The Dark, Searching World of Viktor Kolar

Photographer’s Photos of Ostrava Workers Evoke Tenderness, Empathy

By Bijal Desai

A young woman sits on the train and curiously peers at the camera. Rich black tones surround her as light dances on her cheeks. Her stare is full of uncertainty and it’s clear that she desires something more. Her body language illustrates her need for liberation from the dull reality of life under communism. Many others like her exist, her pose tells us, and are all commonly linked by a melancholy spirit. Their stories are told through Viktor Kolar’s dark photographs.

From the Series Ostrava, 1968 Photo by Viktor Kolar

From the Series Ostrava, 1968
Photo by Viktor Kolar

Viktor Kolar, a Czech photographer, was born in 1941 in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, known for its mining and steel industry. It was a place of horrific pollution where workers were often covered by dirt and grit  long after they left their jobs. After the Soviet invasion of Prague during October 1968, Kolar emigrated to Canada, only to boldly return to his native land in 1973 when communist repression was in full swing.  Despite his short sojourn in Canada, chronicling the day-to-day occurrences of Ostrava residents is the main subject of Kolar’s work.

The first gallery of the exhibition at the Stone Bell House in Prague’s Old Town Square features Kolar’s documentation of Ostrava during the 1950s and 1960s.  Through his images Kolar captures the persistence of the human spirit despite being suppressed by the realities of communist life. Their stories and tribulations echo throughout Kolar’s work. It is almost as if Kolar himself is looking through the eyes of his subjects.

On the Train to Znojmo, 1965 Photo by Viktor Kolar

On the Train to Znojmo, 1965
Photo by Viktor Kolar

Specifically, in his photograph “On the Train to Znojmo,” taken in 1965, Kolar captures the weary face of a middle-aged man, presumably a worker. His powerful glowing eyes exude a sense of power and control. Ironically, his life is characterized by restriction and what is seen here is a man’s yearning desire for freedom. Heavy shadows fall into his deep wrinkles while bright highlights contour his sharp face. Kolar’s use of sharp contrast contributes to the mysterious nature of this photograph, among several others.

“Kolar focuses on the idea of searching for identity through the examples of others by photographing a number of distinct personalities.”

The next four galleries contain the photographer’s work from his time spent in Toronto during the early 1970s. While Kolar’s photographs of Ostrava are deliberate and powerful, his works created abroad exude a sense of uncertainty. Straying from his careful documentation of the stark nature of communist life including portrayals of miners covered in coal dust, Kolar focuses on the idea of searching for identity through the examples of others by photographing a number of distinct personalities. One identity in particular stands out. Kolar features a short figure wrapped in a white sheet, wearing a human skull as on its head. He holds a scythe in his head and glances into a mirror. Bright whites of the costume are contrasted with soft grey tones. In the background are two figures bowed down onto the floor. An obvious symbol of death, this figure is reflective of Kolar’s own independence. Although he escaped from communist Czechoslovakia, Kolar was still restricted by a need for identity. In some ways, he was never in a state of complete liberation.

This search for identity progresses through each sequential gallery, finally ending with a set of images characterized by loneliness and insecurity, completely devoid of any eye contact with the camera.

Upon returning to Czechoslovakia in 1973, because of his émigré status, Kolar could no longer openly practice photography professionally and was instead forced to work as a manual laborer. Despite this limitation, Kolar secretly continued to capture, and in sense immortalize,  life in Ostrava. His work leading up to the Velvet Revolution as well as that which follows features the same themes that are present in his earlier Ostrava series.

From the Series Ostrava, 1977

From the Series Ostrava, 1977
Photo by Viktor Kolar

Beyond the exhibition, Kolar’s work can be compared to another Czech photographer, Josef Koudelka. Koudelka, born in 1938, also documented the forced restrictions of life in communist Czechoslovakia. Several of Koudelka’s photographs present passionate subjects rallying against oppression. These images are confrontational and direct. Struggle, anger, and a desire for freedom all emanate through Koudelka’s photographs. Unlike Kolar, Koudelka permanently left Czechoslovakia and would go on to work for the Magnum Agency.

Contrastingly, Kolar’s Czech focused works seem to possess a more passive, yet complex tone. He is able to beautifully capture the psychological effects that totalitarian rule had on life during that time. Kolar’s work embodies hopelessness, unhappiness, and to a point, emptiness.

Kolar’s work belongs to museum collections around the world, including those at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague and the Moravian Gallery in Brno.

The Viktor Kolar Retrospective is on view at the Dum U Kamenneho zvonu (House at the Stone Bell) until September 29th.

Regular entrance: 120 crowns ($6.00); Student entrance: 60 crowns ($3.00)

Bijal Desai is in the class of 2015 at Lehigh University. Her hometown is Clifton, New Jersey.

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Categories: Culture, Fall 2013 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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