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Art Institute of Chicago presents Josef Koudelka's first major U.S. museum exhibition since 1988
Czechoslovakia (Kadaň), from the series Gypsies, 1963, printed 1967. The Art Institute of Chicago, restricted gift of Artworkers Retirement Society. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

CHICAGO, IL.- The unforgettable photographs of acclaimed Czech-born, French photographer Josef Koudelka (b.1938), including eyewitness images of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, have not been shown at a major U.S. museum since 1988. These documentary works as well as extensive selections from the photographer’s work going back to 1958—including his renowned series Gypsies, Exiles, and a variety of recent panoramic photographs—feature in the major retrospective exhibition Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, from June 7 through September 14, 2014. It is the first museum show ever to emphasize Koudelka’s original vintage prints, period publications and unpublished study materials.

Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, which takes place in the Abbott (182–4) and Bucksbaum (188) galleries on the ground floor of the Modern Wing, draws primarily on Koudelka’s extensive holdings of his own work. For decades, the photographer has exhibited new and recent prints of images that have grown iconic through frequent exhibitions and reproductions, while holding back the earliest, vintage prints—until now. For example, over the years there have been more than one dozen solo exhibitions of Gypsies and numerous reprints of the book of the same name, which has appeared in two editions and six languages. Among the rarities that are included in Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful is the only surviving maquette for the first book version of Gypsies, which Koudelka had to leave unfinished at his exile from Prague in 1970.

Koudelka’s habit of revisiting past projects while simultaneously advancing into new territory is squarely on view in Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful. Twenty-two original photographs from the very first show of Gypsies, held in Prague in 1967, are being displayed for the first time since that date. In an adjacent room, a different selection from the series, printed at a different size and in another way, also are shown. Similarly, extremely rare vintage prints of Invasion, made and circulated anonymously to the press directly following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, are being shown alongside much larger prints commissioned soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when Koudelka returned from exile and had his first post-Soviet exhibition in Prague.

Also on display are selections from his early experimental photographs and years of work with Prague theater companies, made during the flowering of the Czech stage and cinema in the 1960s.

Koudelka was born in a small Moravian town in 1938 and moved to Prague, then the capital of Czechoslovakia, in the 1950s. He studied aeronautical engineering while practicing photography obsessively from 1958; in 1966, he turned full-time to a photographic career. Already in 1961, Koudelka had begun his most ambitious life project, Gypsies, for which he visited Roma populations for weeks at a time, principally in Slovakia. The rigorously humanist pictures became his calling card at home and internationally in the later 1960s after being published in the Swiss magazine Camera and shown to curators and photography representatives around Western Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, Koudelka’s Invasion photographs became famous after they appeared worldwide to commemorate the first anniversary of the events of August 1968. Worried about reprisals even though the images had been published anonymously, Koudelka chose to leave his country in May 1970.

In exile Koudelka adopted a semi-nomadic existence. He followed village festivals, pilgrimages, and Roma gatherings throughout the United Kingdom (his country of asylum in the 1970s), Spain, Italy, and France (his principal residence from 1981, and country of citizenship from 1986), photographing throughout the year and printing largely in wintertime. The world-famous photography agency Magnum, which had stewarded publication of the Invasion photographs, became Koudelka’s home base and as he says his “family.” Koudelka’s photographs of these years were gathered together in 1988 as Exiles, which will also be part of the exhibition.

Since the late 1980s Koudelka has made panoramic landscape photographs in areas massively shaped by industry, territorial conflict, or—in the case of the Mediterranean rim—the persistence of Classical civilization. The final gallery of Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful will showcase six of these mural-size black-and-white images, as well as three of the impressive accordion-fold books that Koudelka has made of them since 1989, some of which stretch to more than 100 feet long.

Despite his peripatetic life, Koudelka’s moving and stunning photographs have made him one of the most sought-after figures in print and at exhibition. Honored with the French Prix Nadar (1978), the Hasselblad Prize (1992), and the International Center of Photography Infinity Award (2004), Koudelka remains today a leading member of Magnum.

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