The work of Emila Medková represents one of the most sustained and critically engaged examples of surrealist documentary photography, although it has been seen only rarely outside of the Czech Republic in either exhibition or reproduction, and her name is likely to be entirely unfamiliar to English-language readers. Born in 1928 and active from the late 1940s until a few years before her death in 1985, this invisibility echoes the phantom existence of the post-war Czech surrealist group of which she was a central member, a fascinating and dynamic intellectual circle which over the period in question enjoyed no more than a few years of public existence, the remaining three decades being spent underground.
Medková’s important place in the history of post-war Czech surrealism is also mirrored by her position within what can justifiably be termed a tradition of Czech surrealist photography spanning no fewer than seventy years (to the present day, with the still-active Czech and Slovak Surrealist group), many of whose attitudes and themes she exemplifies. Although material in the field has become more readily available since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, this intriguing history remains almost entirely unknown to audiences outside central Europe, and closer inspection reveals rich contrasts to the Northern European (by which is usually meant Paris-based) surrealist photography with which viewers and readers have become familiar. One can comfortably count over a dozen Czech surrealist photographers (considerably more if one includes those using the medium more occasionally), all of them with direct links to surrealist groups and many of them - in contrast to the ‘stars’ of French surrealist photography like Brassaï or Boiffard - keenly committed to surrealist positions. Whereas in France, for example, the importance of photography for the group seems, if anything, to have diminished after the war, in Czechoslovakia surrealist photography developed hand-in-hand with the movement’s critical debates; and all the while a remarkable sense of continuity and commonality emerges from a great proportion of its images, fostered in part by the very specific cultural and political geography upon which its lenses were trained.1
Medková’s earliest photographs such as Cascade of Hair, 1949 (fig.1), perhaps unsurprisingly, seem something of a resumé of pre-war surrealism’s use of constructed photography and the surrealist object typified by the work of Man Ray. Trained from an early age under Josef Ehm in the photography department of the School of Graphic Arts, Prague, she would have encountered other leading figures from photography’s avant-garde such as Jaromír Funke and Eugen Wiškowský, and it was more than likely that a lively and informed awareness of both Czech and international surrealist visual practice was current along its corridors.2 Formed in Prague in 1934 as in many ways a logical development from the previous decade of the Czech avant-garde, the Czech surrealist group had enjoyed a high public profile before the war forced its temporary eclipse, establishing international links and an intellectual credibility that was both in dialogue with, yet already easily distinguished, from its Parisian counterpart. Over this period, though Medková would probably have been too young to witness them herself, venues such as the Mánes Gallery had hosted major exhibitions featuring both international surrealism and wider avant-garde photography from Germany and France, and images were also readily available in print; in a sense, despite the events of the war, surrealism was still very much ‘in the air’ in 1940s Prague, and there was more than one group of younger artists, writers and photographers formed around this time that declared itself in sympathy with the surrealist cause.
Cascade of Hair, like many of Medková’s Shadowplay cycle of photographs from the late 1940s, rehearses uncomfortable apparitions, the migration of meanings between objects (egg/eye, water/hair), and the rudderless drift between the natural and human worlds familiar from much surrealist painting of the 1930s. Sharp contrast gives the shadows an oblique dense quality with as much truth as the ‘real’ objects that cast them - as if already to suggest the surrealist photographic image’s status as one that, however skewed it may appear, nonetheless insists on equal status with the world projecting it; a hazier female shadow - one guesses of the photographer herself, the one ‘absent’ object - confronts the scene with a tentative gesture, her presence as a mere person less certain than the uncanny juxtapositions stuck to a wall as luminous and as insubstantial as a mirror. The photograph’s most direct external reference, in fact, is the painting The Myth of Light, painted by the Czech surrealist painter Toyen (a major figure from the pre-war group) in 1946, the year before her definitive departure for Paris: in it, a shadow of a male figure cast onto a door appears to hold an actual plant whose bunches of thin roots fall like tresses, met by gloved female hands mimicking a shadow guard dog. Already, verifying photographic answers to the enigmas posed by painting had become a theme for Medková, and the work of Toyen in particular (another major Czech surrealist whose status in the official guidebooks needs serious revision) would remain an important point of reference for her, albeit with quite different results.
Slightly forced in their self-conscious dramatisations as they are, the staged photographs of this period have something of an atmosphere of febrile, cooped-up past-times, as though staged while waiting for something else. Many of them were made in partnership with the man Medková had first met at the School of Graphic Arts in 1942, the painter Mikuláš Medek. Together and from the late 1940s until the latter’s death in 1974, the Medeks formed a couple whose partnership seems to have been a fertile source of creative and intellectual exchange working in a complex interplay that was clearly productive for both bodies of work (though Medek’s disfavour with the Czech authorities during the 1950s also impacted significantly on the way in which Medková could pursue her own career, obliging her to earn a living as a technical photographer while her husband remained at home to take care of their daughter). The year the Medeks married, 1951, was also the year the couple joined the rekindled activities of the Czech surrealist group formed around the writer, artist and designer Karel Teige. Teige, already a major figure of the Czech avant-garde in the early 1930s, had been the chief theorist of pre-war Czech surrealism, but the defections, deaths and emigrations that had compounded the group’s demise under occupation left him as its sole survivor; it was only very gradually that a younger generation of writers and artists gathered around him again at the turn of the decade.
For the reformed group this period, however, was characterised by a climate once again as unfavourable as it had been a decade before. After a brief hiatus immediately after the cessation of hostilities, the establishment between 1946 and 1948 of a Stalinist state aligned with the Soviet Union heralded the beginning of an extended period of cultural repression that was to last for the next four decades (punctuated only by a gradual relaxation in the mid-sixties that was to be sharply revoked in its turn after the events of the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968). Surrealism and its outcomes were strongly censured by the state media, and Teige in particular - whose pre-war position had been characterised by a determination to reconcile surrealist ideals with party political revolutionary demands - was hounded by the authorities to the point that his untimely death only months later was widely interpreted as a direct result of state and police pressure. Under these conditions, any organised surrealist activity in Czechoslovakia could only be on condition of covert activity, and for the majority of the period in question the group had no public outlets at its disposal. Driven underground, the group pursued a collective intellectual existence that consisted of meeting at each other’s homes and studios to share work and debate, focusing activities in the initial period on a series of collective enquiries beginning with two Enquiries on Surrealism 1951 and 1953 and then on two cycles of collective anthologies, internal group journals ‘published’ in a single copy: the Signs of the Zodiac (1951, 10 issues) and Object (1953-62, 5 issues) (with Medková a major contributor to both series, notably the covers for several issues of Object).3