Jacob Riis, an immigrant himself, classified the communities he photographed in New York City late last century. He had this sense of the identity of the Bohemians, newly arrived from what is now the western part of Czechoslovakia: they were the Irish of Mitteleuropa. Prague is the capital of that Bohemia, and Markéta Luskačová is one of its citizens — although living now in London. Her photographs were first exhibited at the Theater Behind the Gate in Prague in 1971.
These photographs were taken from 1967 to 19.74 and belong to two extensive series. The first is Pilgrimages. The second, The Village, grew naturally from the first and shows the life and customs of country people with whom the photographer had become friends during pilgrimages to the easternmost part of her country, known as Slovakia, with a border to the north with Poland, to the east with the Soviet Union and the the south with Hungary. It was in this area, where the rural traditions of the people have held their ground against industrialisation, that Markéta Luskačová found an immediate spiritual identification.
There are about 12 pilgrimage centres in Slovakia, the greatest of which is Levoča with its renowned Gothic cathedral. The pilgrimages are part of the Marian cult strong in the region. Four to five thousand people, primarily Roman Catholic, attend the festival at Levoča on the fourth of July, with lesser festivals scattered over the following two months.
Luskačová would travel the 600 kilometers east from Prague to join the pilgrimage on a Thursday or Friday. The chief service would be on Sunday, but smaller services would be held late into Saturday evening and begin again at first light. Afterwards she would travel back to Prague, process and print photographs to give to pilgrims she knew, and set out again on the Thursday. This cycle was maintained over the eight to ten weeks of the summer pilgrimages.
Katarina was a friend of the photographer made in her second year of photographing the pilgrimages. She lived in a mountain village that retained much of its 18th century, pre-industrial character, as the land was poor and there was no farm co-operative. Perhaps its peasant traditions stretched much further back than that. Katarina once explained to the village priest how her friend Markéta began to photograph their life: ‘She was photographing us on a pilgrimage, and then she brought us pictures, and because she brought us pictures, we said, “Come on girl, have a meal with us,” and she said, “Could I come to your village?” and we said, “Yes, you can come to our village.” And she came to the village, and we gave her a meal!’
The community was bound together by mutual help and obligation. A tally was kept of the time neighbours and relations owed each other. Each day or half day was carefully recorded and had to be returned. Failure to make good the owed time resulted in loss of standing. At the end of each harvest Katarina was able to say with pride; ‘All my time debts are paid, I owe no one any time.’
One day in Prague the photographer received a telegram. Katarina’s mother had died. Could she come to the funeral and would she photograph it? It was considered proper for a person to be prepared for death after the age of 50, with funeral clothes and holy candles arranged in readiness in a chest. In contrast to attitudes in modern society, death was not experienced as a violent and arbitrary intrusion into life but was anticipated and accepted as the natural conclusion of living. The curate would compose a chant for the dead person, in which the departed says goodbye to each relation and neighbour, each by name and in strictly observed order. The photographer found that she herself was remembered and was bade goodbye in the chant.
In the village a number of old customs were observed by the priest, such as blessing each house at Three Kings’ Day. There was also the Ceremony of the Cape. This Easter ritual concerned a sacred cape painted with a crucifixion. On Good Friday the cape would be ceremoniously carried in procession three times around the church. Then it would be placed in a grave or shrine inside the church. On Easter Sunday the cape would be taken up from the grave or shrine and again carried in procession three times around the church. Unlike a painted panel or a cross, the cape assumed different forms responsive to its ritual passage, as it was held, carried, and kissed.
It is not easy to decide whether to write about the culture represented in the photographs in the past or present tense. There is a co-operative in the village now. Small things are changing — modern brushed cottons replace the customary materials of dress, whose cut and decoration conveyed a sense of local tradition and a style of proud deportment too. But some the old ways are now being seen as primitive, as belonging to an age now considered a preprosperous and, therefore, somehow preposterous. Already the two series of photographs have acquired a documentary quality that may be unrepeatable.
