Bohemian rhapsody: Josef Sudek's Prague
The eccentric photographer's favourite model was the city in which he lived.
Charlotte Philby is a writer at The Independent with a weekly column on motherhood in The Independent Magazine. She was shortlisted for the 2013 Cudlipp award for excellence in popular journalism for her undercover investigative work, and writes for various cultural magazines.
Saturday 04 February 2012
When Josef Sudek collected the keys to his new studio at 30 Ujezd, a quiet courtyard in Prague's Mala Strana district, the vendor – the artist Karel Laube – had one question: "Why here? No one in their right mind will come to this place!". Laube is said to have frowned as he cast his eyes around the tiny hut, hidden from view behind a cloak of run-down apartments, from which his friend would run his fledgling photographic business. "Exactly," Sudek replied.
This was the late 1920s. Sudek had not long been discharged from the War Veteran's Hospital in the city where he'd spent several years after losing his right arm while serving on the Italian frontline, and during his stay – faced with the prospect he'd never again work as a bookbinder and fast-approaching his 30th birthday – had taken up photography. It was here he created his remarkable 'Z Invalidovny' series, an eerie, and beautifully still, portrait of post-war existence, drenched with smoke and shadows.
But if it really was solitude he was chasing in his new home – a secluded corner of Prague's Lesser Quarter – then he'll have been disappointed.
For 30 years – until he moved to another house just a few streets from here, on the West Bank of the river Vltava – Sudek lived and worked alongside his sister, Bozena, a professional retoucher; and a vast collection of oddities, which he stored in piles covering every surface and inch of
floor. He would hold noisy get-togethers for his artist and musician friends. Sometimes collaborating with the revered modernist graphic designer, Ladislav Sutnar, he built a solid career as a commercial photographer.
Then in 1939, around the time Hitler claimed Prague, Sudek suddenly packed in the business, and for the next four decades immersed himself in his personal projects for which he is now celebrated: those stark black-and-white cityscapes illuminating angular rooftops and narrow cobbled streets in an endless spectrum of black and white, and studio projects, like the intimate series 'My Studio Window', which he created in the courtyard at 30 Ujezd between 1940 and 1954.
Meanwhile, Sudek acquired a reputation as quite the eccentric, talking in convoluted sentences, leaving cryptic notes for the postman scribbled on the back of his least-favourite photos. Even while the Second World War – and a growing move towards Social Realism – raged on around him, Sudek returned to the out-of-vogue Pictorialism of his early work, rich in soft-focus, props and narrative. Experimenting with various contact sizes, working with glass negatives, some 40x70cm, he'd spend weeks at a time in forests, taking long exposures of snow fallen on trees, or creating his ethereal 'Magic Garden' series. This was shot in the garden of his friend, Otto Rottmayar, one of the official architects of Prague Castle; Sudek would spray an atomiser in front of the lens to achieve a shimmering, mystical quality.
All the while, the photographer's favourite model remained the city in which he lived.
Today, the twisted apple tree that appears through steamed glass in the famous 'My Studio Window' series remains at 30 Ujezd. Inside Sudek's studio – which he managed to hold on to despite four decades of Communist rule – a Baroque angel wing, one of his original props, hangs on the wall; beside it, a photographic lamp and a heavy camera and wooden tripod. Though not, presumably, in the exact spot he left them. The building burnt down in 1986, and was rebuilt in 2000 as an exact replica, opening four years later as the Josef Sudek Atelier, one of three galleries in the city now bearing the photographer's name.
Today, the gallery showcases the work of emerging photographers – such as 23-year-old Marcel Stecker, whose first-ever exhibition is on show at the time of my visit: his lightboxes line the walls of Sudek's old darkroom – as well as established ones, such as the revered Slovakian art photographer, Tono Stano. Once a year, curator Lucia Mlynárová explains, the gallery displays original prints by its former owner, many of which are stored in the cellars of the financial group PPF, who've built an impressive collection of Czech art.
In Sudek's day, Prague's cultural scene was remarkably tight-knit. Artists and thinkers gathered in pockets at a selection of bars. In his heyday, the adored playwright and last president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel – whose death at Christmas continues to cast a shadow – would be among those holed-up for hours on end, pontificating with friends over a single beer, under a cloud of smoke.
Today, the smoke remains but much else has changed. Many of the bars have gone, or are occupied by people on iPhones, while tourists storm past along narrow pavements and tramlines on Segways – a monstrous combination of bike and lawnmower, which are hired by the day and threaten anyone who steps in their path. Happily, the art scene is now more dispersed, with new galleries – not least the Amoya Gallery, a bold new 4,000 square-metre space exhibiting the work of up-and-coming Czech artists in a Baroque palace in the Old Town, at the foot of Charles Bridge – cropping up across the city, alongside established institutions such as the Antoní* Dvorák Museum and the Museum of Decorative arts.
The Old Town – a dizzying mix of Renaissance, Baroque and modern architecture – is still the plushest area, home to the State Opera and Old Square with its famous clock and historic Jewish Quarter, as well as the city's first proper five-star hotel, the Four Seasons, a lavish, gold, marble affair with duck-down pillows and L'Occitane toiletries, which opened in 2000.
There's so much history packed into every brick of this part of town that it's worth hiring a guide (try praguetourguides.com). Don't neglect the misleadingly-titledLesser Quarter, where the streets are quieter, and smaller galleries stand alongside French-style wine-bars and bistros. The viewpoint at the top of Petrin Park, which runs along the edge of the main street is where Sudek captured some of his most famous shots. But for the most truly jawdropping view of all, head further out, a few stops by metro from the Old Square, to Zizkov television tower, a brilliantly bizarre Soviet construction designed to look like a rocket, with sculptures of huge babies crawling up the side.
Back in the Lesser Quarter, a few doors down from the gallery on Ujezd, there's a brilliant second-hand bookshop, Antikvariat Prazky Almanach, where a man with a beret and handle-bar moustache sells classic Czech children's books and Soviet propaganda posters. Or if you fancy splashing out, a few streets away from here is the chicest address this side of the river, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a beautifully restored 14th-century monastery: indulge in a spot of celeb-spotting (John Malkovich and Madonna – on separate occasions – have both stayed) or sample the extravagant Czech tasting menu beneath high ceilings and gothic arches.
Admittedly, it's a world away from the city Sudek obsessively reproduced. But then one wonders if that place ever really existed. Whether taken at a time of Soviet rule or under harsh German occupation, his images are so other-worldly they seem separate from any time or even place.
Ironic, as for Sudek, his adopted city was everything. Until his death in 1976, his stooped figure in a beret and trenchcoat trudging up the steep hill leading through Petrin Park, with a wooden tripod slung over his shoulder, was such a common sight that Steidl published Josef Sudek, Prag 1967, a collection of photos of just this, by German photographer Timm Rautert. Worth a look, whether you're planning a trip or not, to see the man as unique and enchanting as the city he continuously reimagined.
In Prague's Lesser Quarter, stay at the Mandarin Oriental from 265 euros per night, +420 233 088 888; mandarinoriental.com. In the Old Town, stay at the Four Seasons for 260 euros per night, +420 221 427 000; fourseasons.com
PRAGUE'S PRIME SPOTS
A nightclub/ gallery/café by night; a lecture hall hosting cultural debates and theatre by day. Crossclub.cz
The city's only Michelin-starred restaurant relaunches at the Four Seasons in March. Fourseasons.com
This progressive children's theatre is suitable for all ages, Czech-speaking or not. Minor.cz
Linden Spa treatment
Have a glorious massage in the basement of a 14th-century monastery. Mandarinoriental.com
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