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Boundaries to pornography or edges to humanity? Sexual photography by Jan Saudek

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

Sexual photography by Jan Saudek

The media overflows with sexual images-they become selling points because they directly address needs and desires triggered visually. But whilst sex is used to sell cars, music, and foods, sexual imagery can instead be used to mean something else, perhaps pain, the precariousness of life, and the raw nature of human bodies.

Jan Saudek-Little Ilaria, 1983-JM Art Management
Jan Saudek, Little Ilaria, 1983

Jan Saudek and the discourse of sexuality: Photographer of the “soul” or The “bad boy” of Czech artistic landscape

Jan Saudek is a highly acclaimed and equally controversial Czech photographer and painter, renewed especially for his eccentric and provocative imagery. Called “the bad boy of the Czech art world” (Utata, 2016), his work is characterized by a “grotesque and intriguing eroticism” (Erotica, 2016), separated by a fine line from pornography (Art Directory, 2016). Receiving mixed international reception (Anatomy Films, 2016), the value of his work has been vastly contested. Traditionally, the value of artistic expression was based on the core distinction between high and low culture (Shawcross, 1997).

Jan Saudek - JM Art Management
Jan Saudek, Black Sheep and White Crow, 1990

Whilst one is grounded in consumption, the other belongs to the realm of art. Erotic depictions in painting and photography match this classification, the difficulty lie in separating “good eroticism” from “bad pornography” (Ullen, 2015: 16). The erotic symbolism of Saudek is a hybrid that mixes not only photography with painting, but also classical “erotica” with modernist elements.

Sexuality and painting are employed in a subversive way to traditional forms, signifying both the spectacular and the monstrous, both desire and repulsion. Therefore, the aim of this report is to demonstrate that the value of Saudek’s imagery, although sexually explicit and often quite shocking, stands in its power to signify beyond the sexual discourse.

Jan Saudek - JM Art Management
Jan Saudek, Victory of the Sea, 1992

Cultural relevance and aesthetic values

Socio-Political Context: Jan Saudek’s personal and artistic life are often inseparable, this conflation culminating in his self-representation through photography (Brothers, 1986), but also reflecting in his thematic choices. Internalized traumatic experiences from childhood are changing his perception of death, which is materialized visually, the volatile body becoming a symbol of the macabre: “They die and ~look as if made of wax, or plaster” (Saudek, 1944). Another aspect of his life that becomes intrinsic in these photos is his relationship with women: known for living an extravagant and womanizing lifestyle (Utata, 2016), the erotic encounter and the relationships between man and women represents one of the main subject matters of his work.

jan saudek - Brothers - JM Art Management
Jan Saudek, Brothers, 1986

Emerging within a community of underground artists under the repressive political regime of communist Czechoslovakia, his overtly sexual, intentionally exaggerated images could be read as a political weapon to defy authority and fight censorship: “A grotesque eroticism without the shame applied by an authoritarian political landscape” (Anatomy Films, 2016). Elements from the sexual discourse (a timeless taboo of most societies) become metaphorical, often employed to signify a rupture in the social order and to address social issues.

jan saudek - The Lovers - JM Art Management
Jan Saudek

Technology and Surrealism

Although most of his work is performed using a Flaxaret, formatted “6×6” on a 120mm roll black-and-white film, through post-production techniques he colors his pictures in a bohemian, pastel tone as a sign of his style. Under cultural influences (growth of pop culture, feminism, and poststructuralism), Saudek, along with other artists in the ‘70s, start to question the “realism” or “purism” of photography, counteracting it with neo-subjectivism and visual-ism (Equivalence, 2016). Rather than trying to mimic reality, he introduces fantasy, marking a shift from “mimesis” to opaque meanings and enigmatic referents.

Whilst photography is highly technologically determined and has the power to situate subjects in time and space, Saudek’s surreal imagery is characterized by temporality and a-spatiality: his pictures are abstracted from a time scale, all made to look as if they belonged to a 19th-century album. The iconography (abundance of flowers, clothes, large women in lingerie) is inspired from a baroque style “tableaux” portraiture, mixed with elements of classicism and modernity (Perret, 2016; Steltman and Co, 2016). This results in timeless compositions, creating both representations of the past, or ventures into the future.

Jan Saudek - JM Art Management
Jan Saudek, The Fire and the Rain (Carte n° 370 ), 1988

Staged Erotic Portraiture

A representative of staged photography, Saudek operates in a “directional” mode, manipulating reality; he becomes an inventor, or “finder” - a sedentary producer who operates scenically, and perceptually (Equivalence, 2016). Iconic to his work becomes the “magical wall” he found in 1972, which he uses as a constant background for his photos: “in front of that wall the humanity pass by, with all its nuances and contradictions” (Admira Photography, 2016).

Even though most of his work consists of nudes and semi-nudes against the symbolic wall (Expats, 2012), his diary notes reveal that his intention is to make “portraits of the soul”: the soul is captured through the human body - an exponent of the human condition, instincts, vulnerabilities and repressed desires of the unconscious; hidden beneath clothing, it must be photographed naked.

