06
Sep
14

Exhibition: ‘Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful’ at the Art Institute of Chicago

Exhibition dates: 7th June – 14th September 2014

 

One of the greats – mainly for his series GypsiesInvasion and Exiles.

Powerful images – strong, honest, respectful, beautifully composed but above all gritty, gritty, gritty. There is a dark radiance here, an ether/reality, as though the air was heavy with melancholy, emotion, loss, violence, isolation and, sometimes, love. No wonder he describes his work as a “theater of the real.” Humanism, and photography, at its most essential.

Marcus

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Many thankx to the Art Institute of Chicago for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“I try to be a photographer. I cannot talk. I am not interested in talking. If I have anything to say, it may be found in my images. I am not interested in talking about things, explaining about the whys and the hows. I do not mind showing my images, but not so much my contact sheets. I mainly work from small test prints. I often look at them, sometimes for a long time. I pin them to the wall, I compare them to make up my mind, be sure of my choices. I let others tell me what they mean. [To Robert Delpire] My photographs, you know them. You have published them, you have exhibited them, then you can tell whether they mean something or not.”

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Josef Koudelka

 

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Czech-born French artist Josef Koudelka belongs in the firmament of classic photographers working today. Honored with the French Prix Nadar (1978), the Hasselblad Prize (1992), and the International Center of Photography Infinity Award (2004), Koudelka is also a leading member of the world-renowned photo agency Magnum. This exhibition, his first retrospective in the United States since 1988, is also the first museum show ever to emphasize his original vintage prints, period books, magazines, and significant unpublished materials.

Koudelka became famous in anonymity through the worldwide publication of his daring photographs of the Soviet-led invasion of Prague in August 1968. Just 30 years old at the time, Koudelka had already worked for a decade, principally on Gypsies, for which he visited Roma populations for weeks at a time in his home country and later abroad over the course of years. This ambitious series beautifully combines a sense of modern history with timeless humanism.

Choosing exile to avoid reprisals for his Invasion photographs, Koudelka traveled throughout Europe during the 1970s and 1980s, camping at village festivals from spring through fall and then printing in wintertime. His photographs of those decades became the series Exiles. Since the late 1980s Koudelka has made panoramic landscape photographs in areas massively shaped by industry, territorial conflict, or – in the case of the Mediterranean rim – the persistence of Classical civilization.

Tracing this long and impressive career, this exhibition draws on Koudelka’s extensive holdings of his own work and on recent major acquisitions by the Art Institute, including the complete surviving contents of the debut presentation of Gypsies in 1967 (22 photographs), as well as ten Invasion images printed by the photographer just weeks after the event. Also on display are early experimental and theater photographs and some of the photographer’s beautifully produced books – which stretch dozens of feet when unfolded. A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition, which after its debut at the Art Institute travels to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid.

Text from the Art Institute of Chicago website

 

 

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. 'Jarabina, Czechoslovakia' 1963. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

Josef Koudelka. 'Spain' 1971. Various images from the series 'Gypsies'

 

Josef Koudelka
Various images from the series Gypsies
Book printed 1975; new Aperture edition 2011

 

Aperture’s new edition of Koudelka: Gypsies (2011) rekindles the energy and astonishment of this foundational body of work by master photographer Josef Koudelka. Lavishly printed in a unique quadratone mix by artisanal printer Gerhard Steidl, it offers an expanded look at Cikáni (Czech for “gypsies” ) -109 photographs of Roma society taken between 1962 and 1971 in then-Czechoslovakia (Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia), Romania, Hungary, France and Spain. The design and edit for this volume revisits the artist’s original intention for the work, and is based on a maquette originally prepared in 1968 by Koudelka and graphic designer Milan Kopriva. Koudelka intended to publish the work in Prague, but was forced to flee Czechoslovakia, landing eventually in Paris. In 1975, Robert Delpire, Aperture and Koudelka collaborated to publish Gitans, la fin du voyage (Gypsies, in the English-language edition), a selection of 60 photographs taken in various Roma settlements around East Slovakia.

