|Josef Sudek, La dernière Rose, 1956|
If Hadjithomas and Joreige’s Two Suns in a Sunset is about shedding light on the trauma of living in a war zone, the Josef Sudek photographs in Le monde à ma Fenêtre, downstairs at the Jeu de Paume rest in the darkness. The tone of these images is bleak. They are very beautiful and somehow reveal a hidden serenity and spirit behind the windows and doors that had to remain closed during the difficult years of Prague’s twentieth century. The condensation collecting on Sudek’s studio window in photograph after photograph, year after year, is very much the theme of the exhibition. It is an exhibition that shows how this Chekoslavakian man hid from the dark presence of history. He repeats the veil behind which he hides in the form of condensation on windows before dark, melancholic gardens and streets. Standing this side of the photograph, inside his room, we feel safe in Sudek’s world.
An alternative approach to Sudek’s images is to understand their representation of something that cannot be touched. Whether it is the divine light that falls through the window of Winceslas Cathedral, emotions of sadness, the melancholy or other states of being such as comfort, warmth or the security sequestered behind windows in dimly lit rooms, we often sense we are looking at precious and delicate objects in the image that show emotions and spiritual states that have no physicality.
There is incredible melancholia infusing the objects. Empty chairs show they have clearly been occupied in the not too distant past. The objects that accompanied the sitter lie by their side. The head of a statue, wrapped and bound in string also tells of the destruction that occurred at some point to an ancient relic. The emptiness of the chair resonates with the cindered dead trees that are the result of industrialization in photographs from the 1950s. They are all images soaked in a nostalgia for the time before, for the pre-industrial, for the natural landscape of a bucolic life. This nostalgia and sadness also comes through the emptiness of landscapes, this idea of a vanished world, a world that we never see. We might see the results of the destruction, but never the events themselves. What we see in the photographs is also the result of Sudek’s carbon process printing which retains the darkness of black or sepia in the pigmented gelatin.
Darkness prevails in a world that we assume is Sudek’s technology, but it has also to be his vision. The heartbreaking loss which permeates these images is his. It must be because we meet with it over and over again, throughout the oeuvre. The Royal Garden in Prague for example would /could be life giving for a different photographer. Here for Sudek, the garden is the stage for a funeral march. What I saw everywhere in these photographs, even when they were not taken in the war years and even though we never saw Germans, was the darkness and death of Nazi occupied Prague. And we see the devastation that Nazism has on individual lives. The way that it shaped destinies and identities. The world outside Sudek’s window has been reduced to a shadow, where buildings and streets are desolate, ethereal. There is no escape from the darkness, this is how he sees.
In the final years of his life it seems as though Sudek had a renewed energy. The still lives of the 1950s onwards, the post-Nazi years are just that, still lives. Ordinary everyday objects are transformed into shapes, forms, densities, patterns, repetitions, surface textures, reflections, tones, again rendered immaterial through Sudek’s viewfinder. And then in the very final works on display at the Jeu de Paume, such as Glass Labyrinth (1968-72) glass is transformed from a material into something that can be seen through, something that reflects (like the windows) and changes the world seen on its other side. The intimacy, mystery and delicacy of his world continues until the very end, as it can be found through his camera. However, the vision becomes more complicated, multifarious and although filled with more light and hope, the spaces it creates are just as closed.
All Images courtesy Jeu de Paume