While the subjects of the photographs belong to a period we may regard as archaic, the pictures inevitably reflect an awareness of contemporary external influence. Their style is fully accounted for by books likely to have been available to the photographer in Prague — Henri Cartier-Bresson’s and William Klein’s Moscow books, the first for its vocabulary of small-camera framing, the second for its graphic freedom. The photographer also had ready access to the personal examples of Josef Sudek and Josef Koudelka. There is, though, a more persistent reason for including the photographs in our modern consciousness, expressed in the memorable description of a group of peasants from Central Europe displaced to a railway station in the Ukraine during the Second World War, written by Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind:
‘In my wanderings at the beginning of the Second World War, I happened to find myself, for a very short while, in the Soviet Union. I was waiting for a train at a station in one of the large cities of the Ukraine. It was a gigantic station. Its walls were hung with portraits and banners of inexpressible ugliness. A dense crowd dressed in sheepskin coats, uniforms, fur caps, and woollen kerchiefs filled every available space and tracked thick mud over the tiled floor. The marble stairs were covered with sleeping beggars, their bare legs sticking out of their tatters despite the fact that it was freezing. Over them loudspeakers shouted propaganda slogans. As I was passing through the station I suddenly stopped and looked. A peasant family — husband and wife and two children - had settled down by the wall. They were sitting on baskets and bundles. The wife was feeding the younger child; the husband who had a dark, wrinkled face and a black, drooping moustache was pouring tea out of a kettle into a cup for the older boy. They were whispering to each other in Polish. I gazed at them until I felt moved to the point of tears. What had stopped my steps so suddenly and touched me so profoundly was their difference. This was a human group, an island in a crowd that lacked something proper to humble, ordinary human life. The gesture of a hand pouring tea, the careful, delicate handing of the cup to the child, the worried words I guessed from the movement of their lips, their isolation, their privacy in the midst of the crowd — that is what moved me. For a moment, then, I understood something that quickly slipped from my grasp.
Polish peasants were certainly far from the summits of civilisation. It is possible that the family I saw was illiterate. My friend would have called them graceless, smelly imbeciles who had to be taught to think. Still, precious seeds of humanity were preserved in them, or in the Baltic people, or in the Czechs because they had not yet been subjected to the scientific treatment of Monsieur Homais. It may well be that the fondness with which Baltic women tended their little gardens, the superstition of Polish women gathering herbs to make charms, the custom of setting an empty place for a traveller on Christmas Eve betoken inherent good that can be developed. In the circles in which my friend lives, to calla man a mystery is to insult him. They have set out to carve a new man much as a sculptor carves his statue out of a block of stone, by chipping away what is unwanted. l think they are wrong, that their knowledge in all its perfection is insufficient, and their power over life and death is usurped.‘
" More recently there is John Berger’s literary project on the peasantry of Western Europe, of which Pig Earth is the first work. Berger states that ‘within a century there may be no more peasants. In Western Europe, if the plans work out as the economic planners have foreseen, there will be no more peasants within 25 years...The remarkable continuity of peasant experience and the peasant view of the world acquires, as it is threatened with extinction, an unprecedented and unexpected urgency’.
"Somewhere else to build the paradise"
The extent of Britain’s artistic debt to continental Europe can hardly be overemphasized. Not only have we followed the models of the major European movements: the history of art in England has been shaped and vitalised by those continental masters, from Holbein, Van Dyck and Kneller to Bomberg, Kokoschka and Gabo, who have spent important periods of their working lives in this country. British photography has a sturdier native tradition, but here too we owe much to the example of the mainland. Bill Brandt, probably the greatest British photographer of this century, was German by origin, continental by education, and brought to his work a first-hand knowledge of the European avant-garde. More recently, Josef Koudelka’s presence in the seventies exposed smug England to the passionate humanism of central Europe. Markéta Luskačová, who left her native Prague to settle in London in 1975, is thus one of the latest of a long line of exiles who have enriched our cultural life by their presence.