 

Josef Koudelka. 'Czechoslovakia (Kadañ)' 1963, printed 1967

 

Josef Koudelka
Czechoslovakia (Kadañ)
1963, printed 1967
from the series Gypsies
The Art Institute of Chicago, restricted gift of Artworkers Retirement Society
© Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Josef Koudelka. 'Romania' 1968, printed 1980s

 

Josef Koudelka
Romania
1968, printed 1980s
from the series Gypsies
The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Robin and Sandy Stuart
© Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Josef Koudelka. 'Slovakia (Rakúsy)' 1966, printed 1967

 

Josef Koudelka
Slovakia (Rakúsy)
1966, printed 1967
from the series Gypsies
The Art Institute of Chicago, restricted gift of Sandy and Robin Stuart and Photography Gala Fund
© Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

 

 

“The unforgettable photographs of acclaimed Czech-born, French photographer Josef Koudelka (b.1938), including eyewitness images of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, have not been shown at a major U.S. museum since 1988. These documentary works as well as extensive selections from the photographer’s work going back to 1958 – including his renowned series Gypsies, Exiles, and a variety of recent panoramic photographs – will feature in the major retrospective exhibition Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, from June 7 through September 14, 2014. It is the first museum show ever to emphasize Koudelka’s original vintage prints, period publications and unpublished study materials.

Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, which takes place in the Abbott (182-4) and Bucksbaum (188) galleries on the ground floor of the Modern Wing, draws primarily on Koudelka’s extensive holdings of his own work. For decades, the photographer has exhibited new and recent prints of images that have grown iconic through frequent exhibitions and reproductions, while holding back the earliest, vintage prints – until now. For example, over the years there have been more than one dozen solo exhibitions of Gypsies and numerous reprints of the book of the same name, which has appeared in two editions and six languages. Among the rarities that will be included in Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful is the only surviving maquette for the first book version of Gypsies, which Koudelka had to leave unfinished at his exile from Prague in 1970.

Koudelka’s habit of revisiting past projects while simultaneously advancing into new territory will be squarely on view in Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful. Twenty-two original photographs from the very first show of Gypsies, held in Prague in 1967, will be displayed for the first time since that date. In an adjacent room, a different selection from the series, printed at a different size and in another way, will also be shown. Similarly, extremely rare vintage prints of Invasion, made and circulated anonymously to the press directly following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, will be shown alongside much larger prints commissioned soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when Koudelka returned from exile and had his first post-Soviet exhibition in Prague.

Also on display will be selections from his early experimental photographs and years of work with Prague theater companies, made during the flowering of the Czech stage and cinema in the 1960s.

Koudelka was born in a small Moravian town in 1938 and moved to Prague, then the capital of Czechoslovakia, in the 1950s. He studied aeronautical engineering while practicing photography obsessively from 1958; in 1966, he turned full-time to a photographic career. Already in 1961, Koudelka had begun his most ambitious life project, Gypsies, for which he visited Roma populations for weeks at a time, principally in Slovakia. The rigorously humanist pictures became his calling card at home and internationally in the later 1960s after being published in the Swiss magazine Camera and shown to curators and photography representatives around Western Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, Koudelka’s Invasion photographs became famous after they appeared worldwide to commemorate the first anniversary of the events of August 1968. Worried about reprisals even though the images had been published anonymously, Koudelka chose to leave his country in May 1970.

In exile Koudelka adopted a semi-nomadic existence. He followed village festivals, pilgrimages, and Roma gatherings throughout the United Kingdom (his country of asylum in the 1970s), Spain, Italy, and France (his principal residence from 1981, and country of citizenship from 1986), photographing throughout the year and printing largely in wintertime. The world-famous photography agency Magnum, which had stewarded publication of the Invasion photographs, became Koudelka’s home base and as he says his “family.” Koudelka’s photographs of these years were gathered together in 1988 as Exiles, which will also be part of the exhibition.

Since the late 1980s Koudelka has made panoramic landscape photographs in areas massively shaped by industry, territorial conflict, or – in the case of the Mediterranean rim – the persistence of Classical civilization. The final gallery of Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful will showcase six of these mural-size black-and-white images, as well as three of the impressive accordion-fold books that Koudelka has made of them since 1989, some of which stretch to more than 100 feet long.

