Frantisek Drtikol. Nude, Nymphs and Femme Fatale in Dramatic Shadows

From 1907 to 1910 František Drtikol had his own studio, until 1935 he operated an important portrait photostudio in Prague on the fourth floor of one of Prague’s remarkable buildings, a Baroque corner house at 9 Vodičkova, now demolished. Jaroslav Rössler, an important avant-garde photographer, was one of his pupils.

Drtikol made many portraits of very important people and nudes which show development from pictorialism and symbolism to modern composite pictures of the nude body with geometric decorations and thrown shadows, where it is possible to find a number of parallels with the avant-garde works of the period. These are reminiscent of Cubism, and at the same time his nudes suggest the kind of movement that was characteristic of the futurism aesthetic.

He began using paper cut-outs in a period he called “photopurism”. These photographs resembled silhouettes of the human form. Later he gave up photography and concentrated on painting. After the studio was sold Drtikol focused mainly on painting, Buddhist religious and philosophical systems. In the final stage of his photographic work Drtikol created compositions of little carved figures, with elongated shapes, symbolically expressing various themes from Buddhism. In the 1920s and 1930s, he received significant awards at international photo salons.

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Frantisek Drtikol  reinvented the genre of nude photography for the early twentieth century. Drtikol opened his Prague studio in 1907, and his nudes from this early period convey the dreamy eroticism of Art Nouveau and the foreboding accents of Prague Symbolism that he was to return to throughout his somewhat brief career (Drtikol abandoned photography for painting in 1935, and it was not until curator Anna Fárová’s now legendary 1972 Prague exhibition that this work was rediscovered by a broader public). But Drtikol quickly absorbed into his photography the myriad new idioms of the interbellum years, and freighted his nudes with the dramatic lighting 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 their quirky conversation with modernist innovations–from the early nymphs and femme fatales to more abstracted studies that dramatize light and kinetic qualities. This smartly conceived volume confirms Drtikol’s place as one of the greatest photographers of the early twentieth century.

František Drtikol (3 March 1883, Příbram – 13 January 1961, Prague) was a Czech photographer of international renown. He is especially known for his characteristically epic photographs, often nudes and portraits.

Though he is best known for his Art Nouveau and Art Deco nudes, when passed way, he left more portrait photography than anything else–thousands of images made between 1910 and the 1930s. This ambitious book is the first ever devoted to those portraits alone. The selection, culled from some 2,000 in Prague’s National Archive, presents a gallery of eminent Czechs and Slovaks during the first Czechoslovak Republic, as well as prominent visitors to the country from many walks of life. Apart from their pure documentary value, these images reflect Drtikol’s efforts to capture his sitters’ inner selves, bridging idealism and materialism. The artist has also been the subject of The Photographer Frantisek Drtikol and Photographs by Frantisek Drtikol; this volume is compiled and written by Josef Moucha.

Radio Praha about František Drtikol

… Even so, Drtikol’s talent as a photographer of portraits is just one part of the reason why his work is so celebrated today. His artistic photographs were more daring: pushing the boundaries of the avant garde, first, by concentrating on more and more expressive nudes, then, eventually, eliminating the live model entirely. Drtikol embraced coming geometric ideals of the Art Deco movement, and began using cut-outs and softness of lighting or contrast to create dream-like compositions. Compositions that – at times – seemed to express different modes of being, even, different planes.

But, the human form remained central – at first – the human expression, the human face. From portraits to the first nudes returning his gaze; Drtikol wrote:

“The eye is a great, beautiful chapter. And one that you never finish reading. I find that its range of expression keeps expanding, depending on how the sharpness of my own eye improves and how my empathy for other people deepens. The glint of an eye… A model once came to me: a gaunt, plain face, a thin body, but uncommonly pretty eyes – large and sad. I would have liked to place those eyes somewhere in a void, so they could live a completely separate life, so they could live through their sad beauty.”

The Dark Waves 1926-1927, photo: Frantisek Drtikol

One of the genuine pleasures in seeing a retrospective of Drtikol’s work, then, is the comparison between the real and the abstract side by side: prints of live models, posing coyly for the camera, in juxtaposition with bodies in motion: fleeting, elongated shapes that one realises with a jolt are just shapes stretched across an unreal span of space – a shadow caught in a sliver of light.

Stanislav Dolezal is a foremost expert on Drtikol’s work, who spent many months poring over the great photographer’s negatives and prints while putting together a recent exhibition that received acclaim in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Germany, an exhibition titled Eyes Wide Open. He explains the important turning point in Drtikol’s career:

“In 1930 Frantisek Drtikol stopped using live models but began creating figures that he inserted into his compositions instead. At the time he said it was the first time that he was really happy with his photographs. However, he didn’t fully give up on live models: he occasionally incorporated them still. He mixed and matched real elements with stylised details.”

Photo Frantisek Drtikol

The photographer’s own writings, published in English for the first time under the title Eyes Wide Open, offer a clue into his relationship with his models. He wrote that he wanted to photograph them in their most natural state – the nude as God created them, “nakedness as beauty itself”. But, already it was clear that the model was just one important element:

“I am inspired by three things: decorativeness, motion, and the stillness and expression of individual lines. I then use the background and props – simple objects such as circles, wavy lines and columns – accordingly. I let the beauty of the line itself make an impact, without embellishment, by suppressing everything that is secondary… or else I use the body as a decorative object, positioning it in various settings and lights. This is how I create all my pictures.”

Ultimately, for Drtikol live models were not always malleable enough to capture his ideas, leading to frustration and delay – elements he sidestepped in the latter phase of his work when the figures he introduced became flattened, elongated and stretched, sometimes in rhythmic patterns meticulously placed throughout the frame.

Anna Farova is a well-known Czech art critic and historian deeply involved with Drtikol’s work throughout much of her professional life.

“The figure is part of all of the other elements in the frame that are balanced in a way, I would say, that is most pleasing for the eye. Light, composition, contour – all fill in the frame, complementing each other. As photographer Josef Sudek said ‘Drtikol was a painter who happened to photograph’ and I think that is very true.”

Photo Frantisek_Drtikol

Drtikol’s later period, for which he was duly recognised, also echoed his spiritual focus: the photographer had become increasingly fascinated with Buddhist literature and thought, says Stanislav Dolezal and these principles found their place in the photographer’s work.

“You could say he ‘breathed’ life into his figures, he gave them ‘life’. In the 1930s Drtikol became more and more in touch with the spiritual side of things and in his photography he tried to show the ephemeral quality of the soul. At this point he had come far along his spiritual path.”

ut then, in 1935, Frantisek Drtikol abruptly gave up his photographic career to return to painting: never again would he capture the world’s attention as he had since the 1920s. Why did Drtikol give up photography at the height of his talent, after more than 25 years? There aren’t any easy answers:

“It’s difficult to know the full reason, but we know that the 1930s saw economic crisis and we know that Drtikol’s studio, which had been so successful till then, began to fail. Until then it had been very fashionable for Prague residents to have their portrait taken by Drtikol. Now though, as reality set in, he had less and less time for his own work. He gave up photographing completely; however, he still held courses and lectures on photography and composition for amateurs, so he didn’t completely lose touch.”

Frantisek Drtikol sold his studio in 1935 and slowly drifted into obscurity. It seems difficult to believe, given the immense power of his photographic work, but he died practically forgotten in 1961. A rediscovery and renewed appreciation of his work would follow only after, largely thanks to the work of art historians like Anna Farova. Today, there is no mistaking his place in the 20th century canon: a great Czech photographer who captured the female form in motion and “in flight”.

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