Vilem Kriz: Poet in Exile
Words: Dean Brierly
Such was the unenviable trajectory of Vilem Kriz, who entered the world in Prague in 1921 and left it in Berkeley, California in 1994. Yet despite all his trials and tribulations, Kriz left behind a body of work that is largely affirmative in its celebration of life’s mysteries, joys and sorrows.
Kriz was six when he began taking pictures, having been inspired by an image of a female photographer etched on a glass door in his home. When he was 14 his father gave him a 9×12 cm Linhof camera. The Linhof lacked a shutter, so Kriz had to expose his film by taking the lens cap on and off. Remarkably, he used this camera almost exclusively for the rest of his life.
The physical and spiritual character of Prague doubtless helped shape Kriz’ visual concerns and aesthetic, as well as parents sympathetic to his growing interest in dreams, the unconscious and the afterlife. The past was central to his outlook. He once stated, “I am interested in recapturing or recreating images in the present which have occurred to me in the past, either in dreams or in fragments of waking experience, or a combination of both. My images always have their source in the past.”
Kriz refined his vision as a student at the State Graphic School in Prague, beginning in 1940, where he befriended, and was influenced by, established photographers František Drtikol, Josef Ehm and Jaromír Funke. (He became close friends with the latter.) Kriz also became immersed in the currents of Surrealism, which had long been a central form of expression among the Czech avant-garde. Whereas French Surrealism had its roots in a fundamental nihilism, Czech Surrealism evolved along more playful and poetic lines. The war and the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia understandably turned Surrealist artists living there in darker and more despairing directions, yet Kriz remained faithful to Surrealism’s tenets, albeit in his own idiosyncratic fashion.
“Surrealism per se, as a label, as a definition, as a movement, wasn’t such a big deal to him,” says Kriz’ daughter Dominica, a writer and multimedia artist living in San Francisco. “It was really after he moved to America that they started calling him a Surrealist, as a label. I think that what he was dedicated to was something more mystical than Surrealism. He was never interested in cleverness or jarring juxtapositions or political statements. He just wanted to show the way the world looked to him.
“As I go through life, I find myself at times entering a phase of life, a way of looking at things, or a big experience, and I’ll find one of his photographs waiting for me, as if it were a signpost. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s a big deal for me. It’s as if my dad documented certain experiences of the human psyche. I doubt that was his conscious intent; it was more an intuition, the result of his allegiance to the dream world, the mythopoetic world.”
This is an apt description of her father’s Surrealism, which was more organic and internal, more mystical than some of the contrived approaches of the time. Dominica also notes that the sensitivity of his work is aligned more with female Surrealists like the Czech painter Toyen and the British-born painter Leonora Carrington than many of the male Surrealists of his generation.
Another key inspiration resulted from his friendship with France’s most celebrated poet—the seemingly sentient stone statues and gargoyles in Kriz’ photographs recall the “living” fireplace statues and candelabras of Jean Cocteau’s film Beauty and the Beast (1946). Moreover, the visual atmosphere in both men’s work is charged with a similar sense of fantasy and enchantment. Kriz often used the phrase “blood of a poet,” the title of another famous Cocteau film, and the Frenchman returned the compliment when he said, “Above all, I congratulate Kriz for having breathed into his camera a heart and a soul.”
Coincidentally, Kriz moved to Paris the year Beauty and the Beast was released. His time in Paris was productive—he made some of his most evocative photographs in the city—but also dispiriting. His friend Funke had died in 1945 from a perforated intestine, one of many personal losses Kriz had already suffered. Moreover, he struggled to support himself and his family while working as a correspondent for a Czech newspaper. Another crushing blow occurred in 1948, when the Soviet-backed Czech Communist Party wrested political control of the country, ushering in decades of dictatorial rule and turning Kriz into an exile.
“Postwar Paris was a time of deep poverty for my father, mother and brother, though my mother said it was the happiest time of their lives in some mysterious way,” says Dominica. “She thought it was perhaps because they both came from wealthy families, and saw this time in Paris as some kind of adventure—an interlude, was the way she put it, something that was finite. It was after they left Paris that they realized they’d never see their families again and probably never regain the material comfort that their families had provided in their youth. I think the postwar chaos, the romantic atmosphere of Paris, and the uprootedness of their lives all contributed to that being a time of great creativity for Vilem.”
Nineteen-forty-eight was the year that Kriz began his ambitious photographic series Vision of the Times, a project he worked on for nearly two years. This suite of photographs included views of ghostly Paris streets, broken dolls and bizarre flea market offerings like a Japanese suit of armor, all of them imbued with an otherworldly presence that didn’t attempt to lead viewers in any particular direction, except perhaps towards their own imaginations. In one of the few articles extant on Kriz’ work, the writer referred to this series as a “personal protest against wars, injustice and human suffering.” Yet Kriz was never a “message” photographer, says Dominica.
“He didn’t start with the intent to create an image that spoke a certain message. He intended to let an image reveal itself through his camera, and then speak. And Vilem was himself one of the humans that image would speak to, be in a relationship with. It wasn’t about going out and creating an image, it was about giving an image a passport into this realm, a way for a certain moment of an image to pass through his eyes and heart and live beyond that moment in time.
