Jaroslav Rossler: Czech Avant-Garde Photographer

by Matt Damsker


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Edited by Vladimir Birgus and Jan Mlcoch. 2004; The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., and London, England. 164 pages; 134 plates. $35.00. Library of Congress Control No. 2003113824; ISBN No. 0-262-02557-4. Web site: http://mitpress.mit.edu .

As Vladimir Birgus notes in this rigorous study of Czech photographer Jaroslav Rossler, "the most important part of his work, the part for which he is ranked among the leading figures of avant-garde photography between the two world wars, comes from a period of roughly fifteen years." Indeed, Rossler was devoted to the medium for nearly 70 years, but his most compelling and influential work--absorbing Futurism, Constructivism, and abstraction in bold yet harmonious images--was made between 1919 and 1935.

In fact, 1919's "Opus 1," which begins this generously annotated portfolio of his work, is Rossler's first great photograph, an austere, shadowy study of a jar of film chemical placed in a kind of film-noir relation to two triangular shards of paper against a dark corner. The image has depth and quiet drama, evoking mystery and formal elegance. It's a muted trumpet blast of modernism that sets the tone for Rossler's evolution.

In the 1920s, his experimental energies took wing, of course, ranging from nude self-portraiture to images combining photos and his own charcoal drawings, with their echoes of Cezanne and the expressionism of Munch and even Fritz Lang. As the 20s roared on, Rossler delivered haunting black-and-white prints, exploring the geometry of everything from vacuum tubes to splintered views of towers in Prague. All along, Rossler loved collage, and under the influence of Schwitters and others, he brought his balanced, nuanced eye to drawing various industrial and commercial images.

His photo-collages are very much his own, though, as in a 1926 collaged assembly of Parisian street signs and awnings that has the look of a true Futurist machine ("Paris, NORD – SUD"). Simpler yet no less effective, his 1932 close up of locomotive wheels has all the gravitas of iron and night, its perspective of spoke and sphere receding gracefully toward the left of the frame. At his most avant-garde, in stark photograms of matches and smoke, paper clips and shadows, he suggests Man Ray yet maintains his signature irony-free touch.

In the 1930s, Rossler produced numerous advertising photographs for products as mundane as tooth powder, soap, aspirin, as well as perfume. He delivered unique photomontages in which the various products were presented in negative image, or in relation to ghostly double exposures, or in surreal juxtapositions. They impart a strange, totemic life to these commercial objects, though it's hard to say how well Rossler's artistry helped to sell them. Now, they have the look of Duchampian relics, presaging Warhol in their cool depiction of brands and logos.

The book closes with a selection of Rossler's color work, such as a fine 1936-37 image of a beaded necklace, a ceramic ashtray, and some numbered wooden game tokens on a field of knit fabric and cotton. The formal, unfussy beauty of the piece seems utterly contemporary. Long past his avant-garde heyday, in the 1960s and 70s, Rossler pushed further, with violently abstracted colored transparencies that connect him to Lucas Samaras, perhaps, but have little to do with the taut, groundbreaking accomplishments of his early modernism.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.