Picture This

"Electricite" is but one example of Man Ray's numerous commercial commissions. "Man Ray published a great deal, including many broadsheets," notes Fudge. His work also showed up in art magazines, helping to spread his influence throughout the United States and Europe in the 1920s and '30s.

That influence is what links Man Ray to the other featured photographers in the exhibit, almost a dozen modernists working at much the same time in Prague, Czechoslovakia. This group of nearly thirty photographs, some by big-time talents, was a partial gift from local collectors David and Sheryl Tippit. The photos economically sketch out the various trends in fine-art photography in Prague from the 1910s to the '40s, supplemented by a handful of pieces from the 1950s.

The show's earliest photo is "Nude," a 1915 double bromoil transfer print by the renowned Frantisek Drtikol, who maintained Prague's most important photo studio in the early twentieth century. The small vertical photograph, carried out in sepia on black, features a posed composition with a nude woman wearing large angel's wings. Drtikol's model is posed provocatively, her twisting posture bringing attention to her bare breasts. "Nude" is an undeniable example of Drtikol's art-nouveau erotica, but it's also a symbolist photo that anticipates surrealism. "Composition: Upward Thrust With Shadows," a 1929 pigment print, is another avant-garde pinup, but this one is art deco. A leaning nude woman, her tanned body dramatically lit in profile, is set before arching, linear shadows.

More radical than either of these is "Figural Abstraction," a gelatin silver print done in 1930, shortly before Drtikol abandoned photography. In this photo, an exaggerated paper cutout stands in for the nude; the figural cutout is seen in the middle of a riot of geometric shadows.

Drtikol was not the only Czech photographer to experiment with abstract photography based on inanimate subjects. In "Composition (Abstraction)," a 1922 silver bromide print, Jaromir Funke shoots a sunlit room appointed with a simple pointed box. Closely related is Funke's "Composition With Picture Frames," another silver bromide print done a few years later in 1925. Remarkably, these Funke photographs function as still lifes and abstractions simultaneously.

Jaroslav Rsssler was among the Czech photographers influenced by modernist abstraction. In "Untitled (Still Life Abstraction With Horizontal Lines and Circles)," a 1925 gelatin silver print, dark forms envelop a lit grid. In a 1931 photogram titled "Paris II," a hand, a flat bar and a miniature version of the Eiffel Tower have been assembled to convey the unmistakable image of the City of Light. Both the composition and the use of the hand link "Paris II" to the contemporaneous work of Man Ray.

Josef Ehm also took abstract photos, including "Kanaly," a 1934 gelatin silver print that offers an artful view of sewer pipes. But Ehm later went on to a modernist naturalism related to American photography. In "Untitled (nude torso)," a gelatin silver print from 1940, he judiciously lights the female figure that appears to be emerging from the shadows. In "Untitled (nude, arms covering head)," another gelatin silver print, the same model is seen in a full-frontal shot, hiding her face behind her hands.

Not all Czech photographers were interested in cutting-edge photography, however. Some were influenced by old-fashioned pictorialism, a corollary to landscape painting. Josef Sudek, one of the most famous Czech photographers, remained a pictorialist throughout his career. This show includes several of his later landscape photographs from the 1950s, including the magical "Jana Soenium Sabor" and the dreamlike "...View from Kampa Island," both gelatin silver prints. Sudek's fame and his conservative approach apparently allowed him to continue his work after the Communist takeover of the 1940s: Nothing about his poetic vision threatened the regime.

Between Two Wars and Beyond also includes an Andre Kertesz photograph given to the museum just a few months ago by longtime donors C. William and Eleanor Reiquam. "Chez Mondrian," a silver gelatin print from 1926, is a large-format photo of a corner of Piet Mondrian's Paris studio. The Hungarian-born Kertesz was living in the French capital at the time this photo was taken; he later came to the United States to live permanently. "Chez Mondrian" captures a serene, though visually complicated, scene. As you'd expect, Mondrian's studio is spartan and extremely orderly--but an unexpected vase of flowers appears near the center of the photo. Flowers aside, Kertesz conveys the rectilinear character of Mondrian's geometric paintings by placing the vertical door frame down the middle of the photograph. Beyond the open door are the corridor's bright, sunlit steps, which roughly align with the studio's blocky dark paneling. "Chez Mondrian" not only shows off Kertesz's brilliant mastery of composition; it also highlights his skill at juggling lights and darks to create a lively picture.

Fudge has performed her own juggling act in pulling together the fine Between Two Wars and Beyond. Although the museum still has a long way to go to fill out its photography collection, getting the work of Man Ray, Kertesz and several illustrious members of the Czech modern movement is a good start.

Let's watch and see what develops.

Between Two Wars and Beyond, through June 6 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 303-640-4433.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help