Jindrich Štyrský

Untitled

1934

Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Support: 127 x 123 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2007
Reference
P79315

Summary

Untitled is a black and white gelatin silver print on paper. In the left of the photograph is a gravestone. This is mounted on a small tomb and bears an inscription, of which the legible words read ‘Familie Brousil’. The gravestone rests against a mouldy and discoloured wall, the left side of which is dappled with sunlight. An empty wooden seat also adjoins the wall at the right, and in the foreground of the image is a structure topped with a circular metal handle, which appears to be a much larger tomb. The photograph is set within a window mount and framed.

Untitled was taken by Czechoslovakian artist Jindrich Štyrský in his native Prague in 1934. Štyrský had a diverse practice as a painter, poet, editor, photographer and collagist. In 1934 he co-founded the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia alongside his partner, the painter Toyen (Marie Cermínová), and the artists Bohuslav Brouk, Vitezslav Nezval and Karel Teige. The mournful cemetery setting of Untitled is strongly evocative of the themes prized by the surrealists, such as urban decay and desuetude. The play of light over the deteriorating wall and the two tombs captures a disturbing, abstract beauty within this sombre environment. This subversion recalls the surrealists’ fascination with the advice of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) in his Treatise on Painting:

[If] you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.
(Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting, trans. by John William Brown, Boston 2001, p.84.)

Prior to the advent of surrealism, Štyrský spent several years in Paris alongside Toyen. They returned to Czechoslovakia in 1928 and launched the Artificialism movement with a manifesto which stated: ‘Leaving reality alone, it strives for maximum imaginativeness. Without manipulating reality it can still enjoy it’ (quoted in Benson and Forgács 2002, p.320). These earlier ideas of Štyrský’s regarding the manipulation and reimagining of reality can be traced in his later photographic works. In his images of odd shop windows, circuses, shooting galleries and funeral objects he sought to exalt the mundane by revealing its beauty. In Untitled, Štyrský uncovers this beauty of the ordinary within a cemetery, subverting the viewer’s expectations of melancholy.

Untitled is usually displayed alongside Untitled 1934 (Tate P79316), another gelatin silver print of a similar size that was taken in the same year. This work also plays with the expectations of the viewer, finding beauty in the dilapidation of Štyrský’s native Prague.

Further reading
Jennifer Mundy, Dawn Ades and Vincent Gille (eds.), Surrealism: Desire Unbound, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2001, p.239.
Timothy O. Benson and Éva Forgács (eds.), Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910–1930, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2002.

Phoebe James
May 2016

Display caption

Štyrský was a painter, poet, editor and photographer, and a leading member of the surrealist group in Czechoslovakia. These two photographs explore the theme of urban decay, prized by the surrealists. The grimy wall in dappled shadow recalls their obsession with the advice of Leonardo da Vinci to look for patterns in the peeling plaster of old walls as a source of inspiration.

Gallery label, October 2016