The Slovak
 National

Artist 

Karol Plicka 

(1894-1987)

 


English summary of the text that accompanied the Exhibition of the Karol Plicka Museum in Blatnic,
Slovakia in 1989:
National Artist Prof. Karol Plicka [also called Karel Plicka] (1894-1985) himself characterized his work as the art of "nine trades". He was in an even measure a film maker, a producer, a cameraman and script-writer in one person, a photographer, author of illustrated publications, a folklorist - collector of musical and verbal expressions, an ethnomusicologist, the organizer of the first folkloric festivities, a teacher, a conductor of singing choirs and, what is less known - a violin virtuoso.
The result of his life-long activity is a remarkable, monumental work of an outstanding standard, comprising over 100 book publications (in 1937 he published the first picture publication “Slovakia in Photography”), about 50 000 recordings of folk songs and tales, tens of thousands of negatives and slides documenting nature, architecture, man - his way of life and his art; a large quantity of films (he began filming in 1927 for the needs of the Slovak Foundation at Martin – “After the Slovak People”, “Through Hills and Dales”, “After Slovaks from New York to the Mississippi”; through his sound film “The Singing Earth” he became the founder of Slovak national cinematography).

A homage to Plicka's work is the museum of the history of ethnographic photography bearing his name, which forms part of the Slovak National Museum - the Ethnographic Museum at Martin. The first exhibition at the Karol Plicka Museum acquaints visitors with the life and work of this artist. The team putting up the exhibition, set themselves the task to pick the best of Plicka`s works and to arrange them in such a form as to reinforce to the highest possible degree the visitors' aesthetic impression. in contrast to current practice in galleries, we endeavoured to show not only the work as such, but also the conditions under which it was produced, to indicate its genesis and its wider cultural context. This is encompassed right inside the museum's entrance hall, where we wish to make it evident that Slovak folklore culture is a permanent inspiration of fine art, that it had so acted for several generations before Plicka, that his contemporaries had drawn on it, as do also present-day artists.
 The principal part of Plicka's biographic documents are to be seen in the introduction to the exhibition proper. Their core constitutes an introduction to the following gallery of art photography and serves deeper to explain the motives that had led the author to his dominating life topics. In Slovakia of the 20s, he could daily, observe in numerous symptoms how folk traditions, the past receded step by step to make room for the present with its technology, industry, a civilization of modern times. He was aware that irreplaceable values were thereby being lost, that they could not possibly be preserved in their integrity, and therefore it was imperative to preserve at least a document a recording of them. His work is a testimony to his ideational consistency. Being, conscious of the sense of ethnographic recording, he also understood why it was urgent that it be a recording as complete, as all-round and as faithful as possible. There is no doubt but that his endeavours to capture the traces of disappearing beauty carry in them the primary motive of Plicka's photographic creation. Therein also resides its exceptional place in our cultural history. Works that achieve the peak of artistic performance in their discipline, simultaneously preserve the value of a document and this very often, particularly insofar as they capture folk traditions in Slovakia - of a unique document. Consequently, most space has been reserved in the exhibition precisely to his work as document.
 A separate section has been reserved to inspirations from Bohemia and Moravia and therefore, primarily to Plicka's monumental portraying of historic Prague. He began to deal with it at the time of the Nazi occupation and it may be said that the interest that drove him to this second of his lifelong topics, had something in common with his interest in Slovak folk culture: the artist sensed that also these values were jeopardized. A similar motive led him to a further great cycle, that of the Vltava (Moldau) on which he worked in the 50s, shortly before the river bed began to be altered through the construction of hydroelectric power stations. The gallery of artistic photographs is accompanied in each one of its sections by authentic documentary material. We find here specimens of his collecting, musicological, pedagogical and film activity, as also evidence of its response, documents of his relation to foremost personalities of our culture. The significance of Plicka's grounding work in Slovak film production is recalled by, besides archival documents, also by the montage of several sequences of his works. They are embodied in a video program "Professor Karol Plicka", the author of which is his pupil Ph Dr. Martin Slivka, CSc.

 

