of the combinations, and the photographer’s satirical intelligence – qualities that his work, which fused plastic beauty with activism, had embodied since
the 1920s. At the Mánes exhibition, this synthesis was all the more persuasive due to its juxtaposition
with the formalist approach found in the avant-garde. In the newspaper Národní Politika, Jan Blažek described Heartfield’s photomontages as ‘much more convincing than the unilateral experiments [of aesthetic photography] … thanks to this pugnacity and caricatural content, which come from the artist’s profound creative sensibility.’58 Photomontage thus embodied multiple promises: that of producing full-fledged artworks, that of conveying an activist message, and finally that of avoiding the emptiness of what were essentially aesthetic experiments.

  • 59 The Mánes Association board approves the formation of a photographic section on March 23, 1936. Its (...)
  • 60 Anonymous (ček) [J. Jeníček], ‘Doslov k poměrům v naší fotografii,’ České Slovo, no. 84, April 8, 1 (...)

20By virtue of the vitality of the scenes depicted, the naturalism of the description, the formal appeal of the compositions, and their topicality, Heartfield’s montages and the Soviet photoreports already embodied the two principal ways forward for a public that, at a moment of heightened political tensions, demanded an engaged mode of photographic expression, be it communist, antifascist, or nationalist. But on the Czechoslovak photography scene, the syncretism dreamed of by Fifo, which was assumed by the Mánes’s exhibition, was far from a matter of general agreement. By presenting an additive and non-hierarchical collection of utilitarian or activist practices and experimental images, the organizers sought to offer a toolkit with everything necessary for developing a photography of tomorrow combining social utility and modern style. But this attempt baffled the critics, who insisted on concrete solutions based on a synthesis of form and content, like those proposed by Heartfield and the Soviet photographers. The creation within the Mánes Artists’ Association in March 1936 of a special photography section including a number of the exhibition’s curators suggests a desire to continue the research launched at the show by developing a Czech model of socially useful photography.59 In an article announcing the future role of the section, Jiří Jeníček stressed the need for a synthetic practice of photography that would, once and for all, subordinate formal exploration, which ensured the expressiveness of the image, to an active engagement in society: ‘the Mánes group [regards] photography as a cause in the public interest (this is why it also ascribes a propaganda function to it). The Mánes group is an innovative group, based on experimentation, but essentially objective and utilitarian.’60

Notes

1 Acclaimed foreign photographers like Hans Bellmer, Raoul Hausmann, Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, Alexandr Rodchenko, Paul Schuitema, and Raoul Ubac stand alongside their Czechoslovak counterparts, Jaromír Funke, Josef Sudek, and Jindřich Štyrský.

2 Lubomír Linhart, ‘Úvodem’ [Introduction], Mezinárodní výstava fotografie [International photography exhibition], March 6–April 13, 1936, Prague (Prague: Mánes Artists’ Association, 1936), 5.

3 Matthew S. Witkovsky, Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918–1945, June 10–September 3, 2007, Washington, National Gallery of Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 157.

4 Alexandr Hackenschmied, ‘Fotografie ve Stuttgartě’ [Photography in Stuttgart], Fotografický obzor, no. 35 (1929): 115.

5 A. Hackenschmied, letter to Mánes of May 29, 1935, box 76, Prague, Municipal Archives, Collection of Mánes Artists’ Association.

6 A. Hackenschmied and Jiří Lehovec, typewritten preliminary proposal, received by Mánes on February 8, 1934, box 76, Prague, Municipal Archives, Collection of Mánes Artists’ Association.

7 Antonín Dufek, Česká fotografie 1918–1938 [Czech photography 1918–1938], June 26–August 23, 1981, Moravian Gallery in Brno (Brno: Moravian Gallery in Brno, 1981), 26.

8 L. Linhart, ‘Úvodem’ (note 2), 5.

9 Jiří Jeníček, Fotografie jako zření světa a života [Photography as a vision of the world and life] (Prague: Československé filmové nakladatelství, 1947), 141.

10 L. Linhart, Sociální fotografie [Social photography] (Prague: Knihovna Levé Fronty, 1934), 67.

11 Anonymous, ‘Mezinárodní výstava fotografií’ [The international photography exhibition], Rudé Právo, no. 88, April 12, 1936, p. 9.

12 This is undoubtedly how the following remark by Jiří Jeníček is to be understood: ‘We made a special point of inviting those who are not in the habit of submitting their works to exhibitions (a deliberate exception was made in Thorek’s case).’ In Anonymous (ček) [Jiří Jeníček], ‘Jak se třeba dívat na výstavu v Mánesu?’ [How should the Mánes exhibition be regarded?], České Slovo, no. 78, April 1, 1936, p. 12.