Despite his peripatetic life, Koudelka’s moving and stunning photographs have made him one of the most sought-after figures in print and at exhibition. Honored with the French Prix Nadar (1978), the Hasselblad Prize (1992), and the International Center of Photography Infinity Award (2004), Koudelka remains today a leading member of Magnum.

A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition, overseen closely by the artist and designed by the Czech firm Najbrt Studio. Edited by Matthew S. Witkovsky, the Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator of Photography at the Art Institute, the book provides extensive new information on Koudelka’s formative years in Prague during the thaw of the 1960s, as well as the first complete history of Gypsies, its twists and turns from 1961 through 2011. Amanda Maddox, assistant curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, which has co-organized the exhibition, provides fresh knowledge on Koudelka’s underrepresented decade in England and the UK. Stuart Alexander and Gilles Tiberghien, two longtime friends of the photographer, have contributed illuminating essays on Koudelka’s years in France and his fascination for panoramic landscape, respectively.”

Press release from the Art Institute of Chicago

 

Josef Koudelka. 'France' 1987

 

Josef Koudelka
France
1987

 

Josef Koudelka. 'Lisbon, Portugal' 1975

 

Josef Koudelka
Lisbon, Portugal
1975

 

Josef Koudelka. 'Ireland' 1972, printed 1987/88

 

Josef Koudelka
Ireland
1972, printed 1987/88
from the series Exiles
© Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Josef Koudelka. 'Spain' 1975

 

Josef Koudelka
Spain
1975

 

Josef Koudelka. 'St. Procopius Abbey graveyard, Lisle' Nd

 

Josef Koudelka
St. Procopius Abbey graveyard, Lisle
Nd

 

Josef Koudelka. 'Poland' 1958

 

Josef Koudelka
Poland
1958
The Art Institute of Chicago, Photography Gala Fund and restricted gift of John A. Bross
© Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

 

“Drama was an important part of Koudelka’s early career: In a literal sense, because he worked for a theater magazine in the ’60s, creating fantastically emotive images, but also because theatricality was, and still is, deeply embedded in the photographer’s world view. The week in 1968 when young Czechoslovakians stood up against invading Soviet forces occurred when he was working as a stage photographer, and so it became not only a tragedy but also a drama to be recorded. Likewise, his “Gypsies” series, created in the same period, is described by Koudelka as a “theater of the real.”

Through dynamic composition and juxtaposition, Koudelka’s work challenges us to differentiate between spectacle and reality, and while there is no positive indication that one is valued over the other, this is not at all the same as the disbelief in reality that is characteristic of postmodernism. As he puts it, “You form the world in your viewfinder, but at the same time the world forms you.”

In a sense, Koudelka does not want us to become too comfortable with his works as definitive statements. Instead, he crops bodies in images abruptly; we often see people cut off at the knees or ankles, visually and figuratively separating them from the Earth. In other works, disembodied arms and legs jut into the space of the photograph, making scenes surreal and reminding us that whatever coherency the composition has, we can never see the whole picture of what’s really going on. Even with the more poetic and purposefully aesthetic panorama prints of his later “Chaos” series – monumental testaments to the violence we enact both on the natural world and upon each other – through the pitted insistence of film grain and the lack of bright tones or highlights, we are not permitted redemption through “art” or the creation of “beautiful” objects.

In this respect Koudelka’s work, in its celebration of the imperfect, has more in common with the aesthetics of the haiku poet Basho, or the tea master Sen no Rikyu, than with the luscious highly detailed color images that largely dominate the world of contemporary art photography.”

John L. Tran. Josef Koudelka: the theatrics of life

 

Josef Koudelka. 'Untitled (Student on tank, eyes crossed out)' 1968

 

Josef Koudelka
Untitled (Student on tank, eyes crossed out)
1968
from the series Invasion
© Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Josef Koudelka. 'Untitled' Various images from the series 'Invasion'

Josef Koudelka. 'Untitled' Various images from the series 'Invasion'

Josef Koudelka. 'Untitled' Various images from the series 'Invasion'

Josef Koudelka. 'Untitled' Various images from the series 'Invasion'

Josef Koudelka. 'Untitled' Various images from the series 'Invasion'

Josef Koudelka. 'Untitled' Various images from the series 'Invasion'

 

Josef Koudelka
Untitled
Various images from the series Invasion
1968

 

 

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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