In December of 1948 the photographer
D.J. Ruzicka sent a postcard to an unknown recipient. It is a memorable
image: a shadowed boat inhabits the right foreground while Prague’s “Lesser
Town” Malá strana appears as a series of indistinct shapes, nearly black.
Silhouetted against a dramatic sky is the castle, Hradcany dominated by St.
Vitus Cathedral. Like a Dutch landscape, the heavens with their swirling
clouds occupy fully half the photograph. This is a fine example of both
Ruzicka’s style and the pictoralist tradition in photography.
Four years and two months earlier
Gideon Klein had completed a string trio in three movements. In the
center of the piece, longer than the two outer movements combined, is a theme
and variations movement. Here is the theme:
Both of these images, the visual and
the musical, have something we might choose to call an identity relatively
independent of any obvious external stimuli. But they also have contexts
that are broader than the images themselves. In fact, each is set off by
both the specific language of title and expression, and by extended dialogues
that shape the way we might react to them.
The first addition to the photograph
seems innocuous enough. The artist tells us the title is "Soumrak se
sklaní nad Prahou" or “Dawn Over Prague.”
Does the title simply confirm what
we have already suspected about the image? What if I have purposely
misled you and "Soumrak se sklaní nad Prahou" actually means
“Dusk Falls Over Prague?” This actually turns out to be the truth, or at
least the truth as far as translation will carry us. I apologize for the
deceit, but this may have been the best way to get you to experience how
we might look at sunsets differently from sunrises. Incidentally, no one
seems to have studied this, and there is hardly any information about any
physical differences between these daily events. As far as I can
tell, there is nothing to suggest that we can know whether we are looking at
morning or evening shot unless someone tells us. So even Ruzicka’s
innocuous title has some real information for us. Of course perhaps
it is possible to regard the image without caring whether it is sunset,
sunrise, or just a cloudy Winter day.
Up to this point we have avoided
discussion of what may be considered the photograph’s subject, if we can speak
of such a thing. This particular skyline has in recent years become
almost as familiar to world travelers as New York’s: Prague, with the Vltava (Moldau) River in the foreground and the classic castle, Hradcany on the hill.
Yet it will be difficult to ascertain the importance of Prague in the
consciousness of a particular viewer, so it might be that the sunset is the
real subject of the work after all, considering that the subset of human beings
with experience of sunsets dwarfs that subset with experience of Prague.
Does the Klein Trio have something
like a subject, and not only in the obvious musical sense of the
The title of the slow movement is
both more and less specific than that of the photograph: “Variace na téma
Moravské lidové písne” (Variations on the theme of a Moravian Folksong).
Trying to quantify the effect of the title on the experience of hearing the
work will be impossible, but in some ways the title must strike variable
resonances in its beholders, much like the image of Prague. Some will
know what “Moravian” means and have an attitude towards it, a cognitive
charge--they might even know the tune; to others the word will blend with
others like “Moldovian” and “Mazovian” to suggest some Eastern European or even
more generic “other.” There are also more local perceptions:
Moravia is not only the home province of the composer in this case, it could,
without too much twisting and turning, be considered Czechoslovakia’s “slow
movement;” its hills and fields and villages sandwiched between Bohemia and
Slovakia (the poet Jan Skácel once suggested that the Moravian national anthem
was the pause between the Czech and Slovak anthems.)
Here is a version of the song that
might give some sense of how Klein heard it. The singer is Dušan Holý,
and though the recording was made in the 1970’s Holy, born in 1933 was a “boy
wonder” and was reconstructing a version he had certainly heard while Klein was
The song has several different
texts, but the one common to all variants is the first stanza, so we can assume
Klein knew the words as well:
Ta kneždubská vež The
Ta je vysoká it
Vyletela na nu Up
onto it flew
Huska divoká A
Here, again is the opening of the
While one could argue that neither
the title nor subject of the photo or the movement are necessarily part of the
internal spatial relations of the composition, we accept both as having some
role in determining how we come to understand those relations, and to some
extent, we admit that once we have assimilated them it is difficult to imagine
returning to a neutral position regarding their relationship to the image,
though we imagine this could be done. But the process changes more radically
when we move from this level into an area we might call, the political realm.
Drahomir Joseph Ruzicka was born in
1870 in Trhová Kamenice, a village in Bohemia about 60 miles east of Prague, near the town of Chrudim. His family emigrated to Nebraska in 1876. .
Ruzicka moved to New York City in
1884, studied medicine in Vienna in the late 1880’s and in 1891 graduated from New York University with a medical degree.
Ruzicka and his wife in a self-portrait
He was an early experimenter with
X-rays but stopped after he suffered from exposure to radiation. Yet in
his own words he was hooked: “Watching a plate develop had its charms.