“Amplifying the voice of the inanimate would be another way to put it. If there’s one thing about Vilem I know for certain, it’s that. I know it because that was the way Surrealism lived in him and breathed through him. I know because that’s the way he taught me to live and perceive; more than taught me, it’s in my mythopoetic DNA.”
Although Vision of the Times was well received in Paris’ creative community, Kriz was unable to find a publisher for it. Dominica says a friend who worked with a Catholic charity raised money for Kriz and his family to go to America, yet his eccentric and unconventional work wasn’t well received in the U.S., where traditional social-documentary photography then held sway. Kriz once recounted to his daughter the bitter experience of showing his Vision of the Times photographs to an editor, who disdainfully dropped each print on the floor after glancing at it.
To make ends meet, Kriz worked as a janitor, a photo finisher, a broadcaster for Radio Free Europe and for the photography department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He found little inspiration in America, creative or otherwise. Moving to Berkeley in 1952, he sank into a 12-year depression during which he rarely picked up his camera. It wasn’t until 1964 that he found the inspiration to re-engage with the medium.
Dominica recalls: “One day he was holding a dagger-type letter opener we owned, and in a moment of frustration threw it into a succulent in the yard. He liked the way it looked, photographed it, and that was the beginning of his working with found objects in his backyard. It was the moment he stopped looking to the outside environment for inspiration that just didn’t exist for him in America, and turned his photographic eye inside, to the internal landscape of exile.
“The series Sirague City came from that. Sirague City was the capital city of his internal world. If you turn Paris backward, Prague forward, take out the P and share the R and A—voila!—you have Sirague, pronounced with three syllables rather than two. It doesn’t rhyme with Prague. It says a lot about my parents’ relationship, I think, that though my father invented it, my mother said he pronounced it wrong. Anyway, Vilem said that there were two cities he loved: Paris as a lover, and Prague as a mother, so Sirague City was created from the love in his exile’s heart.”
From this point on Kriz largely confined his creative activity to his backyard, yet his vision seemed to expand even though his photographic parameters had shrunk. He would create intriguing assemblages out of oddly juxtaposed objects and materials—resonant with enigmatic and vaguely minatory undertones—photograph them and make exquisite 11×14 prints toned with solutions of his own devising. Dominica sometimes assisted her father during her teen years, and testifies to his technical prowess.
“Vilem was a genius, an alchemist, a sorcerer in the darkroom. I would say all his negatives came to life in the darkroom. I began formally assisting him after he broke his hip, sometime around 1982 or 1983. He would sit and direct and I’d be his hands. He used silver-gelatin paper and preferred grade O, for the lowest contrast, but by the time I was working with him, much higher contrast paper was popular, and even grade 1 was hard to find. We’d buy stuff that was past date, on sale, any number. Then he’d work other aspects of darkroom technique to compensate and lower the contrast.
“He used toner formulas that he jealously guarded; he wouldn’t let me write them down, but made me commit them to memory. He knew all the manipulation tricks—multiple negatives, solarization and so on—and used them when appropriate. But he didn’t rely on ‘tricks,’ and never allowed that aspect of things to dominate. Everything he did was to bring out something he saw in the image, a quality of life, an essence.”
Although he didn’t much care for Berkeley, Dominica says her father did enjoy teaching, first at Holy Names University and then at the California College of Art and Crafts in Oakland, and he became a mentor to many of his students. Another validation was seeing several monographs of his work published during his lifetime, including Surrealism and Symbolism (1971), Sirague City: Photographs (1975), Vilem Kriz: Photographs (1979) and Séance (1979).
His most gratifying experience later in life was returning to Prague in 1990 on the heels of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, which signaled the end of four decades of Communist rule. Kriz was welcomed back with open arms and a number of important exhibitions. Charismatic and outgoing, he gave interviews to newspapers and appeared on television.
Clearly, though, he regretted that it had taken so long to be able to “come home.”
“Some people don’t transplant well,” Dominica says. “Some people can leave their homeland and adapt. Vilem wasn’t one of those. Every day was a day in exile, a day of longing for home and all that he had lost. He was quite bitter. But some of that melancholy was already in his temperament. I remember one day he said, ‘When it’s raining, within ten minutes I can become so beautifully depressed.’ ‘Depressed’ isn’t quite the right word, if one is a native English speaker, but I was always tickled by the ways non-native speakers can mangle English in what emerges as a poetic and surprising way.
“At the same time, he was kind of an out-there madman at times! I remember him coming to give a lecture on art to my eighth grade class. He was pacing back and forth, pulling on his hair, shouting and so passionate it was crazy, real Dada. At that age, I was mortified. Later, of course, I cherished that about him.”
No matter how dispirited Kriz became, his commitment to interpreting the world through his distinctive mystical filter never wavered.
“A few years before he died, someone asked him about color photography and when he was going to explore that,” Dominica recalls. “His answer was, ‘I haven’t mastered black and white yet.’ I always remember that exchange as speaking volumes about the depth of his devotion, and I felt so much respect, and some envy, that he had a lifetime relationship with not only one art, but one particular aspect of one art.”
Vilem Kriz’ work is represented by the Scott Nichols Gallery in San Francisco (www.scottnicholsgallery.com), which kindly provided images for reproduction. A fascinating personal essay by Dominica Kriz about her father can be found at: http://ekleksographia.ahadadabooks.com/mashak/authors/dominica_kriz.html.