Josef Sudek and the St. Vitus Cathedral
IN THE SHADOW OF THE CATHEDRAL
29. 6.—30. 8. 2016
“I grew up near the town of Kutná Hora. When I saw the
Gothic church there as a young boy, I stared at it like a
young hare at the first snow. I wasn’t particularly well educated
– I grew up surrounded by Gothic and I didn’t even
know…” (Josef Sudek).
Sudek studied photography at the State Graphic School. He
took part in excursions to St. Vitus Cathedral with the Director
of the School and President of the Society for Old Prague, Dr.
Bělohlávek. The cathedral was under reconstruction and intensive
building work was going on.
“And one morning I went in and stared: everything was… an
amazing atmosphere. It was the first time I had seen architecture
on such a large scale. […] And suddenly I knew
that here was something. You know, I had the impression
of a still life rather than of architecture.” (Josef Sudek).
Sudek photographed of St. Vitus Cathedral from his own personal
interest. First the busts on the triforium, then construction
still lifes from throughout the cathedral, overall views, genre
photos of the workers, etc.
To mark the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the
Czechoslovak Republic, the publishing house Družstevní Práce
published the monumental album entitled ‘Svatý Vít’ [St. Vitus]
in the form of a collector’s item with fifteen original gelatin
silver prints by Josef Sudek and a foreword by the poet Jaroslav
Durych, in an elegant large-format design by Emanuel Frinta. The
planned print run of 120 copies was evidently not finally produced
“Pages with a special magic and tenderness – but they
also genuinely document a great human work, St. Vitus
Cathedral. They contain all the photographer’s intelligence,
honest work, and many years of preparation. Josef Sudek
waited with the patience of a Japanese for sunshine and
shadow, visiting the cathedral again and again – over
weeks and months. This one-armed man clambered over
scaffolding and towers, and broke some of his plates,
only to come again with a fresh batch to look and record.”
(Jaromír Funke, review of the album for the magazine
As part of the series of publications ‘Československo: Praha’
[Czechoslovakia: Prague], the Melantrich publishing house
published a book devoted to St. Vitus Cathedral with sixteen
photographs by Josef Sudek, which were most likely created
specifically for this commission. (At this time Sudek was working
for Melantrich publishing house.)
Sudek only took a few individual photographs of the cathedral,
in the style of constructivist aestheticism. One photograph was
published e.g. in a calendar for the Orbis publishing house for the
“As soon as they stopped working there, as soon as they
cleaned up the dear church, I could no longer see anything
there. It wasn’t until the time of the Protectorate that I
started to see something there again.” (Josef Sudek).
ca. 1938– ca. 1944 The second phase of Sudek’s systematic
photographing of St. Vitus Cathedral, was most likely the result
of a commission for a pictorial monograph on the cathedral to
be published by Melantrich. Some of the photographs taken at
this time were included by Sudek in his cycle of photographs
“… this time it was commissioned by Melantrich. A publication
covering the whole of St. Vitus’ Cathedral was
supposed to be published. I almost have it finished, but it
won’t be published. No, that wouldn’t be kosher.”
Sudek included one of his photographs of St. Vitus Cathedral
in his freelance work in the album Moderní česká fotografie
[Modern Czech Photography], published in 1943 with an introduction
by Karel Teige.
A few of the photographs from the second phase of photographing
were published in the monographs ‘Pražský hrad. Výtvarné
dílo staletí v obrazech Josefa Sudka’ [Prague Castle. The
Artwork of Centuries in the Images by Josef Sudek] (Sfinx, 1945)
and its English version ‘Magic in Stone’ (London: Lincoln-Pragers,
1947), in the calendar ‘Kulturní ztráty 1939-1945’ [Cultural
Losses 1939–1945] (Václav Poláček publishers, 1946) and in
the monograph ‘Náš hrad’ [Our Castle] (J. R. Vilímek publishers,
Two year after Sudek’s death the Institute of Art History of the
Czech Academy of Sciences, received, as a gift from Božena
Sudková and on the recommendation of Anna Fárová, part of
Sudek’s archive, consisting of 900 of his negatives and positives
of St. Vitus Cathedral, dating from the second phase in
the 1940s. His other photographs were gifted to the Museum of
Decorative Arts in Prague and the Regional Museum in Kolín, and
today many others are scattered all over the world.
CV — Josef Sudek
The world-renowned Czech photographer Josef Sudek was born in Kolín in 1896 and died in Prague in 1976.
Respected both home and abroad, Josef Sudek became one of the legendary figures of the Czech art scene. Born the son of a painter and decorator in Kolín, he received all of his general education at the village school in Nové Dvory near Kutná Hora. Trained as a bookbinder, he was mostly self-taught as a photographer, though he also studied at the State School of Graphic Arts in Prague. He was a member of the Club of Amateur Photographers in Prague’s Žižkov and the Mánes Society of Fine Artists.
Josef Sudek served as a soldier in the First World War and returned from the Italian front without his right arm. For a while he lived in the Invalidovna veterans’ hospital in Prague’s Karlín. It was there that he made his first major series, The Invalidovna, between 1922 and 1927. He turned down an office job and pursued his life’s calling.
His work since the early 20th century reflects all the developmental trends in modern photography. Beginning with the 1920s he was inspired by Prague. His popular series include the Autumn in Stromovka Park, The Embankments of the Vltava, and Interiors (made just before the completion of St. Vitus’ Cathedral). He also found inspiration in nature, as reflected in his series such as the Slovak Landscape, Landscape near Žebrák, Landscapes of South Bohemia, and Landscapes along the Elbe. Until the Second World War, Sudek also devoted his time to advertising, art reproduction, and portrait photography.
Beginning in 1940, Sudek developed his unique style of contact prints, which he used to work on his personal themes, organised in extensive series that spanned long periods of time. That was the time when his individual contribution to global art was reaching its prime. His other major series include Glass Labyrinths, Labyrinths, and Memories.
Josef Sudek took part in countless exhibitions at home and abroad. He published several books of photographs on Prague and the Prague Castle. His first monograph was published in Prague in 1956. Since his death, a vast amount of books on his life and work have been published both home and abroad.