13 J. Jeníček, ‘Výstava mezinárodní fotografie v Mánesu’ [International photography exhibition at Mánes], Letem-Světem, no. 24, March 24, 1936, p. 17.

14 Anonymous (ma), ‘O moderní fotografii’ [On modern photography], Lidové noviny (polední vydání), no. 157, March 26, 1936, p. 4.

15 C. de Cordis, ‘Jean Schlemmer,’ La Revue Moderne illustrée des Arts et de la Vie, no. 12 (June 30, 1936): 24.

16 Anonymous (ma), ‘O moderní fotografii’ (note 14), 4.

17 L. Linhart, ‘Moderní fotografie a její výstava v Mánesu’ [Modern photography and its exhibition at Mánes], Tvorba, no. 14 (April 3, 1936): 223.

18 Ibid.

19 Anonymous (F.K.), ‘Fotografie,’ Pražské Noviny, no. 79, April 2, 1936, p. 5.

20 Anonymous (R.W.), ‘Prager Foto-Skandal,’ Die Zeit, Sudetendeutsches Tagblatt, no. 65, March 17, 1936, p. 1.

21 Anonymous (R.A.Š.) [Robert A. Šimon], ‘Mezinárodní výstava fotografie v Praze’ [The international photography exhibition in Prague], Foto-Noviny 17, no. 4 (April 15, 1936): 60.

22 Ibid.

23 L. Linhart, ‘Sociální fotografie’ [Social photography], Magazín DP, no. 2, (1933/1934): 10.

24 The political photomontage developed around 1925; it employed a ‘formalist-sociological method’ that sought to imprint the political message on the viewer’s mind in lasting fashion through an ‘artistic and original’ formal treatment. In Margarita Tupitsyn, The Soviet Photograph, 1924–1937 (London: Yale University Press, 1996), 34.

25 Abstract representations obtained by the photographer František Povolný by chemically manipulating the negative.

26 J. Jeníček, ‘Výstava mezinárodní fotografie v Mánesu’ (note 13), 17.

27 Vítězslav Nezval, Měsíc 3, no. 8 (1934): 10–11. Quoted in Bronislava Gabrielová, ‘Příspěvek k dějinám meziválečné fotografie’ [A contribution to the history of photography between the wars], Československá fotografie, 1984, no. 6: 269, and no. 7: 317.

28 Václav Neumann, ‘Velké zklamání’ [A great disappointment], Národní Listy, no. 78, March 19, 1936, p. 8.

29 Only one of the members of F5, Karel Kašpařík, who was not represented at the 1936 exhibition, sought to combine avant-garde techniques and activist document, as shown by a recent exhibition. See Karel Kašpařík 1899–1968: Fotografie ze sbírky Moravské galerie v Brně [Karel Kašpařík 1899–1968: Photographs from the collection of the Moravian Gallery in Brno], September 14–November 26, 2000, Olomouc, Art Museum (Brno: Moravian Gallery, 1999).

30 Antonín Dufek, ‘Man Ray et la photographie tchèque,’ in Prague, 1900–1938: Capitale secrète des avant-gardes, June 15–October 13, 1997, Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, ed. Jacqueline Menanteau (Dijon: Musée des beaux-arts éditions, 1997), 183.

31 Minutes of a meeting on September 12, 1935, book of minutes of Mánes committee meetings from January 1, 1935, to October 22, 1936, box 76, Prague, Municipal Archives, Collection of Mánes Artists’ Association.

32 Josef Gočár and Kamil Novotný, president and secretary general of Mánes Artists’ Association respectively, facsimile of letter to Man Ray of February 12, 1936, box 76, Prague, Municipal Archives, Collection of Mánes Artists’ Association.

33 Josef Toman, secretary of Mánes Association, facsimile of letter to the editors of an unidentified newspaper of October 4, 1935, box 76, Prague, Municipal Archives, Collection of Mánes Artists’ Association.

34 J. Gočár and K. Novotný, facsimile of letter to Man Ray of February 12, 1936 (note 32).

35 Man Ray, letter to Mánes of February 17, 1936, box 76, Prague, Municipal Archives, Collection of Mánes Artists’ Association.

36 Václav Neumann, ‘Ještě o výstavě v Mánesu’ [A postscript to the Mánes exhibition], Národní Listy, no. 85, March 26, 1936, p. 8.

37 J. Jeníček, ‘Výstava mezinárodní fotografie v Mánesu’ (note 13), 17.

38 Anonymous (R.A.Š.) [Robert A. Šimon], ‘Mezinárodní výstava fotografie v Praze’ (note 21), 60.

39 Jan Blažek, ‘Mezinárodní výstava fotografie’ [The international photography exhibition], Národní politika, no. 73, March 13, 1936, p. 9.

