Jan Saudek and Sara Saudkova

BALLARAT INTERNATIONAL FOTO BIENNALE 2011

Dolce Vita

Like all true love affairs it transformed life into poetry; made all the more exciting by a lacing of the illicit. And like all true love, it lasted beyond the first infatuation to mature into a deep, unspoken understanding; a profound sense of connection.

So it was with my love of the photographs of Jan Saudek.

Saudek’s image world is both mythic and profoundly personal. Its allegories spring from an intense subjectivity. To fully understand this rich inner universe, one must know something of the turbulent environment in which the photographer struggled to survive.

Born into a Jewish family in 1935 Jan spent much of his childhood under Nazi occupation. He and his brother Karel were sent to a special concentration camp for twin children, while many of his family perished in Theresienstadt. This early exposure to violence and death made a deep impression as the young Jan looked upon the dead and dying around him “long and close, the way a child does”. He recalls at the age of nine seeing a German boy-soldier strung up from a lamppost by his ankles. “Even a child like me can see he’s from the Wehrmacht, and not an SS man. They pour petrol over him and set light to him… It’s the innocent who pay for every war.”

Following the war, the teenage Jan came across the Sunday cartoon section from an American newspaper that had been used as packing for a gift parcel sent from the US. The larger-than-life comic-strip tales of Captain Marvel and Li’l Abner caught his imagination (and that of his twin brother Karel, who was to become a notable Czech illustrator of comics). Later Jan was introduced to the photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, Giselle Freund and Eugene Smith reproduced in Life magazine. A sense of the narrative potential of photography began to take hold. Much later he was to remark: “If a photograph does not tell a story it’s not a photograph.” He went on to observe: “Perhaps it’s the story of all of our thoughts, those that become public and challenge conventional wisdom and those that remain confined by shame”.

If not shame, then certainly prudence led Jan Saudek to make his images privately, away from the prying eyes of the secret police. In 1972, four years after the Prague Spring and the subsequent suppression, Jan began making work in an old cellar. The plaster walls, peeling and crumbling in the damp, were to become a signature of his oeuvre for the next two decades – an aesthetic texture and a constant reminder of the inevitability of decay.

Early in his adolescence he had felt the first stirrings of “an animal yearning for physical love”. In Jan Saudek’s own telling of his life’s story, the primal sexual urge and the passion of each romantic relationship drive and divine his creative output. Each lover became an inspiration – his muse – featuring centrally in the images of that particular period and infusing his work with renewed erotic vigour; his own body the abiding emblem of masculinity. The frank desire in the images and his unconventional lifestyle have not always attracted a favourable press. When I first became aware of his work it was the butt of feminist ire and postmodern disdain. In his own country his personal life has been endlessly aired in the tabloids and for the major part of his life he was ostracised by the orthodox Czech art world. But being an outsider is a particular kind of freedom. Undeterred, Jan Saudek worked in isolation, a world apart, unfolding his latter-day mythography.

While he continued to photograph in black and white, his clients began to request colour. Colour film being hard to obtain and process, Jan took to hand tinting his images with watercolour pigments. Thus, the second signature of his oeuvre was established. Ironically, while it satisfied a contemporary market, the hand tinted nudes evoked 19th century erotica, reinforcing an achronic quality. Each painted photograph constructed a mythical image-space of hedonism tinged with melancholy, eroticism in the penumbra of violence, beauty amid decay, life cupped in the hands of death.

It is between these Herculean Pillars of the human condition – the passion in which life is created and the decay and violence in which it fades or is snuffed out – that Jan, like Dante’s Ulysses, dares to navigate in the search for truth. The crew who share this adventure is family. It is family that spans these opposing but mutually dependent poles of creation and dissolution. Family in its most generous definition: extended, enfolding, idiosyncratic, warm. Tracing his imagery over the decades one sees children born, mature into adulthood and bear their own families. Genetic resemblances echo though the tableaux. The variety of age, size and shape in the bodies represented speaks to the splendid diversity of humankind, as it does to the inexorable passing of the corporeal seasons and the promise of generational renewal. For, in his articulation of the visual language of human bodily beauty, Jan’s images celebrate not the surface of skin, but the palpable, mutable substance of flesh.

What first drew me to Jan Saudek’s work, and holds me still, is his sensitivity to beauty in all its forms from conventional to eccentric. He reveals – indeed revels in – the paradoxes and extremes of human experience, but he does so through a timeless allegorical poetics.

