2,000 works by Josef Koudelka acquired by four museums in Czech Republic

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2,000 works by Josef Koudelka acquired by four museums in Czech Republic
Josef Koudelka, Spain. 1975. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague; the National Gallery Prague; the National Museum in Prague; and the Moravian Gallery in Brno today announce the acquisition of over 2,000 photographs by Josef Koudelka by way of gift from the artist and his namesake non-profit Foundation. This unprecedented gift by a living artist to four major museums in the Czech Republic encompasses works spanning Koudelka’s career, the essential core of which was presented in his 2018 retrospective exhibition entitled Returning at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. The donation marks the largest artistic acquisition for the Czech Republic in over 40 years and aligns with the artist’s longstanding mission to keep his work together in public collections and to bring significant artworks back to his homeland.

Born in Boskovice, Czechoslovakia in 1938, Koudelka is one of the great representatives of the humanistic and poetic tradition that dominated European photography of the second half of the 20th century. His photographs of the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 were distributed by Magnum Photos and attributed to an anonymous photographer for many years—Koudelka used the moniker “P.P.” (Prague Photographer) for fear of retaliation against his family. It was not until 1984 that the artist took authorship for the photographs.

Koudelka began his work with the Romany community in 1962, which resulted in the seminal book Gypsies, edited and designed in collaboration with Robert Delpire and first published in 1975 by Aperture and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He turned full-time to photography in 1967. Koudelka left Czechoslovakia for political asylum in 1970 and shortly thereafter joined Magnum Photos, marking the beginning of decades of photographing throughout western Europe and North America. His next body of work, entitled Exiles, was first published in 1987. Those two groups of work, which feature intimate and personally resonant portraits of displaced communities across Europe, figure in the gift to the four Czech institutions. Scholarly and critical assessments of Gypsies and Exiles often point to their potency in articulating the emotional, psychological, and political implications of expulsion and dispossession.

Other key bodies of work in the acquisition are Beginnings, Experiments, Chaos, Theatre, Black Triangle, and a comprehensive survey of his panoramic photographs produced around the world since 1986. A catalogue raisonné of all the works in the gift will be published in a limited run of approximately 500 copies.

Josef Koudelka says: “I wanted there to be one place in this world, if somebody wants to see my pictures, they can come and see the best examples of my pictures. When I considered where this place should be, I thought it must be the country where I was born. I created the not-for-profit Foundation to care for my work in the future. It is my wish and decision that the Foundation functions independently with the responsibility of protecting and respecting the integrity of the work in these collections and other collections worldwide.”

Koudelka’s photography practice has long explored the social and environmental effects of political conflicts and industrial change. Widely regarded as one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, the artist has exhibited work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Palais de Tokyo, Paris; and other international institutions. He established the nonprofit Josef Koudelka Foundation in 2019 to protect the integrity of his life’s work and collaborate with international art institutions in placing major groups of his photographs in their collections. As the Foundation’s chairman, Koudelka has framed an ambitious mandate and program for his life’s work going forward.

Pace Gallery, which represents Koudelka, last exhibited the artist’s photographs in New York in 2015. That presentation featured 12 of his panoramas, which he began creating in 1986 as part of his examination of the toll of war, mining, and industry on the climate and environment. Since 2020, the artist has presented solo exhibitions at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris and The Museum of the Ara Pacis in Rome, Italy.

Additional international museum collections with works by Koudelka are the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Maison Européenne de la Photographie; Paris, the Museum of Modern Art; New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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