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Josef Sudek’s Prints Testify to a Life in Light and Darkness

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto October 3, 2012 to April 7, 2013

I love Josef Sudek. I’ve loved his work since I first saw it in an issue of Aperture two decades ago. The Window of My Studio pictures were captivating and straightforwardly simple. A pane of glass, a view of the yard outside, a crooked fruit tree, a line of buildings. They were taken in good weather and bad weather, often with frost and condensation catching you up short so that the glass became a prologue or companion to the view. It was a beautiful running metaphor for the mechanics of photography, for the transfer of light through glass onto film.  For anyone raised feeling as if they had to chose between the local or the international, one of the long-running themes of art in Canada, here was proof that an artist never had to leave the studio. The world started with the windowsill—whether it was in Prague or Toronto.

From the beginning, Sudek’s actual photographic prints were beside the point.  My bond was to the image, that transferable thing that moves from eye to eye, mind to mind. Sudek was an incomparable photographer and a darkroom master. We are thankful for the incredible subtlety of the prints he left behind, but his legacy, for me, is as the image-maker who produced a lifetime of work about our need for light. His photographs work just as well as printed reproductions, JPEGs or projections. Whatever the form, we see what we need to see.

All this harks back, I’m sure, to my young fascination with the English painter J.M.W. Turner, whose dying words were “The sun is God.” The words seem already spoken when you look at Turner’s paintings of rising morning light, febrile sunsets or darkening, sea-born twilights. For Turner, the sun meant colour, and colour was a cosmos. With Sudek, light is the cosmos. He didn’t need colour. He worked in black and white but created photographs built with tones of light as rich as anything crossing the spectrum.

An opportunity consider this quality of Sudek’s work is now available at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the exhibition “Josef Sudek: The Legacy of a Deeper Vision,” to which I (full disclosure) have contributed a catalogue essay.

As I say, I see Sudek’s work as a seeking of light, a thoughtful filtering of light and a need of light. That is why the glass is so foregrounded in the Window pictures. The light comes from outside. The moisture is inside. Beyond each image is only a wide frame of black. We know, of course, that the series was shot during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and continued in the postwar Stalinist era. This lends the isolated beauty of the images a poignant air of dreamy resistance, but the images work regardless of whether you know the background circumstances or not. There is always enough to look at.

Sudek was a traveller in light. For him light is a space, not a subject. His pictures, even indoors on tabletops, are landscapes in which there are not horizon lines so much as planes of passage towards the light. Every image is an approach to light, a progress from black to something brighter. Look at his photos of Prague at night. The silhouetted shapes, lit apartment windows and haloed, foggy streetlights make a city of light in the dark. Apartment windows, each with a t-cross in their centre, often rise like angels. The blackness in these images is real, but the light leads us through it.

Similarly, Sudek loved to play with darkness. His pictures often turn on a darkness that makes an expressive foil for articulating awareness of light. In an image subtitled Uneasy Night, dark buildings loom behind a falling veil of wet. The white ball of the street lamp becomes a moon that shines with elsewhere and otherness through one window of the city. Sudek wasn’t called the poet of Prague for nothing. He is a poet of the shadows and dark spaces that interact with light to express a complex engagement with place. This also is evident in his images of Kinsky Gardens, a public park in Prague. It might be midday by the clock in some of these images, but the trees and their foliage make another time zone. We are in a darkness of leaves and gothic branches, a kind of night co-existing with the day.

You see something similar in his Mionsi forest pictures. The trees are foils for the emanating fog of light behind them. For Sudek, the real world is an accordion of light for him to push and pull. The images are always metaphors. If I had to illustrate the opening of Dante’s Inferno, say—where a middle-aged narrator finds himself in the dimming light of a dark forest—some of these images would serve. Sudek’s black trees read like a crowding of regret, a dimming of prospects.

This kind of fleeting drama built with light, point of view and perception continues with Sudek’s amazing still lifes that are in the show. Art Nouveau Still Life from 1968, for instance, shows a stoppered glass bottle next to a tall oriental pitcher sharing a table top with two rising, crumpled mounds of tinfoil and pane of broken glass leaning behind. Things are backlit with a low, bright light that puts the upper reaches of the pitcher into dark shadow.  The leaning glass lends ghostly reflections and subtle elliptical shadows. As with all of Sudek’s still lifes, he can take your breath away with the tonal range of the set-up scene, crossing textures and highlights and dark spaces to create a complex interplay of the seen, the unseen and the suggested.

The growing brightness of Sudek’s later still-life work often brings a sense of light shown in a state of renewed arrival, even suffusion. In the Glass Labyrinth series, Sudek takes a handful of props—a baroque mirror, wine glasses, prisms, tinfoil, wooden scroll and frosted glass—and creates and abstract, metaphysical space with them. With shifting light sourcing, he teases out unpredictable effects that shimmer with the power of transformation. The simplicity of means suggests a kind of photographic minimalism—and the dates would be right—but it is a central European minimalism that is always on the edge of symbolic moment.

Hence the feathers in the Aerial Remembrances series. Some of the photographs show loving overhead views of overlapping airmail correspondence. Others put tinfoil, paper and tableware under sheets of frosted glass. The series is rendered in a palette of bright greys that live wholly in a world of light. The feathers seem a punning instruction on how we should read the images—poems as light as air about soft illumination. The images speak associatively to the light through the lens, the sensitivity of film and silver halide in photographic paper. Their layered compositions mirror the archaeology of a long life. That Sudek should have arrived at this ephemeral photographic space towards the end of his career seems a quiet triumph. We are back with the daylight on the windowsill, the boundary where everything is bright and close at hand. That this hard won optimism was often built in the dark—whether literally at night, or in the darkroom, or figuratively with difficult personal circumstances, and the hard facts of 20th-century history—seems the best triumph of all.

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