Since arriving in England, Luskačová has made a distinguished career as a freelance photojournalist while continuing to produce her own, more personal work. The strength of the latter has been recognised. The Arts Council, Side Gallery, Museum of Modern Art (Oxford) and Victoria and Albert Museum have all supported her work; in 1985, Luskačová wo;n the last GLC photography competition. However, this work has not been widely seen and it is for her Czechoslovakian pictures of the late sixties and early seventies (exhibited at the V & A under the title Pilgrims in 1985) that Luskačová remains best-known.
There is an irony here. Luskačová bring to her work in England the same eye and the same concern that she showed for the villagers of Šumiac and the pilgrimages of Slovakia. Her present subject-matter and her approach to it are directly relevant to contemporary British social attitudes and photographic practices.
Recent British independent photography has shown great concern with making a critical examination of contemporary society. Many young photographers have adopted a quasi-sociological approach, looking at social roles and structures rather than at individual qualities. Markéta Luskačová has consistently taken the opposite view. Although trained as a social scientist, she forcefully restates the central value of the individual; she celebrates the emotional and spiritual worth of people on the edge of society’s main stream, and the value of children.
Such an attitude can hav its pitfalls — remember The Family of Man, or the sickly jauntiness of so much fifties photojournalism —~ but Luskačová is no sentimental optimist. She is a dedicated and highly cultured artist, with first-hand experience of the problems of two diametrically-opposed social systems. She has looked at England with fresh and foreign eyes, and constructed pictures to make us pause and reconsider.
Marketa Luskacové shares with her friend and compatriot Josef Koudelka a dislike of formal interviews. She pleads problems with the language, and unpleasant memories of the police revived by the sight of a pen and notebook. I suspect though that her reluctance to be quoted, or to answer questions directly, comes from a deeper source, from a sense that there are areas in which words are always treacherous, the crude distorters of truths and feelings of a kind which can only be transmitted by images.
Unreal definitions, twisted statistics: Luskaeova was happy to leave sociology for photography on her graduation from Karlove University, Prague, in 1967. She recalls with distaste the jargon of the social sciences — even as a student she was reluctant to use it. Statistics, which seem so incontrovertible, can be used to prove almost anything. Early in her university career she knew that, while she could do the work and exams were no great problem, hers was not an academic intellect.
No experience is ever wasted, though, and the university years brought other kinds of discovery. A city-dweller, born and brought up in Prague, she came to know the rural communities of Slovakia and their living tradition of religious pilgrimage. On summer weekends, family groups from remote villages would walk the mountains to worship and do penance at hilltop chapels and wayside shrines. She discovered what she wanted to do: not to anatomise these customs or analyse these anomalous survivals from the pre-socialist era, but to share, record and preserve the experience. To learn to photograph. By the time of her thesis, in 1968, academic work had become a pretext for photography.
The summer pilgrimages drew Luskačová into a deeper involvement with the peasant communities. In Sumiac — a place whose name expresses the sound of wind in the trees, or rushing water — she discovered the village. ln her photographs, the round of village ceremonies, the church’s festivals, agricultural labour, and family events created a strong and harmonious framework for the expression of personal feeling.
As her earliest pictures demonstrate, Luskačová is one of those photographers who arrive at the medium with a clearly-formed set of values and a fully-developed pictorial aesthetic. All that has to be learned by these favoured talents is the control of knobs and levers, of exposure and chemisstry, which ensures that film will faithfully record the vision. The Academy of Film and Fine Art, where she studied as a post-graduate from 1967-9, provided the technical training. Luskačová left before completing the course, having succeeded in gaining the highly-sought-after membership of the Artists’ Union, which allowed her to work as a professional freelance photographer.
