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Composition, 1929

Composition, 1929

František Drtikol (1883-1961) was born in a mining town called Příbram in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Drtikol grew up with a desire to draw and paint. After a period of military service, he moved to Munich to study art. Munich, at the turn of the century, offered an incredibly vital and fertile creative environment; it was the height of the Art Nouveau movement. In Munich, Drtikol focused primarily on drawing and photography.  After finishing his education, Drtikol moved to Prague. He completed a brief period of apprenticeship with another photographer then in 1910 opened his own studio.


He quickly developed a reputation as a portrait photographer. His clientele included many of the most notable public figures of the day, ranging from captains of industry to political figures to famous artists and musicians. His subjects included Tomáš Masaryk, the first elected president of Czechoslovakia, and the composer Leos Janacek, and just about every artist living in or near Prague. Within a decade, his studio was famous throughout Europe.


Portraiture was the means by which he supported his studio and made a comfortable living, but Drtikol made his name as an artist through his nude studies. His portraiture was elegant and refined, but his nude studies were daring and inventive. They were the epitome of avant-garde. He was among the first photographer to incorporate the elements of Art Deco into his work. He frequently contrasted the suppleness and flexibility of the female body against solid and unyielding geometric forms. Despite those differences, he emphasized the strength to be found in both forms, human and geometric.  Drtikol showed a willingness to incorporate anything that might make his nude studies more powerful. In addition to the inclusion of Art Deco details, he used lighting techniques developed for the new medium of silent movies and integrated elements of modern expressive dance. In 1930 he began to eliminate the living body from his work and began to cut human-shaped forms out of stiff paper and shape his figures that way.


In 1935 Drtikol abruptly stopped shooting photographs. The worldwide economic depression of that era surely played a role in the decision to close his photography studio in Prague, and it may explain why he sold all his prints, his negatives and his glass plates, but it doesn’t account for his decision to give up photography and begin painting again. Although he occasionally gave lectures on photography or composition, Drtikol never again took up the camera.


He gradually drifted into obscurity. His work fell out of fashion. He became impoverished. By the time of his death in 1961, Drtikol was essentially a hermit; few people knew who he was. It wasn’t until a decade or so after his death that art historians began to re-examine his work and his role in shaping modern photography.