Suppression, Subversion, and the Surreal: The Art of Czechoslovakian Resistance, Part Two

Selections of Czech Photography from the Dr. Eugene Rogolsky Collection

By USC Fisher Museum of Art

Selections from the Dr. Eugene Rogolsky Collection

Fate Descends Toward the River, Leading Two Innocent Children (Circa. 1980) by Jan Saudek (Czech, b. 1935)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Jan Saudek

Jan Saudek, born in Prague in 1935, is a Jewish photographer and painter. The Holocaust had an immense influence in shaping the tone of Saudek’s artistic voice. His works frequently evoke the body, life, death, power, and corruption. Exploring conflicting concepts, Saudek injects a palpable pathos - love, loss, overt sexuality and eroticism - into his subjects. He channels cathartic themes to dissociate from the tyrannical authorities that prevailed throughout the various periods in his life. Saudek’s works use art as a catalyst for social activism. He currently lives in Czech Republic. [Text for Jan Saudek by Corey Gordon]

My Father in a Cemetery (1973 (Printed 1983)) by Jan Saudek (Czech, b. 1935)USC Fisher Museum of Art

At an early age, Saudek and his twin brother, Karel, were separated from their family by the Nazis. Gustav, Jan’s father, and his six brothers were detained at Theresienstadt concentration camp. After the liberation of the camps by the Soviet army, only Jan, Karel, and Gustav survived.

The Nazis’ occupation of Czechoslovakia shaped the tone of Saudek’s work. Here, Saudek alludes to the scar left on Czechoslovak society by the Holocaust, mourning not only the loss of his family, but also the loss of the 263,000 Czechoslovakian Jews during the Nazis’ occupation.

#35 (Life) (1986) by Jan Saudek (Czech, b. 1935)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Boy Kissing Hand (1967 (Printed 1978)) by Jan Saudek (Czech, b. 1935)USC Fisher Museum of Art

The “Deputy Sheriff” badge on the boy’s jacket alludes to the police-state culture that dominated Czechoslovakia at the time.

Through satire, Saudek critiques the alliance between the police and the Czechoslovakian government. By casting a young boy and an older man as his subjects, Saudek creates a power dynamic that parallels the relationship between a subordinate and a superior within the State. Clear visual imagery is a key proponent of the images' efficacy, which may have been intended to encourage common Czech citizens to be conscious of their government’s misdoings.

In response to government censorship, Saudek often created provocative works that fought against the state’s suppression of thoughts and ideas. This piece, while possessing a faint sense of humor, showcases the polices’ unrelenting allegiance to government authority.

Fate Descends Toward the River, Leading Two Innocent Children (Circa. 1980) by Jan Saudek (Czech, b. 1935)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Two young children are led into an ominous industrial landscape by a white-dressed heroine: a personification of fate. The nakedness and youth of these children, a common visual allegory for Saudek, plays into the theme of corruption. Once exposed to the corrupt environment, these children will never be the same.

Saudek simultaneously highlights the narrative, while calling attention to the dominating nature of the surrounding environment by framing the three figures in the center of the composition.

The young children are led into a site of electrical towers, massive silos, and dangling electrical wires — stark signs of a burgeoning industry. These symbols appeal to the negative effects of industrialization. Saudek’s photography points at the failures of the Czechoslovakian government while simultaneously engaging with the Czech people, encouraging a critical sense of awareness of their environment.

Oh, Those Fabulous Brom Sisters (1992 (September 25, 1992)) by Jan Saudek (Czech, b. 1935)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Fire and Rain (1976) by Jan Saudek (Czech, b. 1935)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Returning to themes of body and power, Saudek renders two bodies, male and female, covered with wet drapery—a visual reference to Greco-Roman sculpture. Saudek’s works often address themes of battling sexes. Within that framework, Fire and Rain alludes to primeval desires of humanity—love, lust, and attachment.

The bodies reflect one another from the knee onward; their inter-connectivity emphasizes the intimate connection the figures share.

Saudek juxtaposes the two figures, displaying their differences and similarities with equal weight. Acting as opposing forces of nature, fire and rain, the male and female are simultaneously at odds and intertwined.

