Why not try and find a new way of arranging things?
Běla Kolářová, 'One of the Ways', 1968
All that is not information, not redundancy, not form and not restraints – is noise, the only possible source of new patterns.
Gregory Bateson, 'Cybernetic Explanation', 1967
The origins of Běla Kolářová's creative thinking are readily traced to the field of language and communication. Her only professional employment outside of art was at a literary publishing outfit, from 1941 to 1956, and her husband, Jiří Kolář, was a poet who became a visual artist working often with words and other fragments of printed text. Kolářová herself began in art with photography, which in the mid-fifties especially seemed a visual domain entirely in the service of mass communication – a means of sending messages about and to the world.
Kolářová's antipathy to Edward Steichen's exhibition The Family of Man (1955), the definitional presentation of photography as an art of communication, is often repeated in writings about her. The source for that citation, however – the artist's lone statement of intent, written in 1968, at what she took for the close of her photographic career – does not contain a repudiation of communicativeness per se. On the contrary, Kolářová in that writing recounted how she had rejected mainstream communications only to transmit messages in an alternative stream – or rather, two such streams. One would give information about banal or discarded consumer items, such as fasteners, paper clips, barrettes, or lipstick: 'petty objects, this litter of nature and civilisation', whose 'authenticity' she sought to 'preserve' by presenting them 'in a direct way'. Such an aim is easily understood as a form of reportage, wholly dissimilar in mood or content to the journalistic images in The Family of Man, yet cognate with the show's animating desire to tell things about the world. This desire serves even as a myth of origins that Kolářová recounts at the start of her statement:
Sometime at the beginning of 1961, as I was browsing through a photographic publication, I was struck by the following sentence: 'The entire world has been photographed!' I don't recall whether it was Cartier-Bresson or some other photographer who had made this statement but, up to this day, I remember the feeling of despondency which these few words prompted in me. ... Was there really nothing left but to add the things we see to those already seen a hundred times over? ... Gradually I began to perceive a world which, in fact, was left out, unnoticed by photographers.
The other stream of information Kolářová wished to transmit emerges from her artist statement as an organic by-product of her fascination with a world of 'small things ... taken for granted'. This concerns the photographic process itself, a sidebar, as it were, that she occasionally chose to run as a feature in its own right:
Naturally, while working in the dark room I couldn't resist the magic of light, its miraculous ability to create an image of its own on photographic paper or plate – an absolute photography. How little is needed for its creation! One simply has to keep trying to tame the light, confine it within a form, be it a few hairs or any object that happens in our hands. ... Another thing you need is movement.
One way to understand this fable of photography, in a way that encompasses both the "story" of consumer sundries and that of abstract forces such as light and movement, is that Kolářová wanted herself to be the medium – with camera, film and paper as her auxiliary apparatus – channelling messages from their source in the physical world to their destination in the mental or affective world of human observers. And she wanted to contrast the singularity of her own status as a medium – with the overtones that word carries of irrational or unconscious behaviour – with the rationalisation of thought and labour prevalent in mass media. Rationalised, conformist behaviour is the true foil for Kolářová's work, above and beyond her discontent with mainstream subject matter (humanist imagery) or codified genres and functions (still life, landscape, reportage, advertising).
There is more than a hint of the paranormal in this reading, a theme that would deserve development in a longer consideration of abstract works such as the 'Rentgenogramy kruhů', or 'Radiograms of Circles' (1962–63) (see plates 9, 10), their Czech title a reference to the X-ray machine which, at its introduction in the 1890s, was widely taken as the latest manifestation of spirit photography and a dialogue with the supernatural. Such a reading also opens onto more prosaic theories of communication, however, and I will pursue here two such theories. The first was offered by the Czech photographer Eugen Wiškovský in the forties, and the second by the Anglo-American cybernetician Gregory Bateson in the fifties and sixties. These theories are attractive because they offer a means to unify the understanding of Kolářová's abstract work, which does seem characterised by ghostliness and dream states, with her apparently prosaic object arrangements and ultimately her post-photographic output as well. Indeed, the photographs and ideas put forth by Wiškovský and the holistic systems theory advanced over decades by Bateson accord well with Kolářová's fundamental union of pattern and fantasy as expressions of universal consciousness. It is pattern, as Wiškovský implied and Bateson said outright, that determines intelligibility in a system; and it is fantasy that shapes the character of the truly meaningful patterns in human creativity.