Much as she dislikes interviews, Markéta Luskačová is generous with her time, her hospitality and information. In her ﬂat, in a cosmopolitan area of West London, susrrounded by pictures and the smell of good cooking, she explained her ideas through anecdotes and images, by concrete example rather than abstract statement. Discussing the factors which have shaped her pictorial vision, she talked of her grandfather, an artist-illustrator, and his conversations with her as a little girl in the years following his retirement and the revolution of 1948. She showed me examples of the books his firm had published, among them a finely-designed and printed folio of reproductions of works by Georges Roualt. She went through a folio of original wood-block prints by the mystic artist J. Vachal, and brought out books on the dramatic carved polychrome figures from the pilgrimage cathedral of Levoca. She described the debt owed by all Czech photographers to Josef Sudek, who established beyond question the status of photography among the arts in Czechoslovakia, and the inspiration of his example of personal dedication and integrity. She told me how in Czechoslovakia a young couple, having acquired the essential basic furniture, will want to own a work of art, a picture or a fine ceramic, paying often by instalment. How different from England, where works of art are for the rich, and belong to the world of commerce.
Rather than talk of her own reasons for leaving Prague, Luskačová spoke of the suffering of friends, the cultural censorship that others had undergone, their tragedies of loss of livelihood and enforced exile. She has been more fortunate than many, and been able to maintain some contacts with her homeland.
Nevertheless, life in London since 1975 has not been free from the problems of cultural adjustment, financial survival and the continuation of a personal work within a foreign country. Her first major English subject — London’s markets — pulled together several strands. Streets such as Brick Lane (where she is still photographing) and Portobello Road (where she still shops) offered a new experience. Prague has no equivalent to their theatre of bargain, where the desire to buy cheap meets head-on with the wish to sell dear. At the same time, she found a sense of belonging: the markets are full of immigrants, drawn together by an economic necessity.
The birth of her son Matthew, on June 15th 1977, has had the profoundest effect on Luskaéové’s work and life. To raise and nurture a child; to survive financially; to create as an independent photographer are three hard tasks to reconcile. Luska(':ova’s subsequent photography has been largely determined by her son’s existence. She has been drawn into the orbit of children, and they have become her main — almost her exclusive — subject. At first this was a practical necessity. When in 1978 the Side Gallery invited Luskaeova to take part in a project to document working-class culture in the North-East, Matthew had to be able to accompany her. She chose to photograph people on the beaches. Matthew — like any sociable infant — would make friends with a family and its children, and be tended by them while Markéta worked.
A firm belief in the virtue of fresh air for a small child led to wanderings through the streets of London with camera and pushchair. From these journeyings came the photographs of street musicians, with their air of melancholy fortitude and loneliness. (lt has been remarked that no other photographer has made London look so like an Eastern European city.)
By such simple means photography and life are drawn together. Responsibility for a child clarifies moral imperatives: the need to do right, to bear witness, to hope and work steadfastly for a future. It is now through choice that childhood is her theme.
Although she nominally works in series, the nature of Luskačová’s concerns prevents a systematic production. Pictures are created when an event coincides with the photographers internal and external readiness. Luskaeova is neither autobiographer nor voyeur, but there must be an integration of her subjects with her life. The rhythm of personal work is necessarily fitful; sometimes a year will seem unfruitful. At the other extreme, there can be a day — as in the course of a recent commission in Africa f when the pieces all fall into place and another group of pictures will be added to the growing jigsaw of personal work. By the time it is complete, a series will have passed through a lengthy period of gestation, and negatives may wait for years to take their place and receive their final printing.
Luska<':ova’s beliefs and way of working explain why her photographs have not been more widely shown. Photography for her is something of great value, an art, not a commodity to be manufactured and hawked round. Not for her the neatly-defined theme and rapid, easy, superficial production. Neither in working method nor in type of image does she conform to any of the patterns currently expected of British independent photographers. Stark and bold in composition, tender and unsentimental in content, her pictures search for an emotional intensity and a type of truthfulness which the English, l suspect, still too often find embarrassing.