I Was Too Shy To Speak (1989) by Pavel Baňka (Czech, b. 1941)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Pavel Baňka

Born in Prague in 1941, Pavel Baňka lived through a period of fierce political oppression. However, he has responded to state censorship less by embedding targeted political messages into his work, but by more broadly embracing the human capacity for expression in its totality. Such is evident both in his attention to expressions of the face and body in his images, as well as in the varied photographic techniques he uses to express himself. Baňka’s diverse body of work is delicately tied together by the thin thread of temporality. His fascination with the ephemeral is conveyed by his sensitivity to light and experimentation with multiple exposure. For Baňka, the photo is a snapshot not of a single moment, but of the essence of life, a “minuscule probe into time.” The photos presented in this exhibition demonstrate his awareness of the limits of the corporeal experience of time, and the fact that time continues beyond what humans can perceive. Additionally, they express the nostalgic and surrealist character of the artist’s work. Drawing from his own experiences and observations, Baňka makes the personal political. He explores the politics of the body in relationship to human history and the boundlessness of time. Such themes raise important questions about what is at stake in maintaining a distinction between the concrete and the abstract. In turn, Baňka’s dreamlike images push viewers to reassess the concept of the photograph as a material record of reality. Baňka lives and works in Prague. [Text for Pavel Baňka by Emelia Ho]

Baňka draws from his life in much of his work. It is through photography that the artist is able to externalize and capture his subjectivity. He believes that “Many people, men especially, are influenced their whole lives by their teenage years.” As the title of this work suggests, Baňka describes his younger self as quite shy. This photo, a visual manifestation of his childhood reticence, features Baňka’s own daughter and her boyfriend.

The pair are connected by tangled strings of light beams, shooting from their tilted heads. Baňka contrasts the kinetic energy of these lights with the stillness of the couple’s expressions. They appear otherwise detached, staring blankly towards the camera. With their eyes averted, it seems the two are relying on an idealized sense of telepathy, embodied by the whimsical lights, rather than engaging in true self-disclosure. Here, Baňka makes a playful commentary on communication and intimacy, both things he would have struggled with as an introverted adolescent.

Ladder (1986) by Pavel Baňka (Czech, b. 1941)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Along with Face with Metal Spiral, this photo is part of Baňka’s ‘Figuration’ collection. Baňka appreciates portraiture for its unique ability to candidly capture human emotion. He believes that portraits reflect personal history, and that the stories of all people are interconnected. Through portraiture, Baňka found he could cultivate connections between people and across time.

In this piece, Baňka rested a miniature ladder on the face of a reclining woman. The way the ladder’s shadow wraps across the contour of her forehead integrates the prop effortlessly into the photo.

Baňka often added props to his staged portraits to enhance meaning. In these compositions his carefully chosen and placed items do not act as mere ornaments, but become an extension of the model and symbol of their disposition. It is as if via the ladder one could climb into the private space of the woman’s mind. We are invited to contemplate her mental state and explore her thoughts and feelings. Through this intimate interaction between viewer and subject, the portrait becomes as much about the internal as the external, the immaterial as the material.

Face and Metal Spiral (1986) by Pavel Baňka (Czech, b. 1941)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Epitaf (Epitaph) (1990) by Pavel Baňka (Czech, b. 1941)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Rising the Circle (1995) by Pavel Baňka (Czech, b. 1941)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Through his experimentation with multiple strobe exposure, Baňka found a means of documenting the passage of time. In this technique, the camera’s shutter speed is reduced, allowing numerous flashes to occur over the period of exposure.

Here, Baňka uses this method to capture his model moving from the bottom to the top of the picture between bursts of light. Each of the subsequent frames become layered on top one another, creating a sense of movement in the composition. The blur of the model’s face encircled by the disc takes on a ghostlike quality.

In a single photo the artist both evokes the immediate past and projects the imminent future. Through exposure experimentation Baňka was able to allude to both recollection and imagination simultaneously. The result is a series of moments condensed into one image.

Fisherman on the River Vltava / Rybář na Vltavě (1958) by Václav Chochola (Czech, 1923 – 2005)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Václav Chochola

The nature of Václav Chochola’s photography is cryptic,mysterious, and often requires a second glance. Chochola, born in 1923 in Liben, Prague, began his career as a sports photographer in the early 1940’s and then branched out to press photography and theater work. His development of realistic imagery combined with surreal elements comes from his experience as a photojournalist, and his interest in depicting the ordinary transformed. His works in this exhibition specifically speak to the post World War II climate and beginnings of the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia. Chochola’s eye for capturing nuances of daily life and figural compositions came out of his early commercial work. His relationships with other Czech photographers helped solidify his interest in the surreal that he combined with realistic imagery. The photographs in this exhibition speak to different representations of the human body and the expression of lost identity after WWII in Czechoslovakia. Chochola blurs the line between imagination and reality by taking his observations and manipulating the camera, his primary tool, to create something new. There is realism in his work, none of it is fully Surrealist,but it is clear that Chochola has taken all of his experiences and melded them into a dynamic, analytical, and mysterious craft. [Text for Václav Chochola by Abigail Bresler]