Eugen Wiškovský (1888–1964) was a high-school instructor in language and psychology, a serious amateur photographer and the most articulate theorist of photographic form and function in the Czech lands during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Although he remains less well known than his two closest contemporaries, Jaromír Funke and Josef Sudek, he lived to find an advocate in Anna Fárová, the patron saint of Czech photography in the post-war decades, who also moved in Kolářová's circle and in fact commissioned the 1968 text by her. So it is more than possible that Kolářová read Fárová's book on Wiškovský when it appeared in 1964, as part of a widely influential series of monographs on photographers begun in 1956, which Fárová helped to edit and for which Kolář wrote one volume. Kolářová may even have been shown articles that Wiškovský published in the thirties and forties, or the set of some sixty photographs that Wiškovský gave to Fárová to make her book.
Brought to photography in the era of New Vision and Surrealist aesthetics, Wiškovský prized above all defamiliarisation and surprise: 'to see in a new way, to have new optical sensations'. Such statements – and the works they accompanied – are far from Kolářová's interests, which reacted against an overabundance of novelty-seeking in the mainstream media. Yet the impulse to activate the ordinary or overlooked, which Wiškovský touted, and the will to share that impulse – to communicate – were certainly central to Kolářová's artistic endeavours. Wiškovský theorised those drives by applying ideas from his teaching in psychology and semiotics. 'The meaning of every photograph that aims to overcome the limits of simple reproduction is to fix and communicate impressions', he wrote in an article titled 'Form and Subject' in 1940. He developed this theme shortly thereafter into a separate article, 'Representation, Expressions and Communication', where he sketched a communications theory based on the relation of accumulated or repeated parts to the compositional whole.
Wiškovský anticipated not only Kolářová's preference for accumulation and repetition, but also her interest in ordinary things. He stressed this interest with the word he chose to signify his ultimate criterion for success in a photograph: nevšednost. The adjective všední literally means 'everyday', and všednost is therefore 'everyday-ness', with ne-všednost being its negation or opposite: banality reversed. A terrific early work, Lunar Landscape (1929), which Fárová made much of in her 1964 monograph, involved common shirt collars arranged as mountain peaks on an extraterrestrial terrain, with a hidden light bulb to provide the moonlit glow (fig.9). 'Division and dependency [členění a vazba]', Wiškovský claimed, are the polar forces governing all good composition. 'Form lies somewhere between a whole without divisions, but with maximal dependency (amorphous form – a boulder), [and] maximal division without any dependency (piecemeal, chaotic accumulation – a rubbish pile).' (By the time of his article, Wiškovský had actually made great photographs of large rocks and dumpsites alike.)
In 'Form and Subject' Wiškovský itemised ways to concentrate the viewer's attention on nevšednost: large quantity; similarity; regularity; movement; formal exclusivity. These methods could be taken as a roster of Kolářová's future organising principles. Although he called abstract photography 'a highly particular case', Wiškovský was de facto admitting its relevance to the study of photographic communication, rather than eliminating non-objective imagery from the communications field. 'A good photograph', he insisted, 'is an optical adventure with the guarantee of reality – for the observer.' Photography is in this formulation a visual domain governed by emission, transmission and reception. Without observers, it has no reason for being.
On the evidence of her work, Kolářová's interest in communications tended not towards efficiency in transmission but towards making manifest the patterning that subtends communications systems. In this, Kolářová was very much an artist of her moment. Generating patterns was determined in the post-war decades to be fundamental to communication, and pattern recognition became a key element of discussion across a range of behavioural, physical and social sciences. Cybernetics, the trans-disciplinary study of regulatory systems and their governing patterns, became an influential field in the United States and Western Europe during Kolářová's formative years, and whether or not she was aware of its development, it is of direct historical relevance in discussing her work.
Of the various key figures in cybernetics, among them the British cryptologist Alan Turing and the MIT professor Norbert Wiener, the polymath intellectual Gregory Bateson is the one whose words match most closely with Kolářová's works – both her abstract and her figurative compositions, but also the many pieces she made in the sixties and seventies that do not involve photography. Bateson taught linguistics, ethnography and psychiatry, and his research encompassed the communicative habits of aborigines, otters, dolphins and octopi, among other subjects. Through these studies, he came to understand cybernetics as the framework for an overarching cognitive synthesis. An 'ecology of mind', he called the results, and proposed in the 1972 anthology bearing that title – a summation of his life's work – that the world was nothing more and nothing less than a composite of systems: '[L]et me state my belief that such matters as the bilateral symmetry of an animal, the patterned arrangement of leaves in a plant, the escalation of an armaments race, the processes of courtship, the nature of play, the grammar of a sentence, the mystery of biological evolution, and the contemporary crises in man's relationship to his environment, can only be understood in terms of such an ecology of ideas.'
