Jindrich Štyrský

Untitled

1934

On display at Tate Modern

Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Support: 129 x 127 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2007
Reference
P79316

Summary

Untitled is a black and white gelatin silver print on paper. The photograph is a crop of seven wooden slats that are part of a fence. In the centre of the image are the remains of a poster, now severely worn away so that only fragments of the text are visible and the wood is no longer fully concealed. Several bold black letters are visible, along with scraps of white background, but the original text of the poster is no longer legible. At the top of the photograph is the bottom edge of another poster, which has not yet degraded and contrasts with the central section of the image. The German words ‘Offene Weine’ (‘Open Wines’) are visible. 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 image he created of the wall with its peeling posters in Untitled is strongly evocative of the themes prized by the surrealists, such as urban decay and desuetude. The straight lines of the wooden fence slats contrast with the muddled remnants of the poster. This juxtaposition 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 by framing a section of wall in the crop of a photograph which would ordinarily be overlooked.

Untitled is usually displayed alongside Untitled 1934 (Tate P79315), another gelatin silver print of a similar size taken in the same year. This work also plays with the expectations of the viewer, capturing the beauty of natural light on a discoloured cemetery wall in 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