Nothing light about one of the latest Taschen volumes, a huge retrospective on Jan Saudek’s work that has appeared on the shelf of my local book megastore. So I dove into the depth and length of it, trying to make sense of this author in the midst of Christmas shoppers and Saturday afternoon rush. Shameless and absorbed, isolated from the noise and impervious to distraction, oblivious of anything but the photographs. Nothing, not even the preface or any caption, was to distract me from the images, and these alone were to tell me whatever was worth knowing about Jan Saudek, at least to me. Occasionally I would glimpse at the date, in order to put the images into some kind of historical contest. Not just his personal life, of which I know very little, but the European political situation in which he happened to live and work.
The story begins with black and white photographs of Jan and his brother, and their lives as young east Europeans, stuck on the “wrong” side of the iron curtain, pathetically trying somehow to partake in the American dream, being conscripts, students, workers, but most of all young. Young Jan has talent, this much is evident, and doesn’t seem much impaired by the lack of fancy western equipment or money. The fascination of these images lives in the universal aspiration to happiness that transpires from them, regardless or in a way made stronger by the society in which they live, restrictive and authoritarian. They are young, good looking muscular men, and display an appetite for freedom, a lust for life and love, an interest in the open air, nudity and sex. Nudes appear almost immediately in his work, not so much in an aesthetic classical way but transgressive, liberatory, uninhibited, symbolical. From the innocence of children nude in a landscape to grown up men and women, sometimes against the unlikely backdrop of industrial socialist developments. A contradiction quickly appears, the paradox of a man built like a working class hero but with a tormented ill adjusted soul that doesn’t seem to bear the communist regime very well. They seem happy enough, Jan and his young family, riding motorcycles in the summer, playing in the sun. And yet inexorably this man would drift from his sunny beginnings into a mouldy cellar, a room with a window overlooking a blind wall, a striped curtain on top and no other view but his inner vision. In this humble studio setting he was to develop the style that he is mostly known for: the strange combination of 19th century photography techniques, sepia hand coloured prints, and the weird characters that inhabit this dreamlike space. His models range from young to old, male and female, beautiful or grotesquely horrible, often naked, and are engaged in mostly anguished unsettling scenes, sometimes frivolous, rarely romantic, increasingly obscene explicit sex and violent as time goes by. His vision seems to spiral down into a Dantesque hell, chasing his demons all the way down to the darkest pit of his subconscious.
If Saudek’s trigger is indeed to be found in the oppressive communist regime, why is it so that international recognition and the very crumbling of the iron curtain and dismissal of his alleged oppressors haven’t brought about an opening in his cellar? Not at all, the most recent work is bleaker than ever. Nor is our western thirst for his imagery in the least quenched by the fall of his detractors: the communists.
As the legend would have it, Jan was a suppressed dissident. Forced to work in a cellar and in secret by the socialist police, he was hence to produce symbols of his legitimate aspiration to freedom and denouncing the injustice of the political system through his disconcerting – but possibly titillating to a western public – images. While one of the first images that filtered through to the west was an enchanting view of Prague, with a small naked girl walking innocently among white geese in the foreground, back to the camera, it was quickly to be followed by his other more “adult” cellar work. I am not questioning Saudek’s honesty (a true and conclusive exploration of his motives would require a longer inquiry) but have doubts about our integrity as Westerners when confronted with this work, and other east European expressions of the period. Just think for a moment of the way in which Milan Kundera’s “The unbearable Lightness of being” was filmed to realize that to us, well fed and spoiled Westerners, Eastern Europe was mainly a décor for self complacent commiseration and possibly stimulating erotic adventures. Made strong by the dollar, many crossed the border and were catered for sexually, proving undeniably that if real socialism was a system cruel enough to drive people to prostitution, capitalists didn’t prove to be morally superior by refraining from taking squalidly advantage of the situation. In truth both were victims of their respective systems, fellow human beings unable to break the bounds of their times and cultures, prey of oppression and neurosis, ultimately not free.
This is why Jan Saudek’s descent didn’t stop but was possibly made worse by the realization that whatever his expectations and dreams as a young man, just crossing a political border or gain international recognition as an artist or even the total fall of a political system wasn’t going to deliver him from his inner nightmares. This seems to me the story told by his oeuvre down to his gruesome latest work: helpless desperation, boundless expression of anguish at recognising that not dictators but our own human nature will drive some of us unavoidably to madness. Jan is free at last, one would think, and can do whatever he likes. Still he can’t escape himself, has no choice really but to continue on his course, maybe even committed to it by the pressure of our unsavoury voyeuristic appetites. Nothing, not even the probable success of this latest hardback by Taschen, will deliver him from that hell. A strange proposition for your Christmas coffee table, wouldn’t you say?