The opposition to compartmentalised knowledge that systems theory articulates, and which Bateson made clear in his addresses, especially in the years leading up to the publication of his anthology, resonates deeply with that late-sixties' countercultural moment. (In his contribution to a book on animal communication published in 1968, he cast Adam and Eve as apes that had fallen from grace not through the hand of God but as a result of their own evolutionary turn to rational behaviour, or 'purposive thinking' – scheming to get the apple down from the tree: 'They then began to specialize in doing things the planned way. In effect, they cast out from the Garden the concept of their own total systemic nature and of its systemic nature.') Kolářová's artist statement of 1968, written on the other side of the Iron Curtain, bespeaks a similar resistance to conformist habits of mind. Speaking of photographic professionals, she remarks that '[t]hey want to see to it that the once established categories of artistic, journalistic and industrial photography are maintained, blind ... to the fact that scientists, painters, musicians and poets keep crossing the boundaries of their respective disciplines or dispensing with them altogether.'
Cybernetics proposes that things and situations operate as bearers of information. Participants in a situation, or users of given objects (for example, viewers looking at a work of art) decode signification by a process of elimination and repetition. Our minds fill in the information gaps and surmise meanings or outcomes by rejecting what seems impossible within the restraints of a given communications system. We also exploit familiarity with parcels of information to enormous effect, relying on redundancies or mutually reinforcing informational elements to steer our interpretations. A facial expression, hand gesture, intonation and articulated speech can be sending complementary signals, for example, as a means of clarifying a message. But how to understand the organisation of kinesic, aural and linguistic communications and their interaction? How to understand the relation of micro- to macrocosmic forces? The answer lies in determining overarching patterns. As Bateson claimed, in full knowledge of the breadth of such a task, 'any study which throws light upon the nature of "order" or "pattern" in the universe is surely nontrivial'.
Discerning patterns is thus the heart of cybernetic analysis. As Bateson elegantly put it in an essay on primitive art in 1967, '[t]he essence and raison d'être of communication is the creation of redundancy, meaning, pattern, predictability, information, and/or the reduction of the random by "restraint".' In step with many vanguard artists of the later sixties and seventies, he wished to treat art as information. But like Wiškovský, he was intensely interested in dreams and other expressions of unconscious drives, areas that might seem far removed from the sobriety of systems analysis: 'Art becomes, in this sense, an exercise in communicating about the species of unconsciousness. Or, if you prefer it, a sort of play behavior whose function is, amongst other things, to practice and make more perfect communication of this kind.’
This kind of interpretation seems very much in line with Kolářová's works of the sixties, at least in appearance and from the little she wrote about them. Her works are whimsical in their elements and sometimes in their compositions: a giant button made out of fasteners, the letter 'L' shaped from locks of cut hair (fig.10), a decrescendo formed by leaf shadows, a landscape made of lipstick traces (see plate 37). They seem therefore more intimate, more idiosyncratic than the phrase 'systems analysis' conveys (or the term 'Conceptual Art', although there is much wit and fancy in that movement). Some of them also conjure circuit boards, for example Positive-Negative (1965), an arrangement of metal jacket buttons that divides the supporting sheet into areas of relative light and dark (fig.11). In Untitled (1966), meanwhile, a sculpture from the 'Dishes' series, Kolářová formed her patterns by adhering rhinestones, caps, clips and other sundries or parts of sundries to rectangles of plate glass, which she then stacked in a cheap, plastic dish tray (see plate 30). Feminist overtones are important in these works and in the artist's overarching project to valorise the subaltern realm of women's daily routine. This is where patternmaking, an activity written off as women's work, takes on a heightened significance. Some of Kolářová's pieces suggest a sly imitation of electric (or computer) circuit designs and other quasiscientific images (mysterious circles, shadowy light bulbs), or the false precision of an arrangement of construction tools and materials (Alphabet of Things, 1964) (see plate 18). To paraphrase such systems of communication as circuitry or diagrams, and to bring them into tension with a supposedly decorative world of poetically useless pattern creation, is a feminist and a countercultural project for the systems age.