Karol Plicka: Beautiful Slovak Girl

HOW PROFESSOR PLICKA PUTS TOGETHER A BOOK
 
Ludvik Baran, 1974

First there must be a subject. I usually is a difficult choice, especially for a photographer enchanted by the glorious landscapes of northern Europe, by Scotland and its transparent air, sunny Yugoslavia, renowned cities with great histories. It is a difficult choice for an artist who has already shaped Prague photographically and celebrated Slovakia in his photographs, who is imbued with the inspirational sources of grand motives and glorious epochs of artistic works of European and world fame. The unknown is always alluring, intoxicating and often holds out the promise of a greater experience than it can actually produce.
Plicka went through the hard school of life which bound him firmly to the country in which he lives. That is why it always was, in the end, his home and people to whom he returned, who sang for him and related ancient legends of the country and its folk and the fame of its days to come, which fortune had ordained by Princess Libuse.
Czechoslovakia, a land of two nations possessing rich traditions, a land with a history of a thousand years, a land of nearly two thousand castles and châteaux, a land of dozens of old flourishing towns, a land of legends and tales, a land of beautiful people, and celebrated by people, a land full of the vital present and youth, a land that is delightful in its seasonal changes and its present social development is Plicka's dearest theme, his most valuable, richest, truly monumental subject.
Plicka's photographic composition is influenced by all his nine crafts. Plicka was, you see, an excellent violinist and viola player, a conductor, a film director and cameraman, a wonderful story-teller, an expert on music and the theory of the history of art, a demanding but kind teacher and professor. Each of his trades and arts have contributed to shaping his photographic style. From music he knows the laws of motifs, the dominant and subdominant chords, counterpoint and shading, from film the principles of splicing and pictorial composition, as an active musician he has mastered the secrets of performance, as a writer and story teller he knows the force of an epic in a picture, as a collector of folk songs, tales and legends he has imbibed the age-old wisdom and poetry of the people, as a professor he has a sense of exactness, unity and perfectionism. All these rational principles are subordinated to his great sensitivity and ardour for Czech and Slovak motifs.
Specially remarkable is his work with a main motif. Every photo, pictorially and photographically, is changed many times over in time, in light and in atmosphere. Plicka's sketch book is a small notebook with the date and precise data (Mikulás, Snemovní, 10 - 20 June, morning 10 to 11 o'clock . F = 150, 210, filter, cloudless; Saint Vitus, Royal Garden , the beginning of May, afternoon 13-14, F = 180, etc.). Sometimes he acts like a magician of light, he waits for the sun, a cloud, the ripple of the water's surface, a breeze, no wind. He knows and loves natural vegetation, sombre fir-trees, golden beech trees, picturesque acacia, majestic cypresses and crawling dwarf-pines of rocky peaks.
In large totalities of regions and cities, Plicka relies on one or more dominating landmark which he blends into a single whole. He loves stern vertical columns, typical of city structures, but can masterfully utilize articulated horizontal landscapes, airy veils and imaginary space formed by light and shadow; sometimes he even succeeds in creating a stereoscopic impression. The main compositional element of his photography is light. One of the magic charms that attracts us to his photos is the splendid style of light through which he judges architecture, sculpture or a landscape. "Everything is light, I am indebted to light for many of the most difficult compositions, light is the discoverer, light is the most important thing of all in photography."
Plicka as a photographer has exhibited very often at home and abroad. He does not create autonomous, decorative photos (even though many are known as such), but composes them according to a scenario on one theme (Prague, Slovakia, Prague Castle, Vltava River, Spiš ,Czechoslovakia ). Every shot is subordinate to the higher pictorial composition, every motif merges into the other.
Each of his books has a pictorially strong ascent, an inner gradation, a rhythm and, at the end, a typical sounding off. Very often - both from the viewpoint of content and artistic effect - the photos are like a question and answer. Apart from contact (in content, significance, shape, totality and light) the most characteristic principle of his composition is balance. In his pictures a big mass, deep shadows, severe contrasts, articulated shapes, and groupings of dominating structures weigh more and, conversely, he lightens a large, less-articulated sky, the light of grey tonality, low contrast, fragile and pellucid matter, indistinct areas, and also airy, soaring arcades, thin forests, flat fields of snow, etc.  
Another principle is that of weight. Plicka as a sensitive musician puts the accent on the left. He knows how to link motifs; a detail derives from the whole or the other way round. He also knows the principles of dividing and separating, when to end a matter-of-fact or artistic chapter. Economy of expression and simplicity is the principle of masters.
The singularity, particularities and character of the Czech and Slovak landscape and cities are not always evident at first glance; we have to look into them, as one does into a beautiful, noble woman. Many views are beyond time and only with the passing of time, on returning to a book, do we discover the new and the special. Only later do we understand the values that adorn and beautify this land.  
With astonishment we then find the Czech Venice in Pardubice, the Florentine Renaissance in Banská Bystrica, Spanish arcades in Prague, the Scottish countryside near Devín, a mediaeval landscape in Spiš, French fortifications in Jindrichuv Hradec. We discover for the first time the charming region of the Lužice Mountains, experience the drama of Czech and Slovak primeval forests, or the secrets of underground ice caves.
When involved in a big theme, at his work table and in the projection room, Plicka relives for a second time those moments and enchantment he had on taking the picture. With pain and sorrow he must cast aside many things that he loves, because every composition has its limitations, its potentialities. Thus there comes into being the very pictorial essence of the book's composition which consists of elements forming the most outstanding and most sensitive depiction of a country that Plicka regards as the most beautiful country of all.  

 

Karol Plicka: Strecno Caste, ca.1953

 

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