Jan Saudek - JM Art Management
Jan Saudek, The Flame, 1990

Playing with the distinctions between fine art and commodity, this picture is negotiating between painting tradition and modernist features, as well as between past and present: it combines classical aspects, such as the motif of the posing muse which has inspired generations of artists, with the modern symbol of the audiotape “Walkman”, popular in the ‘80s (hence the name of the picture).

Symbolically, the female subject is constructed between the planes of the real and the fantastic: On the one hand, placed in the foreground in a larger plane, the subject appears to be closer to the viewer, interposed in the frame. On the other hand, captured looking away from the camera, her body language expresses a state of longing and carelessness, which distances her from the viewer; furthermore, the balanced composition anchors the subject in a dream world, connoting a serene mood.

Jan Saudek - JM Art Management
Jan Saudek, The Walkman, 1983

The pastel tones, the diffused, top light, and overexposed colors take away from realistic details, making her an archetype-an idealized and flawless angelic figure. To resume, although placed closer to the camera eye, she belongs to the realm of the imaginary, elevated to fantasy and becoming intangible. The female body is an icon signifying the sacred and elevated, brought back to the everyday. This imagery invites contemplation and idealizations, serving as a means to escape, fantasize, and venerate beauty.

By contrast, in this example, the naked body is a referent for the ambiguous relationship between men and women; the medium shot, the shallow depth, and the playing down of the setting draw attention to the characters. Again, it is female nudity under scrutiny as the main point of interest in the composition, standing up in the middle of the frame and further emphasized through a lighter coloring of her skin. Her forced still pose is reminiscent of a marble statue, admired from a lower plane by the socialized man.

Jan Saudek - JM Art Management
Jan Saudek, Ida's Devotion, 1990

The reciprocated gaze connotes a gender dialogue, playing on the power dynamic between man and woman. Whilst he could symbolize the man-made world, with its conventions and norms, she is subverting this meaning, by not conforming to standards of beauty or clothing; her sexuality is represented as beyond, or outside of, bourgeois femininity (Bate, 2011). Therefore, the image is characteristic of a “visual sadism”, which in surrealism “is testament to this inquiry into the complex structure of suffering in love (Bate, 2011).

This “visual sadism” is created by the conflictual relationship between natural and artificial: the woman seems unnatural since she is represented unconventionally, defying our expectations, yet for Saudek it is the conventional man who represents the artificial. Abstracted from and appropriating sexuality to social discourse, what is normally a sign of eroticism becomes a mode of exploring social structures.

Jan Saudek - JM Art Management
Jan Saudek, Pietà, 1990

In this last example, sexuality is explored under the theme of reproduction, which ensures continuity of life, becoming the “surest rebuke of Thanatos” (Perret, 2016).

The tight frame cuts off the head of the woman, giving her the identity of the universal maternal figure; moreover, the lack of negative space creates a claustrophobic feel and forces emphasis on the female body as a bridge in the relationship between mother and child, metonyms for present and future. The slightly low-angle shot implies a higher elevation of the female body. The boy’s gaze is also elevated, and unlike the mother, the empty space creates plenty of look-room; he leans against his mother’s body, which serves as a source of creation and protective fortress. Under expressive backlighting, the softness of the skin is antagonized to the rough wall, an analogical code to the vulnerable human condition in contrast to the unpredictable faith.

High contrast and under-exposure draw the eye to the child’s head - this is the central point of interest, suggested being one and the same with the mother’s body. Their nudity further connotes the cyclical transgression of life through the female body, which is fundamental in the generational chain.

Jan Saudek - JM Art Management
Jan Saudek, Destiny Walks Down To The River, Leading Two Innocent Children

To resume, this report sought to demonstrate how Jan Saudek’s often perturbing nude imagery extends beyond the sexual discourse, expressing a unique vision on sexuality that is subverting traditional representations. As a tangible, material, and therefore visible substance, suffering transformations from birth to death, the body as a motif helps us to understand the contingent and ephemeral nature of life. Through it, he provides portraiture of the individual, of the “soul” or the complex psyche caught within. If the first and the second image represent opposing versions of reality, juxtaposing the ideal and the flawless with the decayed and the old (Art Directory, 2016), the third picture analyzed is a reconciliation of this paradigm, by creating a “narrative enveloping the universe in a living female body “ (Perret, 2016).

Overall, the symbol of the human body is sometimes celebrated, sometimes reduced to its materiality, exposing both beautiful and ugly aspects of humanity: “love and life with all its’ gritty realism exposed” (Anatomy Films, 2016). The disturbing symbolism does more than induce a state of uneasiness in the viewer: by opening a discourse about shamelessness and liberation, it seeks to eradicate taboos and desensitize viewers, obliging us to confront our most basic humanity.

Jan Saudek - JM Art Management
Jan Saudek, SANS TITRE, 2010

* All images are courtesy of the artist

Written by Lorena Stancu


JM Art Management


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