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Jan Saudek

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Jan Saudek

Czech, born 1935

Jan Saudek
Jan Saudek is one of Czechoslovakia’s most celebrated photographers. After a traumatic youth he discovered photography as a means of expression and explores human relationships and constructs elaborately detailed scenes of human interaction. Saudek worked with basic materials to produce surreal scenes frequently featuring nude figures.
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1935, Saudek grew up surrounded by the tragedies of war. His father, a Jewish bank clerk, was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, along with six of his seven brothers. His father survived, but his six brothers did not. Meanwhile, Saudek and his twin brother Karel were detained at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they fortunately escaped the infamous medical experiments done on twins by Josef Megele. Saudek recalls “I was always hungry then, pervasively hungry.” He was abused, beaten, and saw death on a daily basis, but instead escaped into thoughts of sex.
“The Germans came and left. I saw people die then but I wasn’t afraid of death then as I am today – as a child I just couldn’t imagine that death was something that might ever happen to me. Instead I thought a lot about sex, women and love…”
After this period when he returned to Czechoslovakia, American soldiers were a large presence in the area and would give small children gifts of candy or chocolate wrapped in pages torn out of comic books. Saudek used these pages to teach himself English and would later title and caption the majority of his photographs in the language.
At the age of 15 he dropped out of school and in order to avoid working in the local coal mines he became a photographer’s assistant, although he saw the field as mechanical and unappealing. He took few photographs, beginning with a Kodak Baby Brown in 1949. In 1959 his new wife Marie, with whom he had five children, gave him his first real camera, a FLEXARET 6X6, which he continues to use today. A turning moment in his life came in the early 1960s when a friend lent Saudek a copy of Edward Steichen’s Family of Man catalog.
“I was shocked, paralyzed, stupefied. In those days I thought that in photography nothing better existed – later I realized that I was right. But then I was very young, very strong and really carefree. I said to myself: Surely I can accomplish the same thing! Fortunately back then no one talked me out of that foolish resolution. If somebody had told me the truth, I mean that I could never make it, I would have stopped working.”
He presented his first exhibition in Prague in 1963 and was invited to exhibit at the University of Indiana in Bloomington in 1969, where he was encouraged to continue pursuing photography by Hugh Edwards, the head of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago. He returned to Czechoslovakia and began to focus his work on the theme of nationalism, saying “people are pretty much the same everywhere.” In his early photographs he focuses on extremes, such as the generational gaps of parent-child relationships, illustrating the influence of Family of Man on his work. He mainly photographs women and children, claiming that he only photographs those that he loves. His detailed and constructed photos frequently feature elements of eroticism and abstracted, voluptuous female figures.
In the majority of his biographical writings and letters he highlights the theme of sex, and chooses to omit difficult details of his life such as the death of his brothers in a concentration camp. He also never mentions his mother. His photographs reflect this interest for the most part, but there are examples of his work that show a more sentimental side that speaks to the damages caused by the war. In one entry in his “C.V.” he writes that he woke from a dream in tears, and the next morning he found the word “Auschwitz” written on the wall next to his bed. This glimpse into the mind of a man who was scarred by memories of wartime is reflected in photographs such as “My Father,” taken in April of 1975. This photograph, which is part of The Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection (93.145), is a perfect example of his attempts to construct artificially aged scenes that show the passage of time and universal relationships between humans. Saudek writes on the bottom of the photograph that it was taken in 1887, which conflicts fairly obviously with the subject’s Nazi-era gold “Judia” star on his jacket. Showing his father in the middle of a graveyard, this photograph gives us a rare glimpse into the horrors that Saudek experienced in his youth during the war and an investigation into the experience of his father at the concentration camp.
In 1977 Saudek began tinting his black and white photographs, and his bold use of color is somewhat reminiscent of the comic books that he was exposed to as a child. These photographs use unnatural colors to create a dream-like, surreal atmosphere in his photographs, which accentuates the abstraction of the gigantic human forms he favors.
Saudek has had various solo and group shows throughout his career in galleries across the globe. He has had one man shows in the USA, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and Australia. His photographs are in the permanent collections of the International Museum of Photography (Rochester), Library of Congress (Washington D.C.), Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), The Art Institute of Chicago, Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris (France), and others. He has also received prestigious awards such as the ‘Chevalier des Arts et Lettres.’ Although he is considered controversial by some due to his images of particularly young nude models, he remains one of his nation’s most famous and influential photographers.
-Camille Coonrod, Curatorial Intern, 2014

Terms
  • Czech
  • Czech
  • photography
  • Prague
  • Prague

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