Some of the most powerful and unexpected impulses in the arts of cinema and photography have appeared in recent years from Central Europe. Among these are the photographs of Josef Koudelka, which will be shown in his first major exhibition in this country next year at the Hayward Gallery under the auspices of the Arts Council of Great Britain. The V & A, with its policy of collecting internationally in the contemporary field, has the important opportunity to show a remarkable series - called simply Pilgrims - by the Czech photographer Markéta Luskačová. The art of photography is, at its very best, often an art of imagined fact. In a way that is sometimes uncanny photographers record details of experiences deep within themselves that actually occur before their camera, and are received at a profound level by an audience which saw nothing of the events but recognises the experience.
This catalogue only briefly suggests the complexity of the terrain in modern history, circumstance and local fact. This is in keeping with the photographer’s desire for a catalogue which should be a visual record of the exhibition held here in the winter of 1983-84. The sensitivity of the photographs and their subject is the silent voice that needs no polemical bludgeon. In words which appear elsewhere in this catalogue, the photographs bear witness to ‘a pilgrimage so rare in our place and time’.
Sir Roy Strong
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’.
Assistant Keeper of Photographs
Where Angels Used to Tread
People in a file kneeling in a bare country close to the blatant sky, rising, proceeding in song, bending their knees into prayer, getting up, and time and time again, like the chorus from a Greek tragedy, treading their pilgrims’ way - to what Delphi?
Withered women in church pews, mothers of mothers-and-fathers of fathers-and-mothers, their dark creviced laps broad-spread with sitting, their hair hidden in penitence. Here, their sinewed hands, with knuckles protruding, come to grips with the rough-hewn timber of the pews, the years of the tree with the wrinkles of man.
Many a photograph's eye is mere ogling on lives of others; many a snapshot sheer shameless theft from a life close to ours: there’s the sensational shot of "the lion in the hour of his meekness", of the pop-star in the stables, of the lord chamberlain tying the lace of his shoe... Behold: proof manifest that the man in the public eye, he too "is only human", that the worker has his rest, the comedian his boredom,the policeman his doze... As though we found man's face revealed only when caught at something other than we suppose his own.
But what, then, is his own? And who is he, at heart? How many likenesses round up the attributes of the world? The world is a racecourse,a roof for the night,a battlefield, a maze, a brisk highway, a forest dark and deep... The world is a way, too, of godly pilgrimage, and a place for prayer. Not with the onlookers lens did Markéta Luskačová look at her pilgrims: she sees with living eyeballs. There was part of their time to be lived with them, part of their way to be shared, to have them trust her with their artless face and let her glimpse them pondering without heed, in resignation, sorrow, silence. The proud humility of these pilgrims might speak the words of Oedipus as Sophocles had spelt them:
And Time, my brother, who knew me when I was small,
now knows me in my greatness too. l was born thus,
nor shall I change any more.
Photography, prized as a document, in this outgrows itself: becoming the poetical testimony of the spiritual image of man, our contemporary and of a pilgrimage so rare in our place and time.
Gospel-land... "The world used to be much more beautiful... A place where angels used to tread..."" (Katarina Fujková, 1967).
(translated by Franz H.Wurm)
Kde chodí andělé
Klečící zástup v holé krajině, blízko širého nebe, který jde, zpívá, pokleká, modlí se, vstává a jde - podobný chóru z antické tragédie, putujícímu znovu a znovu - do jakých Delf?
Staré ženy v kostelních lavicích, matky pokolení, s temnými rozsedlými klíny, s kajícně zahalenými vlasy. Jejich žilnaté ruce s vystouplými klouby se tu setkávají s hrubě tesaným dřevem kostelních lavic, léta stromu s vráskami člověka.
Je mnoho fotografování, které je pouhým očumováním života druhých, jsou "momentky", kradené bezostyšně z života bližních, jsou "senzační snímky", které zachytí "lva ve chvilce něhy", hvězdu popmusic v dostihové stáji, lorda komořího, zavazujícího si tkaničku u boty... Hle, důkazy o tom, že veřejný činitel je "také jen člověk", že dělník odpočívá, komik se nudí, strážník podřimuje... Jako bychom jeho lidskou tvář postihli teprve tehdy, když ho přistihneme při něčem jiném, než je mu vlastní.
Ale co je člověku vlastní? A co je mu nejvlastnější? Kolik podob se dá přisoudit světu? Svět je závodiště, noclehárna, bitevní pole, labyrint, lazaret, břeskná autostráda nebo temný, hluboký les...
Svět je také cesta zbožných putování, místo k modlitbě. Nebyl to divácký objektiv, je to lidská zřítelnice, kterou se na své poutníky dívá Markéta Luskačová. Bylo třeba pobývat s nimi, jít kus jejich cestou, aby jí nastavili tvář tak bezelstnou, aby jí dali nahlédnout i do nestřežených okamžiků pohroužení, odevzdání, smutku a ticha. Hrdá pokora těchto poutníků, kteří by mohli promluvit slovy Sofoklova Oidipa:
A čas, můj bratr -
ten mě znal, když jsem byl malý
- zná i mou velikost.
Tak jsem se narodil - jiný už nebudu.
Tak se fotografie, cenná už jako dokument, stává i něčím víc: básnickým svědectvím duchovní podoby člověka, našeho současníka, svědectvím o jednom putování, tak vzácném v tomto prostoru a čase.
Jsme v zemi evangelia.
"Dřív to bylo na světě o moc krásnější... Chodili andělé..." (Katarína Fujková,1967).