Jan Svoboda: Meetings and Partings

John Goto reflects on the man he knew and his work.

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I first met Svoboda, in a manner of speaking, through a thin yellowing catalogue of thumbnail sized images shown to me in 1978 by two young photographers in Prague. The pictures astonished me. Their grey tonality, minimal content and insistent geometry connected them in my mind to formalist painting and photography from pre-war Russia and Germany - to Suprematism, Constructivism and the Bauhaus. But Svoboda’s pictures were uniquely infused with a poetic melancholy.

The things depicted in the photographs were slight: a table, a shelf, sunlight on a wall, a pear, the back of a print.

My Czech acquaintances, Jiri Polacek and Franta Provaznik, were surprised by my immediate enthusiasm and kindly arranged for us to visit the artist, whose work they too held in high regard.

The Svobodas’ tall, white apartment was minimally furnished and filled with bright, diffused daylight from two large windows at either end. The main room is in fact precisely described in his photographs as Svoboda’s apartment was also his studio, and the stage on which his thoughtful meditations were played out. This domestic arrangement alerted me to his ambitious programme of uniting life and art.

Jan Svoboda was an imposingly tall, dishevelled looking man with close set eyes. He had just returned from the hospital and on doctor’s orders was drinking fruit juice, whilst we were served rum. His wife, Anna, the love of his life by all accounts, sat with us.

With quiet, serious deliberation he showed us his work. Mounted onto board without frames or window mats, the images had an unfamiliar physical appearance. Slowly I began to grasp the significance of their tonality, scale, and presentational method in relationship to the space in which the pictures were hung.

The tonality operates more or less in the mid greys without a clear black or white. This range is extremely susceptible to incident light - the light falling onto the print from the room – with which it forms an active relationship.

The scale of the prints is relatively large, and objects are often presented at near to life size. Yet their scale remains domestic and intimate – these are not the gigantic photographs we later became familiar with by American and German photographers, designed for behemothic gallery spaces.

The prints were mounted onto board with a thin metal subframe attached discretely to the back. When hung this has the effect of floating the image a few of centimetres away from the wall, thereby emphasising it as a separate physical object. Furthermore, the print surface is unglazed; it is raw and vulnerable. Svoboda accepted the damage that might occur to the image as a record of its being in the world, of its object history.

Finally, the viewer’s physical relationship to the picture echoes the photographer’s shifting viewpoint as we move from a frontal to a slightly oblique position, stepping forwards and back, in a narrow area mirrored by that of the photograph. [1]

As we left their apartment Svoboda gave me a number of his catalogues, and a print. He was a generous man, and I have seen him present strangers, who helped him in some small way, with a treasured image.

Between our first meeting and the next in 1983 a number of encouraging events happened for Svoboda. Convinced of the importance of his work and wishing to expand the accepted parameters of photography as they were understood in Britain, I showed his work to Sue Davies at the Photographers’ Gallery, and David Elliot at MOMA, Oxford. Both agreed to mount an exhibition and with the help of the British Council and Dr Tony Dufek at the Moravian Gallery, Bruno, which holds a major collection of Svoboda’s work, a show came about in 1982. In Prague, meanwhile, Jan’s long-held ambition to exhibit his work alongside that of his early mentor, Josef Sudek, was finally being planed by curator Zdenek Kirschner.

In 1983 I went back to Prague for the opening of my own exhibition at ULUV gallery, which Jan and Anna Svoboda attended.[2] A week later I was a guest at the private view of ‘Komparace 1, Josef Sudek and Jan Svoboda’ in the town of Roudnice nad Labem, forty kilometres north of Prague. Sudek and Svoboda’s works were hung directly one above the other in a beautifully designed exhibition by Stanislav Kolibal. We stood in silence as a pianist gave a short recital in honour of the photographers, and after speeches we retired to the pub next door. It was an occasion for celebration!

Svoboda at Roudnice
Jan Svoboda (seated 3rd from left), John Goto (4th from left)
Jiri Polacek (standing 2nd from left) at Roudnice

Time passed and in late January 1990, I received a letter from Tony Dufek telling me that Jan had been found dead in his apartment, which was ‘in a great mess’. The exact date of his passing during the holiday period was unknown, but Anna agreed to place it at 1 January 1990.

Maybe this is where my narrative should end; a tale of high artistic achievement and growing recognition abroad, with an enigmatic ending. It would be neat and tidy, and avoid the dark and dangerous undercurrents where art, politics and the imagination meet. But it would also sanitise Svoboda’s work, which was so clearly an expression of his life. I could not leave it at that.

