Paris’s Jeu de Paume – more accurately, the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume – has an interesting history. The building is only a century and a half old, dating from the administration of Napoleon III. It was indeed built as a tennis court for the older and more complex game then played in France. Hitler commandeered this building as a sorting center for his theft of French art, and of course this is where the Resistance fighter, Rose Valland, working under Nazi noses, did her heroic labor of recording every work of art that went through her hands – making it possible to return many, many of those plundered works to their owners after the Nazi defeat.
In 2004 the Jeu de Paume was transformed from a museum of modern art to a gallery of contemporary photography and media. It is always especially moving to view a show at the Jeu de Paume that records or reflects the global tragedy and high crimes of the Second World War. Photography and film are media that can smash into us and push us under with the suffering of individuals while the great ocean of universal pain somehow allows us to float calmly beyond the breakers.
Josef Sudek’s (1896-1976) retrospective at the Jeu de Paume this summer seems on its face to be way too calm to record that kind of dramatic suffering, though Sudek lived through and sacrificed much during the European twentieth century. In fact, it is the quiet at the core of his work that becomes the testimony of a contained life in the belly of the beast. Bohemian by birth, he lived much of his life in Prague. He was called up for service in the First World War and lost an arm in battle. That might have put an end to many people’s dreams of photography, particularly the kind that he loved – large format, often out of doors. But for Sudek, it was confirmation that this was the life he wanted and would dedicate himself to. The craft he had trained for – bookbinding – was now out of reach, but oddly, photography, with its demands for precision, strength, and delicate darkroom work, continued to command his passion and moved him to overcome his disability. He survived the Nazi occupation in the early 1940s; he survived the Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia, in fact receiving much of his professional notice during that regime.
Charles Sawyer told Sudek’s story in an extensive article in Creative Camera in 1980. Sawyer quoted Sudek himself telling a poignant and allusive story of traveling to Milan with Prague orchestra friends and realizing in the middle of a performance that he must try to find the place where he lost his arm during the war.
“Far outside the city toward dawn, in the fields bathed by the morning dew, finally I found the place. But my arm wasn’t there – only the poor peasant farmhouse was still standing in its place.”
Sudek apparently lost two months as part of that traumatic flight from his friends. He wandered Italy and Yogoslavia before he returned to Prague and stayed there for the rest of his life.
Sudek’s photography is dark – literally dark. One writer comments for the exhibit catalogue that the Nazi occupation itself may account for the low key of much of his work. He loved shooting at night, but he was not free to wander the nighttime streets of Prague with his huge camera, and he could hardly have been discreet. So he shot from his own studio courtyard. In fact he often shot through his studio window, and many of the prints on view are those shots. The French exhibit title is “Le monde à ma fenetre,” though the English one is oddly rendered “The Intimate World of Josef Sudek” – a far less evocative title. (Sorry that the circumflex is missing…couldn’t persuade the keyboard to render it.)
Sudek’s intimate world is a bit hard to grasp, and the Jeu de Paume exhibit, while beautifully mounted, does little to penetrate his day to day existence. Sudek never married. He had a hardworking assistant in a young survivor of the concentration camps, Sonja Bullaty, who stayed with Sudek for a few years until the ghosts that haunted her lost Europe became too much and she traveled to the United States to make her own career as a photographer. She became instrumental in spreading Sudek’s reputation beyond the Soviet bloc when she collected prints that he sent her in the US, and published a small volume of quotes from Sudek himself — one of which was the poignant story of his trip to Italy and the lost two months.
Sudek moved from aesthetic roots in the Pictorialist movement to some quite surrealist frames near the end of his life. He loved landscape and produced a number of panoramic views of Prague and the countryside nearby. Around 1940 he was so taken with the precision and detail of contact prints that he started producing only contact prints with his large-format camera.
He also loved still life. The exhibit curators suggest that he might be called a “hoarder” today, because few items that wandered into his studio ever wandered out again. But he made much of so little, arranging and rearranging these simple organic and household items into spare “landscapes” of their own. Despite moving away from Pictorialism and the kind of dreamy, soft-edged surfaces typified by that early photographic movement, he continued to dream with elegance.
There are some very weird prints from the 1940s on, of broken garden sculpture and other wrecked objects. In the mid 1950s he also began to photograph outdoor wreckage – the Most region where industrial development was doing what that sort of development generally does to forests and rivers.
Sudek was a shy, much loved figure in Prague. He held classical music evenings at his studio and had friends throughout the artistic worlds of his beloved city. His photography found the world, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that before his death in 1976. He had major exhibits in New York in 1971, and in Rochester, Washington, New York, and Milan in 1974. One of the most striking items in the current Jeu de Paume exhibit is a documentary film about Sudek made by Ewald Schorm in 1963, and appropriately titled “To Live One’s Own Life.”