The pleasure of seeing an image come up was intriguing.” Ruzicka quickly
affiliated himself with the amateur pictoralist tradition and was influenced by
both its more traditional wing and the so-caled Photo-Secessionists led by Alfred
Steiglitz, Getrude Kasebier, Edward Steichen and Clarence White, photographers
who applied some of the standards of 19th century painting to the
new technology of picture taking. (As I understand it the word “amateur”
did not mean “unprofessional,” in a qualitative sense, but rather served to
distinguish this group from commercial photographers. Today these
amateurs would be considered “professional art photographers”).
During his periodic returns to Prague, which begin in 1912, he helped to jump start new movements in Czech photography,
encouraging practitioners to move away from sentimental pictoralism to
something that became known as The New ObjectivitySome of its prominent
practitioners were Jan Lauschmann and Josef Sudek.
As the following images show, Ruzicka
placed great emphasis on creating visual structures, landscapes and searching
out different types of light.
Here we have one of many studies of
the roofs of Prague (Old Roofs, 1925)
and another titled “Winter
Evening, Prague” taken the same year.
We may note the careful composition,
use of framing effects, control of light and use of shadow.
For the sake of comparison we may
juxtapose this image with that of a contemporary postcard:
The postcard is quite well done, and
foregrounds the famous statue “commemorating” a historic bit of Czech
anti-Semitism, but compared to Ruzicka’s photograph it is flat and without
Ruzicka was a well-known fixture in New York and one of the city’s fine photographers:
He was known for his urban images,
such as “The Canyons of New York”
“The Conquering Light” featuring a
sidelong view of the Empire State Bilding:
“The Perisphere” taken at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, the kind of photo which, in effect, created a compromise
between a more conservative tendency towards rather static pictoralism, and
more abstract, modernist approaches.
most famously his images of the vanished Penn Station, actually light studies
as much as anything:
The photograph at the center of our
interest was probably taken at some point in the 1920’s, and it might
actually be identical to one called “Prague Twilight” taken in 1921 according
to Jirí Jenícek, a Czech photographer who spent time with Ruzicka when he was
in Prague. Though he lived until 1960, Ruzicka did not return to
Czechoslovia either during or after World War II, making his last visit in
The postcard as a communication
device was born around the same time as Ruzicka, about 1870, and by 1900 cards
were being made out of real photographs. By the late 1930’s color
“Photochrome” cards began to appear, but Ruzicka, like many other photographers
continued to place his black and white photographs directly onto to postcards.
On the back of this one we have been
looking at, he has written: "The shadows are falling fast and faster all
about us--how long will the Hradcín stand!? With best wishes of the season from
D.J.Ruzicka N.Y. Dec '48.”
We have suggested that knowing even
the title of this picture may encourage us to read certain things rather than
others, and see even abstract relationships in different ways. But these
lines take us into a far more specific role of participant and viewer.
For this holiday sentiment was
written not a year after the bloodless Communist coup that began in February of
1948. Although there was a good deal of support for the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia most Czechs were unprepared for the coup, and certainly had not endorsed the
kind of hard line Stalinism that would become its legacy. Even if he had
not been in contact with friends abroad Ruzicka might have read an article in
Time Magazine in March 22, 1948 that contrasted, somewhat oddly, Nazi tolerance
of the conductor Vaclav Talich with his firing by the Communists saying that,
“conductor Talich's dismissal was a measure of public
order as natural for a Communist as it would be for a New York cop to take a
pistol out of a maniac's hands.” As events, including the death
by defenestration of the beloved Jan Masaryk developed, it became clear any
notion of a socialist paradise was out of the question and the Communists spent
much of 1948 gradually tightening the vise. It was in this atmosphere
that Ruzicka wrote his lines. The “Hradcín,” by the way, is an intimate
(via the diminutive) reference to Hradcany, the castle at the symbolic heart of
If we read the photographer’s words
and then flip the postcard over it is difficult to regard the image the same
way. How do Ruzicka’s words change it? Is it possible that we have
been given a metaphor of motion, of “fast-falling” shadows? Has the
photographer somehow managed to animate his image? Or perhaps is it that
now we notice that Hradcany, the castle, stands out as a bastion of pride, or
more likely a small speck about to be overcome by a darkness that is both
symbolic and menacing? Was this conflation of image and reality the intention
of the author at any point? We may remember that this postcard is being
sent and surrounded with text by its creator probably more than 20 years after
it was first created. What authority do such comments have? Are
they like words that can be withdrawn or emended like Mahler’s programme for
his First Symphony? Or has the creator somehow only realized the
potential of his image in the context of this political event that threatens
Although Gideon Klein’s Trio was
created and contextualized around the same time as Ruzicka’s message, the
composer was almost fifty years younger and the circumstances vastly different.
