Images of communist Czechoslovakia taken between 1970 and 1989 graced the walls of the Église Sainte-Anne, an old catholic church in Arles city centre
At the 2019 edition of Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Prague-based photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková debuted an expansive body of black-and-white photographs for the first time, in an exhibition called Evokativ. When the images landed on the desk of the festival’s then-director, Sam Stourdzé, it became clear they would fit perfectly with that year’s theme: The Body as a Weapon. Taken by Jarcovjáková, now 68, in communist Czechoslovakia between 1970 and 1989, the pictures revealed a searing cacophony of intimate and social scenes under political oppression – from dancers in nightclubs, to naked bodies in kitchens and bathrooms, and incidental moments of comedy or tragedy unfolding in the streets at night.
For the curator of the exhibition, Lucie Černá, 37, also Prague-based, it was the immediate visceral reaction to these photographs, as someone three decades younger but from the same place, that made her want to work with Jarcovjáková. “For me, a great photo emotionally passes through me like lightning,” she says. “I feel excited and I have to see more. This is exactly how I felt when I first saw Libuše’s photos. I just had to meet her after that.”
The exhibition took place at the Église Sainte-Anne, an old catholic church in Arles city centre. “The fact that Evokativ would be shown there really confirmed to me that something extraordinary was taking place,” Jarcovjáková remembers fondly. During the communist era, the Czech government had seized the belongings of churches across the country, so there was real history to be considered and made use of there in a site-specific way – a rare chance to play on the links between religion, politics and the very human subject matter at the heart of her pictures. It was the perfect clash, she says – “a little inappropriate, with a hint of irony and a certain dose of audacity, but with humanity, authenticity and emotion too.”
Beginning her plans, Černá walked through the space in her head, figuring out how to transport the viewer to the Czechoslovakia of Libuse’s photographs – a place unfamiliar to many. It came down to atmosphere in the end, she says, and both artist and curator wanted an active, immersive installation to reflect the energetic impulses behind Jarcovjáková’s work. This included floor-to-ceiling wallpapers of some of Jarcovjáková photographs lining the walls behind framed prints, and a huge self-portrait of the artist confronting visitors as they entered the show. Elsewhere, Černá explains, Arles allowed them the chance to confront some particularly dividing themes. “With a working name of Vulva, we had a wooden structure built in the middle of the church that loosely symbolised female anatomy. There were photographs pinned directly to the wood, and texts handwritten directly onto the walls by Libuše, hinting at tales of sex, relationships and abortions.” A presbytery adorned with an explicit photograph could be seen through the structure, she explains, adding, with a wry smile, that this can’t have been easy for some of the more sensitive viewers.
In the end, Černá says, this exhibition gave Jarcovjáková the chance to tell her story with more freedom and fluidity than a traditional gallery setting could offer, and without a specific timeline or stifled order in which viewers would be expected to encounter the images too. “My goal was for visitors to blend in with the space in such a way that they would not easily perceive where they were.” She wanted each person to feel their own way around Jarcovjáková’s world, floating between clusters of images, and building a narrative for themselves. “It was a pleasure to see that this really happened and visitors felt so natural there,” she reflects. Adding to that, Jarcovjáková says, “I’ve become bored of exhibitions where photos are linearly hung like beads on a huge necklace. As it turns out, I lived a rather adventurous life, and this exhibition really distilled the essence of my photographs.”
“It was an almost unclassifiable experience.”
Reflecting on what this exhibition meant to her, Jarcovjáková says it was “an almost unclassifiable experience.” For decades, she had worked without any publicity, and without the opportunity to share her work or garner any response beyond her social circle. Arles changed that. It’s a festival that blazes the way for artists like her, with a team dedicated to unearthing unknown archives and drawing out rich stories of human experience that have never been shown in public before. “Suddenly,” Jarcovjáková says, “I saw my work in this magnificent installation in an impressive space. The church was almost always full of spectators – focused, committed lovers of photography – and that was really unforgettable. It gave me the feeling that what I was doing made some sense, and above all, it gave me the desire to continue working intensively.” Summing up the Arles experience, Jarcovjáková calls it “photographic heaven”, adding that as soon as the opportunity arises, she’s ready to visit again. “Whenever it takes place again, I want to be there.”
For more information about Le Rencontres de la Photographie, head to the festival website
To find out more about the work of Libuše Jarcovjáková, click here.
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London