Not all Kolářová's compositions succeed. Those that use small elements to picture a personage, such as Japanese Woman (1981) (see plate 39), or a monumental version of themselves, such as a series in which the artist fashioned large shaving blades from little razors, seem too pat. I am unsure, meanwhile, of the validity of Kolářová's homages, whether in portraiture (Jarry, Weiner, Beckett) or in name (Homage to Günther Uecker, 1968–69/2004); I fear they deploy pattern as an explanatory overlay or screen rather than as an underlying structure – abstraction as caption. Seen all at once, the works can also seem to lack heft – pretty patterns that do not push sufficiently at the conventional underpinnings of prettiness or patterning. And Kolářová's many and various labels for her creations ('vegetages', 'rollages', 'traces', and so on), while not manically proliferating like those endlessly devised by her husband, might suggest the dilettante's indecision or the ramblings of a hobbyist. Then again, such variety and searching seem invigorating when set against the narrow-minded background of Bateson's bugbear, 'purposive thinking', an orientation towards predetermined goals that leaves little room for invention along the way. 'Dream can propose the applicability of pattern', he suggested in 1968. 'It can never assert or deny this applicability. Still less can it make an indicative statement about any identified referent, since no referent is identified.' Dreams are a key form of true abstraction. And they represent as well a temporary freedom from specialisation, compartmentalisation and conformist professionalisation. This liberation is achieved not through entropy but through the mental reordering of static or ephemeral objects: 'The pattern is the thing.'
Matthew S. Witkovsky is the Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator, Department of Photography, Art Institute of Chicago.
1. Běla Kolářová, 'One of the Ways' , in Běla Kolářová: Photographies 1956-1964 (Paris: Éditions Revue K, 1989). All subsequent citations are taken from the reprint of this source, which appears in the present volume on p.11. The publication history of this text is reconstructed in the introductory note to the reprint.
2. Kolářová actually began photographing in earnest in 1956, as has been observed in more recent writings on her. Karel Císař perceptively discusses the artist's early work in his essay for the present volume.
3. On the relation of X-rays to spirit photography, see Clément Chéroux et al., The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), particularly section 2, 'Photographs of Fluids'; and Corey Keller (ed.), Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840–1900 (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2008).
4. Anna Fárová, Eugen Wiškovský (Prague: SNKlHU, 1964); text reprinted in Fárová, Dvě tváře (Prague: Torst, 2009), p.183–91. For more on the series of photography monographs published by SNKlHU (later SNKlU), see Matthew S. Witkovsky, Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918–1945, p.156, n. 47. Although Fárová had a close relationship to Henri Cartier-Bresson (a principal antagonist for Kolářová) and wrote a monograph on his work in 1958, she also helped reorient the series away from The Family of Man stars towards the artists to whom Kolářová presumably or definitely felt close, such as Vilém Reichmann, Emila Medková and Jaromír Funke. The latter's series 'Abstract Photo' must have resonated particularly strongly with her. The SNKlHU monograph on Miroslav Hák (1959) was authored by Jiří Kolář.
5. Eugen Wiškovský, 'Tvar a Motiv' [Form and Subject], Fotografický obzor 48:10 (October 1940), p. 110.
7. Wiškovský, 'Zobrazení, projevy a sdělení', Fotografický obzor 49:1 (January 1941), p. 2–4.
8. Ibid., p. 3.
9. Wiškovský, 'Tvar a Motiv', p. 110.
10. I have not researched the extent of knowledge of cybernetics in the Czech lands during the sixties. Karel Císař has helpfully shared that a key essay by Wiener, 'Cybernetics and Society', appeared in Czech in 1963 and was remarked upon more than once by close friends of Jiří and Běla Kolář, the experimental writers Josef Hiršal and Bohumila Grögerová; see their diary Let let (Prague: Torst, 2007), p. 1048. Hiršal seems (vaguely) headed in the direction of cybernetics as well in his opening address for Kolářová's 1966 exhibition in the Galerie na Karlově náměstí.
11. Gregory Bateson, 'The Science of Mind and Order' , in Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind  (Northvale, New Jersey and London: Jason Aronson Inc.), p. 13.
12. Bateson, 'Animal Communication' , in Bateson, op. cit., p. 309–10.
13. 'After all, the subject matter of cybernetics is not events and objects but the information "carried" by events and objects. We consider the objects or events only as proposing facts, propositions, messages, percepts, and the like.' Bateson, 'Cybernetic Explanation' , in Bateson, op. cit., p. 288.
14. Bateson, 'Introduction' , in Bateson, op. cit., p. 14.
15. Bateson, 'Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art' , in Bateson, op. cit., p. 288.
16. Bateson, 'Redundancy and Coding' , in Bateson, op. cit., p. 302.