Born in the Moravian town of Prerov in 1919, Klein moved to Prague while a teenager in order to take advantage of
musical opportunities. A brilliant pianist, and a composer in the
process of assimilating a wide range of traditions, from the blues to twelve
and quarter tone composition, he was just beginning to make his career when
shadows began to fall, as it were, fast and faster on him and his world.
By the late 1930’s he was forced to perform under an assumed name, Karel
Vránek. An attempt to study in London proved abortive.
Painting of Klein made in Terezín by Charlotte Burešová in 1944.
Courtesy of the Jewish Muesum of Prague.
Thus Klein’s Trio was also put
together in the context of realities that inflect whatever identity it might
have apart from them. Like Ruzicka’s postcard the Trio is in part a
kind of comment on Czechoslovak and international events, although arguably far
more sinister ones, for it was written in the Terezin concentration camp in
1944 and completed nine days before Klein was transported to other
concentration camps where he was killed under unknown circumstances in January
of 1945. It is well known by now that after the decision to
implement the Final Solution had been made, Terezin was used as a significant
propaganda tool, especially to hoodwink the Red Cross who visited it in June of
1944. The camp was sometimes billed as “Hitler’s Gift to the Jews.”
Aware that the war was being lost, and having finished a particularly harrowing
propaganda film about Terezin, the Nazis systematically began to empty the
camp. It was in this desperate atmosphere that the Trio was completed,
and in which Klein strategized how he might ensure the work’s survival.
He did this in part by giving the score to a woman who was only part Jewish,
erasing all traces of its location and possibly changing the dates of
composition, and further making sure the piece looked innocuous and
benign. How does all this information transform the musical
substance, particularly the invocation of something as highly charged as the
Once again, I do not believe
this can be quantified, but the implications of the information would tend,
like Ruzicka’s allusion, to reinforce images of heaviness and menace, of drama
and weight over lightness and grace. The same sounds, but differently
So we might find, under the pull of
my rendering of Klein’s story—necessarily incomplete and skewed--that the
passage assumes another identity, more sinister, brutal, more piercing (what
Barthes calles a punctum in Camera lucida). I have located
what I would consider the apotheosis of this piercing in a later, conspicuous
passage in the very middle of the Trio and I’d like to look briefly at that as
a kind of referent.
Here the line, a jumbled caricature
of the theme, at least as dramatic as the Ruzicka photo, plunges downward a
full two octaves before recovering briefly and then oozing down once again to
instrument’s bottom note.
Incidentally, I’ve offered four
versions of the cello solo: in manuscript, in printed score, as an audio
recording and as a performance video. I do not think, at this point, we
can say which of these is “the piece” in the same way that we can say “this is
the photograph” (actually framed in my living
room) for whatever that’s worth.
While the passage itself has no
title of course, there are careful instructions for the way in which it is to
be set off from the rest of the movement. Even though most listeners will never
be aware of these they give the performer--the one charged with, perhaps,
letting the listeners know whether they are regarding a sunrise or
sunset—significant information. Con gran espressione quasi improvisato
senza rigore—the passage is further marked f and con sordino.
What does this tell the cellist to do? At the very least the first part
of the instructions say something like “Play this using all the markers of
strong expression.” Let’s imagine, though, that the con gran
espressione were missing: we thus are only being told to play in an
improvisatory style without regularity. What would this
suggest? It forces us to posit the idea of a norm, and then to depart
from it—to distort it—in order to realize the desired instructions. The con
gran espressione adds to that some unquantifiable aspect of intensity, and
possibly even contortion, something reinforced by the attempt to play forte
while being restrained by a mute. The passage thus requires some
careful imagination to piece together, both from the cellist and from any audience.
The only real equivalent to this in
Ruzicka’s photograph, the only “expressive marking” is easy to miss, and may
not mean much at all.
It is that odd ungrammatical but not
impossible punctuation directly before the seasons greetings, the combination
of the question mark, needed to pose the question and the exclamation point to
add—intensity and instability to the query.
While we are considering puncuation,
and somewhat as an excursus, it might be a good idea to comment on one thing
which bound these two otherwise different figures, their hyphenated identity.
The father of one of my students once exclaimed. “When I was in Russia they said, get out of here Jew! So I went to Israel and they said: you are no
Jew! Now I live in Brighton Beach and they call me a
Russian.” Such is the fate of hyphens. Ruzicka and
Klein both “enjoyed” this status, this doppelganger of identity, which gives
you twice as much or nothing depending on how you slice and dice
it. Considered an American by the Czechs, Ruzicka was usually
considered a Czech by the Americans, a Cezch-American. Klein, in the same way, is usually
identified as “a Czech speaking Jew,” a “Czech composer of Jewish
background,” a Cezch-Jew That these seem natural designations is only further proof
of our epistemological disarray on this matter, since we do not usually say
that Smetana was “a Czech composer of Christian background.” And noting
these hyphens, that push one out further and further from any putative
“center,” we also conclude that they were a critical part of the way each
figure was forced to confront the world although, once again, the consequences
for Klein were more dramatic.
