Jan Saudek became known worldwide in the 1990’s for his erotic photographs fusing photography with the world of painting, calling forth for their creation the atmosphere of an atelier from the dawn of photography, with deck floor and shabby walls, as well as aniline dye photographs.
He was born in 1935 and his way of looking at the world was greatly influenced by his horrendous experience of the Second World War. With his twin brother, they witnessed the nazi occupation of Prague and the monstrosity of the concentration camps. After the war, he studied at a graphic arts secondary school while already taking photographs. In the 1960’s, he worked with his medium format 6×6 Flexaret camera and decided to become a photographer under the influence of Edward Steichen’s book and exhibition, The Family of Man (1955). In 1969, he travelled to the United States, where he met Hugh Edwards, the curator of the Art Institute of Chicago who encouraged his artistic endeavours. His first foreign exhibition was organised in Bloomington, at the Indiana University.
Returning to Prague, surrounded by the dictatorial climate of the communist Czechoslovakia, he worked in secret in the cellar underneath his house, wary of making himself known to the authorities. Until the middle of the sixties, he made subtly arranged snapshots, his recurring subject being the collision between the innocence of childhood and disillusioned adulthood. One of his most well-known photographs from this period is Life (1966), where a half naked, muscular man is hugging a newborn baby with touching gentleness. By the end of the decade, he started to arrange ever more complex scenes both in terms of form and substance, complete with costumes, props, invariably against the backdrop of his mouldy studio wall.
His excessively ornate, grandiloquent photographs show the duality present in all of us, the good and the bad, the sublimity of the soul and the lewdness of the body, like the two faces of the god Janus. From the end of the 1970’s, mainly thanks to his foreign exhibitions and publications, he became well known, even trendy. In his works aspiring to grasp the authenticity of life, he represented ultimate extremes and feverish visions, explained partly by the traumas he had experienced and partly by his agitated love life.
For Saudek, a body is a visual metaphor for life, a perfect physique can express beauty just as well as a shapeless or old one. His still frame scenes featuring overheated eroticism next to frivolous burlesques inspired by Czech humour can just as well be interpreted as paraphrases from art history. By the 1990’s, he had become a worldwide recognized photographer. Besides his more than 400 solo exhibitions, he has participated in major group exhibitions and his photographs can be found in the world’s prestigious collections. His works, at the beginning branded as clichéd and kitschy, have become iconic in photographic history.
The retrospective presenting baroquely sultry, hand-coloured sensual nudes and visually rich scenes by Jan Saudek, a rebel of contemporary Czech photography, has been realised in collaboration between the Budapest Photo Festival and Kunsthalle Budapest.