A masterpiece of Czech Avant Garde photography.
Czech photographer Frantisek Drtikol (1883–1961) redefined the genre of nude photography for the early twentieth century. Drtikol opened his Prague studio in 1907 and made a comfortable living taking portraits. While his professional portraiture was elegant and refined, his nude studies, by which he made his name, were daring and inventive, the epitome of avant-garde. Drtikol was among the first photographer to incorporate the elements of Art Deco into his work; he frequently contrasted the suppleness and flexibility of the female body against solid and unyielding geometric forms. Despite their differences, he emphasized the strength found in both forms—human and geometric. Drtikol showed a willingness to incorporate anything that might make his nude studies more powerful. In addition to the inclusion of Art Deco details, he used lighting techniques newly developed silent movies and integrated elements of modern expressive dance. Drtikol’s rare portfolio, Les Nus, features images in his emerging Modernist style—a style that not only anticipated but also influenced the Bauhaus. In the years between the wars, Drtikol quickly absorbed into his photography a myriad of new expressive movements, lighting his nudes with the dramatic style of silent film and the more austere geometric effects and dynamic poses of Futurism, Cubism and Bauhaus. Surveying his daring and expressive nudes of the 1920s and 1930s, this important publication charts Drtikol’s adventurous treatments of the nude as they evolved in conversation with modernist innovations. It wasn’t until a decade or so after his death in 1961 that art historians began to re-examine his work and his role in shaping modern photography.
Drtikol’s Les Nus is described by some critics as “one of the rarest and finest photography books of the 20th century”. Yet it hovers under the radar of the mainstream. For example it is not mentioned in Parr & Badger or Roth (while his Žena ve světle from 1930 is included in both).
Drtikol’s work has been labeled modernist, avant-garde, cubist, futurist, constructivist and pre-Bauhaus, yet the photogravures in Les Nus offer a compelling nod back to pictorialism. Unlike many pictorialist photogravures, however, there is little evidence of hand-work and most of the flaws in the images are left untouched. The result – a beautifully raw ink-on-paper photographic syntax – a look encapsulated in the words of the final line of the portfolio’s preface by Claude de Santeul. “Everything here, creation and impression, is only photographic, and that is essentially modern.”
Birgus, Vladimír, Robert Koch, and Ada Takahashi. František Drtikol: Modernist Nudes. San Francisco, Calif, 1997. Plate 5 (silver print)
Birgus, Czech Photographic Avant-Garde 1918-1948 (2002), p.39