Juraj Bartoš at the Slovak National Gallery (Review)

Juraj Bartoš. Slovak National Gallery at Esterházy Palace, Bratislava. October 1-November 22, 2009

An exhibit of photographs from artist Juraj Bartoš ran at the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava through past Fall. The 66 year old Slovak artist’s work is centered around Bratislava and is of particular interest to those familiar with that city. A mere moment at Bratislava’s Poštová tram stop is enough to recognize the origins of his pictures of Obchodná in the 1980’s. If you’ve attended a wine harvest festival (vinobranie), that experience alone will give you enough of a cultural feeling to place yourself in the atmosphere of the photos. Bartoš photographed his environment as it changed over time, and as his own perspectives changed.

Bartoš’ collection features May Day celebrations, wine harvest celebrations, as well as the familiar Slovak locales of Obchodná, Petržalka, and Orava. Additionally some photographs are set in Paris in 1968, Italy in 1983, and New York City in 1984, the last of which spotlights New York’s unique street culture.  His New York series also suggestive, phallic forms of fire hydrants shot in isolation.  The photos are predominantly black and white, shot over a period ranging from 1958 to the present, dealing mainly with depictions of individuals in crowds or the random appearance of words (such as graffiti or signs) in public.

Bartoš’ work from the 1950s at first seems rather disheartening. Although the artist never applied for membership in the official Union of Fine Artists, the young Bartoš seemed interested in capturing images through the lens of socialist realism, the artistic mandate issued from the state at the time and widespread throughout Czechoslovakia and the other countries under Soviet control. By glorifying the tireless plight of the worker, Bartos produced images that are virtually undistinguishable from the official art of the time. Although the artist’s work is visually impressive my own bias is to reject art from the communist era that tows the line of popular politics.

These images are important to the exhibition for they operate as a jumping-off point for Bartoš’ later work, creating a stark contrast between his earlier and later photography. The exhibition does not focus on any particular moment or subject, but rather charts Bartoš’ own artistic chronology and the developments taking place around him. While the country’s official culture seemed to appeal to him initially, Bartoš appears to have been heavily influenced by a strong countercultural movement. It’s hard to look at his photos of Bratislava in 1958 or of Orava without being caught up in their beauty and their romanticization of the worker. The same is true for his photographs depicting the West with the aim of villifying it. The situations Bartoš depicts are not always visually flattering for his subjects, but they do leave the viewer with a desire to sympathize.

Today, every moment of our lives seems ready to be captured on film, and it quite often is. From security cameras on every corner, to mobile phone cameras in every pocket, captured images are everywhere and uploading them to the worldwide web is just a click away. However, viewing Bartoš pictures of the 70s and 80s in such a retroactive way is to take his work drastically out of context. There was a time when wifi equipped cameras with were not omnipresent. There was a time when public events were not so easily immortalized through recording and, thus, could quickly be forgotten.  Bartoš’ work offers a type of surveillance, however.  His work documents the social.  It documents candid events before Facebook, Youtube, and digital camera negated such a photographic need.

In other photos from the exhibition, Bartoš captures not individuals, but the background of the land they inhabit. These backgrounds are often adorned with political slogans (the exhibition did a fine job of translating these slogans, making them accessible to an English speaking audience). When visiting a new space, the traveler notices unusually beautiful or strange juxtapositions that the resident misses. For a resident, uniqueness fades into the background of life. In an era where political slogans were ubiquitous, Bartoš’ fresh eye illuminates these slogans by simply photographing them in their environment through the eyes of a visitor. Slogans are hung in silly places; they are placed awkwardly next to things that contradict them. Bartoš’ photographs let slogans step out of the background, a background which communist-era residents long ago started ignoring.  This phenomenal awakening to one’s banal surroundings can have a very profound and cathartic effect on the viewer. This is the gift that Bartoš’ photography imparts. It is the gift of a fresh eye; the naive gaze of the visitor, combined with the familiar knowledge of a native.