40 Ibid.

41 Anonymous (ma), ‘Českoslovenští fotografové mezi cizími’ [Czechoslovak photographers among foreigners], Lidové noviny (polední vydání), no. 170, April 2, 1936, p. 4.

42 K. Hermann, ‘K Mánesu’ [On Mánes], Fotografie, no. 4 (March 30, 1936): 62.

43 A. Hackenshmied and J. Lehovec, typewritten preliminary proposal (note 6).

44 L. Linhart, facsimile of letter of December 23, 1935, to comrade Freund of VOKS, box 76, Prague, Municipal Archives, Collection of Mánes Artists’ Association.

45 L. Linhart, ‘Moderní fotografie a její výstava v Mánesu’ (note 17), 222.

46 Ibid.

47 Čestmír Amort, Velká víra a naděje: Dokumenty o vztazích československého lidu k národům SSSR v letech 1917–1945 [Great faith and hope: Documents concerning the relations of the Czechoslovak people with the nations of the USSR from 1917 to 1945] (Prague: SPN, 1970), 256.

48 Anonymous (R.W.), ‘Prager Foto-Skandal’ (note 20), 1.

49 Ibid.

50 This difference in presentation can be seen by comparing the interior views of the exhibition published in the press.

51 The photographs’ dimensions are mentioned in the correspondence with the Russian propaganda organs. See N. Geramimov (an official of Sojuzfoto in Moscow), letter to K.I. Shutko (VOKS representative in Prague) of February 10, 1936, box 76, Prague, Municipal Archives, Collection of Mánes Artists’ Association.

52 Anonymous (ma), ‘O moderní fotografii’ (note 14), 4.

53 L. Linhart, ‘Moderní fotografie a její výstava v Mánesu’ (note 17), 222.

54 Michael Krejsa, ‘Comment les nazis réagirent au travail de Heartfield: 1933–1939,’ John Heartfield, photomontages politiques, 1930–1938, April 7–July 23, 2006, Strasbourg, Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (Strasbourg: Musées de Strasbourg, 2006), 53.

55 Anonymous (R.W.), ‘Prager Foto-Skandal’ (note 20), 1.

56 Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts Bonn, A III 1b8, verbal note reproduced in John Heartfield, Der Schnitt entlang der Zeit. Selbstzeugnisse, Erinnerungen, Interpretationen, texts collected by Roland März (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1981), 364–66. Quoted in M. Krejsa, ‘Comment les nazis réagirent au travail de Heartfield. 1933–1939’ (note 54), 53.

57 J. Gočár and K. Novotný, facsimile of letter to John Heartfield of March 25, 1936, box 76, Prague, Municipal Archives, Collection of Mánes Artists’ Association.

58 J. Blažek, ‘Mezinárodní výstava fotografie’ (note 39), 9.

59 The Mánes Association board approves the formation of a photographic section on March 23, 1936. Its prospective members include Lubomír Linhart, Jiří Jeníček, Jindřich Štyrský, František Vobecký, František Pekař, Jaromír Funke, Alexandr Hackenschmied, Jiří Lehovec, František Povolný, and Josef Sudek. Minutes of meeting on March 23, 1936, book of minutes of Mánes committee meetings from January 1, 1935, to October 22, 1936, box 76, Prague, Municipal Archives, Collection of Mánes Artists’ Association.

60 Anonymous (ček) [J. Jeníček], ‘Doslov k poměrům v naší fotografii,’ České Slovo, no. 84, April 8, 1936, p. 12.

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Fedora Parkmann, « A Czechoslovak Variation on Fifo », Études photographiques, 29 | 2012, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 24 juin 2014. URL : http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/3475. consulté le 25 mars 2017.

Auteur

Fedora Parkmann

Fedora Parkmann holds a Master’s Degree in art history from the University of Paris Sorbonne – Paris IV, where she studied with Guillaume Le Gall. Her Master’s theses are entitled ‘L’Exposition internationale de photographie, Prague, 1936’ (The International Photography Exhibition, Prague, 1936) and ‘D.J. Ruzicka, photographe: L’avocat d’un pictorialisme moderne en Tchécoslovaquie’ (D.J. Ruzicka, photographer: The champion of a modern pictorialism in Czechoslovakia). She is currently doing research on Czechoslovakian photography between the wars for a PhD dissertation advised by Arnauld Pierre on relations between France and Czechoslovakia.

Droits d’auteur

Propriété intellectuelle