Midnight Walker (1949) by Václav Chochola (Czech, 1923 – 2005)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Midnight Walker immediately draws the viewer in as it takes an ordinary subject and manipulates its form to provide a captivating view. The long exposure creates a semi-transparent cast around the figure, highlighting the technical complexities of photography while emphasizing Chochola’s mastery of it. The photograph appears as an incomplete figure whose body is dominated by light.

The streetlight in the background is just as significant to the composition as the figure and provides an opportunity to observe what lies beyond the photograph’s center of focus. There is a sense of solitude to the image, yet the figure is not alone because the photographer is there to manipulate the exposure. This is a simple subject with a unique composition, a perfect melding of Chochola’s background in journalistic photography and his interest in Surrealism.

Vesak (Coat stand) (1944) by Václav Chochola (Czech, 1923 – 2005)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Torso (1947) by Václav Chochola (Czech, 1923 – 2005)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Chochola’s Torso explores the fragmented view of the body in a time of uncertainty. The light casts a shadow on most of the body and highlights the newspaper clippings in the background. By surrounding the statuesque torso with scattered periodicals, Chochola subtly diverts the compositional focus away from the figure’s nudity, while redirecting the viewer’s attention to the shadowy light diffused by the contorted figure.

The configuration of the dynamic body against the flat newspapers becomes as a point of entry into the image, and creates a sensation of fleeting light even while looking at the static photograph. Here, the explicit exposure of nudity is juxtaposed with subtle hints of the political climate through the newspaper clippings in the background.

Photo Bazaar (1959) by Václav Chochola (Czech, 1923 – 2005)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Václav Chochola utilizes the medium of photography as the primary subject of this image. The camera not only functions as the tool that creates his body of work, it is his body of work. He toys with exposure and light techniques to manipulate the figures in his other photographs, yet in this piece, his subject is clear. Chochola saw the world through the lens of a camera and he chose to express himself through his work as a photojournalist.

After Chochola began working with other photographers, his art became more stylized and representative of the uncertainty in the world around him. This image brings him back to the basics, and turns the lens on the viewer as the figural subject. His emphasis on light, characteristic of his other photographs, remains present, but there is no hiding of or mystery to what the subject is.

Fisherman on the River Vltava / Rybář na Vltavě (1958) by Václav Chochola (Czech, 1923 – 2005)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Credits: Story

The USC Fisher Museum of Art wishes to thank the following individuals for making this project possible:

Jiří Anderle
Pavel Baňka
Kelly Barrie, Panic Studio LA
Blanka Chocholová and Marek Chochola, Archiv B&M Chochola
Barbara Kalwajtys, The Baruch Foundation
Henry Klein, M.F.A., Emeritus Professor of Art at Los Angeles Valley College
Katerina Kulhanková and Klára Melichová
Professor Aleš Procházka, Institute of Chemical Technology, Prague
Eugene Rogolsky, MD
Jan Saudek and Sára Saudková
Tim B. Wride, Norton Museum of Art, William & Sarah Ross Soter Curator of Photography

Exhibition curated by
Abigail Bresler
Corey Gordon
Emelia Ho
Emily Le
Sabrina Piña-McMahon

University of Southern California
Fisher Museum Staff:
Selma Holo, Director
Kay Allen, Associate Director
Stephanie Kowalick, Registrar / Collections Manager
Juan Rojas, Chief Preparator
Raphael Gatchalian, Administrative Coordinator and Business Specialist
Maria Galicia, Education and Programs Coordinator
Madelyne Gordon, Assistant Curator
Valentina Maio, Communications Coordinator

Photography by Kelly Barrie (Panic Studio LA) unless noted otherwise.

The images featured have been reproduced with permission from the following copyright holders:
Jiří Anderle © Jiří Anderle; Oldřich Kulhánek
© Estate of Oldřich Kulhánek; Jan Saudek
© Jan Saudek, Courtesy of Sára Saudková;
© Pavel Baňka; Václav Chochola / © Archiv
B&M Chochola.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Preserving Our Past
Learn how people around the world are working to preserve our shared history
View theme
Google apps