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  • Jaroslav Rössler: Czech Avant-Garde Photographer
  • Allan Graubard
Jaroslav Rössler: Czech Avant-Garde Photographer edited by Vladimir Birgus and Jan Mlcoch. Derek Paton, trans. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2004. 176 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 0-262-02557-4.

The formation of the modern spirit in Europe prior to World War II would have been much impoverished without the presence of the Czech avant-garde. Seminal movements from constructivism to surrealism mark the debates begun and contributions made in the evolving complex of artistic values, whether revolutionary by design or by effect.

Central to this evolution are figures in Czech photography, who we in the West are finally encountering, Jaroslav Rössler among them. A creator of first importance to the mid-1930s, Rössler's oeuvre bypasses the usual conventions of type or style without, at the same time, obscuring his interpretation of them. Commonly associated with constructivist, abstract, poetist and informalist tendencies throughout his career, Rössler emerges intact, a sensibility to be reckoned with, perhaps because of his verve in sustaining an anxious tone; a critical, if disarming, poignancy in questioning why and how. His touch remains his own, as does his means of envisioning, something that was not lost on Karl Teige (the principal theoretician of Devetsil, the leading avant-garde group prior to Czech surrealism), who in 1926 placed Rössler's work above that of Man Ray—when Man Ray held a commanding influence on Czech photography.

Unlike Man Ray, however, Rössler rarely achieved success or popular notice by name, despite his charming cosmetics and other ads during the late 1920s and early 1930s. No, Rössler's path was more erratic. Beginning in 1935 and for more than 20 years, in fact, he endured an eclipse brought on by a failed suicide attempt and an extensive depressive aftermath. His public re-emergence in 1961 in the Prague quarterly Revue Fotografie, then in 1966, in Brno, where he appeared in the "Surrealism and Photography" exhibit with younger colleagues, is a tribute to his uniqueness during a time when cultural liberties in the former Czechoslovakia assumed mounting social importance.

Rössler made his first photos in 1917 as a teenaged apprentice in the studio of Frantisek Dritkol, an eminent Czech photographer. Having learned his trade there, along with a fascination for new mass technologies such as radio, Rössler cultivated several techniques to provide an image concurrent with the tensions of the era, when photography would soon claim its own space exclusive of other arts. His early use of bromoil (painting by brush on glass negatives) expanded to the complete negative and gelatin silver print, then collage, photo collage, photograms (he was perhaps the first Czech to make them) and photomontage, all done with great effect in black and white. In his last decades he created superbly evocative color images.

For viewers today, circa 2004, Rössler's independence remains perhaps his greatest distinction. We would do well to make of our encounter with Rössler—a poet of the constructed image rather than a constructivist, as Mathew Witkovsky notes in his essay on Rössler; designer of abstractions infected with ambiguity and psychological charge; integral to poetism during its ascendance; celebrated by surrealists; affected by informalism—a study of the deeper struggles of the imagination and the strategies required of artists in the world we face. In this regard, I do not take Rössler's refusal to sell his major work—for which he gained the most recognition, save for what he produced as a "professional photographer" in advertising (which even then brought him irregular compensation) —as a symptom of personal conflicts alone.

With Rössler, the photographic image becomes something more than a reflection of, or window into, the reality we face. It becomes a reality that reflects what we bring to it, opening up an interaction that rarely leaves us dispassionate. The recent release of the current monograph, with 178 illustrations (134 full-size) and six important essays and chronology, returns to us a world of light, shadow, people and objects both quotidian and hybrid whose resonance remains.

Here, then, is Jaroslav Rössler...


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