A trip to the US in 1969 was to set the ultimate course of Jan’s artistic rise to fame. There he met Hugh Edwards, an influential curator from the Art Institute of Chicago and tireless champion of fine art photography. Edwards recognised the artist’s talent, encouraged him to persevere and introduced his work to the American market. But here too there is a moment of paradox, for the trip to America also precipitated a growing sense of alienation. “I’m standing in an American street, 42nd Street in New York. Alone. And I have been alone ever since,” Jan recalls. “When I return home my children don’t recognise me.”

Despite growing international acclaim, especially in North America, Jan had to wait many decades before he was to be formally recognised in his own country. Indeed, he was nearly 50 by the time the authorities permitted him to leave his job as a factory worker and pursue a full-time photographic career. But while he was ostracised by the powers that be, he became something of a cult figure among his fellow photographers and drew increasing admiration from a younger generation of Czech art lovers.

One such fan was a student of economics, Sara Smesna, who, becoming aware of Jan’s photographs while at university, was immediately intrigued. Shortly after graduating she wrote to the artist to ask if they might meet. They did so in 1991 when Sara was 24 and Jan 56. From then on their lives variously entwined as Sara became first lover, muse and photographer’s assistant; later his manager, wife to his son Samuel and mother to their four children. For the next 20 years Sara was to be Jan’s ‘right hand’ while ‘Master Jan’ inspired and informed her about photography.

In the closing years of the turbulent 20th century Sara began making her own photographs. Using Jan’s studio and having now becoming a part of the extended family, her images share certain stylistic qualities with those of her teacher. However, beneath those superficial similarities lie distinct differences arising perhaps from a feminine perspective and certainly from having grown up in another time.

These distinctions can be illustrated if one compares, for example, Jan Saudek’s early black and white image Life made in 1966 and Sara Saudkova’s recent Graceful Journey made in 2011. In Life, a bare-chested man clasps a newborn to his chest. The man is wiry and the baby fragile. Both are anonymous, iconic, archetypical. The print is high contrast and grainy: gritty. In Sara Saudkova’s image, the baby rides on his father’s shoulders. The subjects are seen full-face. The man engages the viewer; the baby looks off to our left, smiling confidently. The man is sturdy, the baby nourished; there is a sense of wellbeing. The tonalities are soft and warm. Both are images of tenderness, but of different kinds. Jan’s is an image of vulnerability and protection, Sara’s one of self-assurance and shared adventure.

While the great majority of Jan’s imagery is staged within a closed, internalised world, many of Sara’s are set within the landscapes of the city, the garden or the forest. Her characters are less trammelled by life; their erotic and romantic sensibility is unalloyed; the blending of romance, sex, parenthood and kinship is more naturalistic.

What the works of these two artists share is a profound sense of intimate human connectedness. It is a connection all the more real for its unconventionality; all the more affecting for its departure from the canons of commercial beauty; all the more true for its poetry.

Finally, in 2006 at the age of 71, Jan Saudek received the recognition due to him. Now, without doubt the most famous living Czech photographic artist, he was awarded the Republic’s highest artistic accolade, the Artis Bohemiae Amicis.

I began by describing my feelings for Jan Saudek’s photographs as a love affair. This was not a casual remark. The word ‘love’ carries many shades of meaning: from the unconditional love of child and parent to the passions of romance and sexual congress and the quietly sustained affections of old age. In the work of Jan and in that of Sara we find these and many more.

Jan Saudek once said: “I still dream of the day when I will take a photograph so beautiful that it can be called love.”

For me, that day came long ago.

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This essay was commissioned by the Ballarat International Foto Biennale and published in the 2011 festival catalogue. The catalogue is available here.
You can see more images by Jan Saudek and Sara Saudkova here.
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Images (from the top):
© Jan Saudek Dancers in Paradise 1986
© Jan Saudek With the Second Daughter from My Third Marriage 1987
© Jan Saudek Life 1966
© Sara Saudkova Graceful Journey 2011


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  • The majority of the texts on this site are by Alasdair Foster and represent his opinions.
    However, in order to facilitate a useful diversity of views, some texts have been invited from artists and colleagues around the world, while others appear as independent comments. These opinions and comments are not necessarily those of Alasdair Foster or Cultural Development Consulting (CDC).
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