The last three months of 1989 were momentous in Eastern Europe as Communist regimes collapsed, one after another. The trickle of East Germans reaching the West across the barbed wire boarder between Hungary and Austria, turned into a flood. Without bloodshed a new Hungarian Republic was declared, whilst in Leipzig 70,000 people marched against the East German regime, eventually forcing Erich Honecker to quit. In protest at the violent suppression of a peaceful march in Prague, Vaclav Havel and other dissidents formed Civic Forum. Further mass demonstrations and a general strike forced Milos Jakes and the entire Politburo to resign. On 8-9 November the Berlin Wall was breached, and thousands crossed for a night of celebrations. Nicolai Ceausescu’s grip on power in Romania crumbled in just a few days amidst street fighting. Ceausescu, along with his wife Elena, attempted to escape but were caught, tried and executed. On 29 December 1989 Vaclav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia.

I became haunted by an image of Svobada’s decline set against the disintegration of the prevailing political systems. The relationship between small, personal lives and vast historical events has been pondered by many writers, including Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak and Vasily Grossman, and remains a cornerstone of my own works concerning history. I made a series entitled The Scar [3] in response, in which the painful disintegration of a love affair is set against a chronology of political events in Eastern Europe. This was my first adieu to Svoboda.

In the thirty years that have elapsed since his death and my making of The Scar, I have still not been able to entirely square Jan’s work with his final rejection of photography and the destruction of the pristine apartment he once lived in with Anna. So, let me try again by returning to his work.

The troubles arising in the unconscious of another person should not be speculated on from afar, but Svoboda’s legacy as an artist, through his pictures, is public and might be properly enquired into.

Destruction is a theme he developed as a necessary component of creation. Torn, discarded photographs feature from 1971 onwards. The nature of the tearing is never vicious, as for example the attacks made by Arnulf Rainer on photographs, but instead are forlorn rendings.

The increasingly impossible task of picture making is reflected in numerous images of blank pages, discarded negatives, walls marked by the traces of now absent pictures, broken viewing screens, and pictures stacked one against another, in the limbo of storage.

His poetic titles tell of his own melancholy: Nostalgia, Picture That Will Not Return, A Dream About a Table, Waiting for Dawn, The Saddest Photograph, There are Memories of Memories.

To his depressive disposition must be added his irascibility. He did not suffer fools and was quick to turn on any remark he felt ill-informed. Although ire can fuel creativity, it also makes life difficult for those close to the artist, and is unlikely to help advance a career.

In the early ‘80s, just as Svoboda seemed to be gaining wider recognition, he almost stopped making pictures. The frustrations and disappointments of being an artist are many. The feeling that your work is misunderstood and undervalued is almost universal – even Picasso, the twentieth century’s most famous artist, felt this in the post-war period as his influence began to wane. But after the UK exhibitions, to which Svoboda was not permitted to travel by the Czechoslovakian authorities, there was no follow-on. No reviews were published and as with many exhibitions, it seemed to just come and go. Svoboda asked me for installation photos, but I didn’t have the heart to make them as both venues showed his work in their café areas.

Jan Svoboda had been employed for some years as a staff photographer at the Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague, but the relationship had soured and both parties wanted to end it if a mechanism could be found. The promise of an exhibition alongside Sudek’s work was a possible inducement, and the money I carried over in my sock from the sale of a few prints by The Photographers’ Gallery, clinched his bid for independence. He resigned from the museum in 1983, but from then on had no regular paid employment.

These might have been contributory factors, but I am not suggesting they were the cause of his decline. The balance between the contemplative stillness of his art, and the chaos which threatened to break through the walls of his studio, was always there. Creativity can eventually consume the creator. Or as he put it to me the last time I saw him, ‘don’t lose your nerve, if you lose your nerve, you’re done for’.


[1] These ideas were further developed in a talk given by John Goto and Craigie Horsfield at MOMA, Oxford, on the occasion of Jan Svoboda’s exhibition, an edited transcript of which was published in Creative Camera no.228 December 1983.

[2] Documentary photographs by Jiri Polacek of the private view of John Goto’s ULUV exhibition, which was attended by Jan Svoboda.

[3] The Scar by John Goto

This essay, first published in Photomonitor, was prompted by an exhibition of Jan Svoboda's work entitled 'Against the Light' at The Photographers' Gallery, London, curated by Pavel Vancat and Clare Grafik. It was planned to run from 21 February - 7 June, 2020. Due to the rapid spread of coronavirus (Covid-19) and in line with other UK galleries, the gallery's doors were closed in mid March.