Like the famous, century-old A.C. Gilbert print of a pretty young lady sitting in front of a round vanity mirror that turns into a horrific skull when viewed from a distance, Jan Saudek's photographs inspire no small measure of mixed emotions. Sure, the seductive side is foremost, but it's a rare Saudek that doesn't contain a cautionary reminder that youth and beauty are perishable commodities. And if A.C. Gilbert was considered a sensationalist in his time, Saudek manages to seem sensational in our own time, a considerably tougher accomplishment, considering the competition.
But if that's all there was to it, he might be dismissed out of hand, which would be a mistake. As Czechoslovakia's best known photographer, Saudek reflects something of his country's tumultuous past, yet his images, taken at face value, are more like exercises in seduction, and occasionally revulsion, melded with mystery. On top of all that, there is something rather clownish about them that initially counters any attempt to take them seriously.
Young Mother & Her Mother Take Care of Baby is a diptych that depicts two women, both seen from the rear. In the first photo, the young mother bends over to attend to her baby in a buggy, revealing a pair of solidly shapely legs. Not content to leave it at that, Saudek ends up revealing a lot more, so we learn that she is averse to wearing panties. Adding absurdity to what is by now bawdy and picaresque, the baby, framed between those provocatively spread legs, is just a little doll in a tiny, antique stroller. Taken by itself this might pass for a cheap and cheesy skin shot. But then there is the mother, the other half of the diptych, and she is posed in exactly the same way, yet the effect is very different owing to her rather advanced years and even more advanced obesity, which borders on elephantiasis: on her massively fleshy legs hang pendulous tsunamis of flab punctuated by puckered expanses of cellulite suggesting the cratered surface of an asteroid, all supporting a vast posterior like a forbidding, bad moon rising. And the clear implication is that this might be what eventually lies in store for the attractive young mother as well.
What a misogynist! -- or so one might conclude. But, as always with Saudek, there is more to it than that. In The Reporter, a shapely young lady appears nude with the barrel of a pistol pointed into her mouth. A photographer, also nude, scrambles into action -- but to get the picture, not to save her life. Such scenes only reinforce his affinity with A. C. Gilbert's Vanity by stressing the transience of the flesh even while accentuating its allure.
Even so, The Fabulous Brom Sisters is a bit more mysterious. Here, two attractive young ladies embrace, and while it might all be quite innocent and sisterly, their ambiguous looks and strategically exposed flesh hint at something more. Similarly, Portrait of Ida features a young woman running her hands over her nude body in a reverie of exploration as she experiences the new fullness of her budding womanhood. But look again and there are other hands, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, exploring her body as well. It's apparently a dream narrative, and again there's this dichotomy of innocence and decadence, the sacred and the profane -- and what's with this guy, anyway? Is he twisted or what? It helps to know that Saudek, who is now pushing 70, was once a young prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp for children, where he barely avoided becoming a victim of Dr. Josef Mengele's deadly experiments. Until middle age, he was a worker in one of communist Czechoslovakia's Soviet-style factories, and even now most of his hand-colored images are made in the same crumbling basement studio in Prague that he used in those dark old days. Beneath their bawdy surfaces, his photographs are yeasty, implicit narratives of a sort that put one in mind of Milan Kundera, the great Czech writer that Saudek acknowledges as one of his heroes. Like Kundera, Saudek sees the comic and the tragic as opposite sides of the same coin, parts of a psychic drama where Beethoven's Ode to Joy vies with Chopin's mournful Funeral March as eros and thanatos dance a timeless tango.
- Like so many of Jan Saudek's other hand-painted photographs, The Fabulous Brom Sisters hints at something more going on beyond the surface.