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Prague 1968: A Timeless Evocation of Tragedy

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 19, 2008

Through his camera's lens, Josef Koudelka elevated the horrors of incursion to biblical heights. The Czechoslovakian exile's subject was the August 1968 invasion of Prague, a horrific series of events for that city's residents but minor in scale in the long course of human calamity.

About 100 were killed and 400 more were seriously injured; hundreds more escaped with minor wounds. It was bad, though not biblically bad. Yet in Koudelka's black-and-white photographs on view now in "Invasion 68: Prague" at the Katzen Arts Center, the events gain heroic contours.

Koudelka evokes some of the greatest tragic and triumphal paintings in the history of art, effectively situating Prague's summer siege alongside stories of Christian tragedy and the world's mightiest revolutions.

The Aug. 21 crackdown was perhaps inevitable, but its force was unforeseen. Soviets bent on reinforcing communist rule in a country with crumbling loyalties sent tanks barreling through Wenceslas Square. Their soldiers marched into government buildings, captured national communication centers and cleared avenues.

Fearless and perhaps more than a little crazy, the then-30-year-old Koudelka spent that week getting into everybody's face, including the Soviets'. The photographer mounted tanks, crouched with the wounded and bolted down avenues. Although trained as an aerospace engineer, Koudelka had given up his career the year before so he could pursue photography full time.

In his Prague pictures, he mined the visual language of the Renaissance and romanticism to reframe that week-long struggle into a battle worthy of the ages. At the Katzen, several key images stretch five feet high, their scale amplifying their majesty.

Koudelka's scenes come straight out of art-history texts. A wounded man surrounded by anxious onlookers suggests Giotto's 14th-century "Lamentation"; a pedestrian making her way down an occupied street mirrors the anguish of Eve depicted by Masaccio in the 15th century; a flag-waving youth atop a halted tank uncannily evokes Delacroix's celebration of an 1830 Parisian uprising.

Koudelka's pictures operate in ways similar to their famous predecessors. He organizes scenes of suffering as Renaissance painters did. Compositions outlined in clear triangles and rational perspectives offer a sense of calm that throws their subjects' misery in high relief.

An anguished woman on a Prague street holds her hand to her head, her jaw locked in despair. She appears in some way a composite of the grieving Adam and Eve from Masaccio's great fresco for Florence's Brancacci Chapel. In early 15th-century Italy, Masaccio was heralded by Renaissance humanists for making his subjects' pain recognizable and real. Koudelka does the same.

Koudelka's more dynamic pictures evoke romantic struggle by emphasizing radical diagonals and spatial contortions. As Delacroix painted Liberty thrusting the French tricolor while she led Parisian revolutionaries against their king, so Koudelka's picture of a youthful insurgent atop a halted tank has him waving his country's flag in defiance. The two pictures share uncanny similarities in angles and composition: Liberty's outstretched arm is echoed by her bayonet and the gestures of the revolutionaries; the Czech man, too, inclines in nearly the identical direction as the tank's gun and the streetcar wires running overhead. All serve to ratchet up the energy of the picture.

Such compositional details seem miraculous given that Koudelka snapped these pictures in the rush and heat of chaos.

Yet a kind of magic happened in the editing. A look at Koudelka's contact sheets (unfortunately, none are on view here) tells us that the photographer snapped one image after the next, seconds apart. There might be five frames of an advancing tank, but only one includes the figure of a protester facing down its gun barrel. Only that David-and-Goliath instant got printed.

The path these pictures took before arriving here is itself somewhat miraculous. During the invasion, Koudelka snapped photos incessantly but found no time to develop them. Some negatives were lost; others were developed and then left with the historian Anna Farova, who showed them to Vaclav Havel, who offered to take them to America. But Havel's trip was aborted and the images' fates became uncertain.

Finally, a Smithsonian photography curator smuggled them out of Czechoslovakia and into the hands of Elliott Erwitt, then president of New York City's Magnum photo agency. It was Magnum that supervised their printing and distribution.

A year after the invasion, when Koudelka traveled to London for business, he bought a Sunday Times and found some of his pictures printed inside. Credited to an "unknown Czech photographer" to protect him and his family, the pictures won him (or, rather, that "unknown" photographer) a Robert Capa prize in 1969.

Only years later, safely exiled, could Koudelka take credit for his remarkable achievement.

Invasion 68: Prague at the Katzen Arts Center, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m., 202-885-1300, to Dec. 28. http://www.american.edu/museum.

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