Photographs of drawings and symbols on the walls of Shanghai
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The Czech photographer Milan Pitlach (born on March 1, 1943) is well known in his country through exhibitions and monographs featuring his black-and-white documentary images. In the late 1960s, he took up amateur photography, alongside his regular profession of architect based in Prague. In 1969, he worked for one year in Britain, where he began photographing music festivals, documenting of the era’s hippie movement. After his return to Prague in 1970, he focused on lyrical, highly subjective imagery, showing the bleak reality of life in Communist Czechoslovakia, where he bore witness to the gradual decline of social freedom. After the soul-writhing experience of living through the ‘Normalization’ period (political clampdown) of the 1970s, he decided to emigrate. In 1980, he escaped to Germany with the vision of designing great architecture and taking photographs of the Free World. Maintaining his profession, he travelled widely, producing series of pictures in Germany, Spain, Italy, the Near East, India, Japan and eventually China. For the past five years, he has been designing architecture in the megalopolis of Shanghai. The huge, dynamic city offers Pitlach its multifaceted reality, which he reflects in photographic series on a variety of subjects.
In his recent series, titled Calligraphy, Pitlach presents colour photographs for the first time ever, which he made with a Kodak film Pentax or a digital camera. Clearly, the direct inspiration of this series of abstract photography can be sought in the ancient Far Eastern artistic idiom based on the ink writing of Chinese characters. Evident links point especially to the large solitary characters written with a free-hand brush and to asymmetric compositions of Chinese calligraphy. Most pictures show authentic details of inscriptions, random painting and graffiti on Shanghai’s walls, windows and gates of the old hutong, as well as as on small shops and derelict factories destined for demolition.
There is one other striking aspect of these purely abstract, artistic photographs: they present variations on the acclaimed paintings and graphic art created by accomplished Western masters of post-war non-figurative art, such as Jasper Jones, Mark Tobey, Antoni Tápies, Alberto Burri and Cy Twombly. Some of the pictures are therefore labelled as tributes to some of those artists, while others are simply numbered and dated. From some five hundred pictures of the Calligraphy series, the author selected 50 photographs for the present exhibition and the catalogue accompanying it (the catalogue’s layout is the work of the noted graphic designer Robert V. Novák). Organized by the National Gallery’s Collection of Oriental Art in collaboration with the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Calligraphy exhibition is on view at the Zbraslav Chateau from August 23 to November 23, 2008.