For while both Ruzicka and Klein are
commenting on political events it is clear that they are doing from different
vantage points. Ruzcika is acting as a citizen of a what is sometimes
called “a democracy” who sends his message freely out into the world (this does
not and cannot answer the question of whether, in 1948, this particular
photographer is acting as a Czech patriot, an FDR liberal democrat or an
incipient cold warrior.) Klein, regardless of his politics, is a
prisoner in a concentration camp, and we need to approach his
Trio in a slightly different way.
Hovering over these proceedings, I
hope, has been a simple gesture: we look at the postcard, turn it around, read
the back, and then regard at the image again, noting the ways it may have changed
in some incalculable but very real ways. This might be a kind of
semantics, meant either cognitively or metaphysically, but to some extent all
images need to be decoded, though it may ironically be subtle issues of
intentions and rights—otherwise somewhat banal—that cause us to reimagine
painterly images like Ruzicka’s. In other words, we may see
fit to overcome under these circumstances, notions of the intentional fallacy,
and actually cede to the photographer a special right to read and interpret his
own images, in addition to the time-honored right to title the image. And if we do cede to a photographer, or a composer, the right to title, and if that title may be thought to have meaning for understanding, then why not allow the creator of a work more leeway?
Klein’s Trio, may, however, offer a
slightly more subtle metaphor for at least some views of serious art.
Because its journey to any audience was far more perilous—in effect, the Trio
had to figure out how to escape from Terezin--it was likely conceived in such a
way as to strike one potential audience (Nazis, let’s say) as harmless (a theme
on a Moravian folksong, how sweet!) and another group of aficionados (say “us”)
as the opposite of that, as laden with meanings. Thus while Terezin may
be considered a kind of Potemkin Village, where a fake façade conceals a harsh
reality, the Trio is quite the reverse. A deceptively light and
even bland exterior—and here I would argue that the short, folksy outer
movements serve as this surface skin—conceals a world of turmoil within,
including references to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Verdi’s Requiem,
the blues, and Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade. While both
the Ruzicka and the Klein, then, have implications that only emerge after some
study and thought, the latter is a letter sent in secret code to unknown
readers, and in its short and long term structures reflects the pressure of
Ruzicka’s postcard and Klein’s Trio
both serve political purposes, although once again there are differences, with
a possible metaphorical jolt. Ruzicka sees “all”: as an American citizen
he must have closely followed the war and its aftermath; he understands, at
least from a broader standpoint, what we now routinely refer to as
“geopolitical realities.” His comment, tacked on to what is probably a
twenty five year old image, is simultaneously impersonal and highly personal,
both in its tone, but also in the quick and somewhat weird slide from “Oh no!”
to “Merry Christmas.” Klein, on the other hand, sees no grand
picture, and cannot see one from his particular perch. For him, there is
only a chilling echo of the old saying, “all politics is local.” And yet
in that intensely local world he lives the kind of history Ruzicka sees
as if he were following it in a newspaper, or reading it on the back of a
It is appropriate to ask whether
both artists have somehow lessened the potential value of their work by
allowing political events to too narrowly circumscribe it. While
Ruzicka’s “shadows are falling” comment guides us in ways that may seem
significant, it may also restrict us, as does Klein’s (or our own) tendency to
conflate such things as the Kneždub tower, the shooting of the wild goose, and
betrayal from the folksong, with the walls and guarded towers of Terezin that
surrounded the composer as he wrote the Trio.
If indeed such images confine us,
there is little to be done, and to close we might choose an echo of
J.T.S.Mitchell’s perverse question: What do Pictures Want? because in the end
our two images do share one important characteristic. They embody in an
especially concrete way what is almost a parody of idea of Art as communication.
As we noted, both the photo titled “Dusk Descends Over Prague” and “The Kneždub
Tower ” Trio movement were meant to “have legs;” the postcard was an artistic
missile, deliberately intended to target specific recipients and speak to them;
the Trio was primed to sneak out of a concentration camp packed with evidence
of how someone, a local someone, was actually responding to large scale
events. If this process takes us into a realm distant from certain
assumptions about the purpose of “art” construed more narrowly, it does force
us to keep turning the postcard over, again and again, just as we chase such musical
and visual images back and forth from their geopolitical objectivity, where
they can be theorized and essentially disposed of, to the deepest and messiest
core of local events, where they will continue to haunt us.
New York City, December 2006
Jean. At the Mind’s Limits. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.
Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill
John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, 1977.
Jacques. The Truth in Painting. University of Chicago Press, 1987.