Pavel Vavrousek

Nova Sedlica

14. 1. 2022 - 27. 2. 2022

In 1971-1981 Pavel Vavrousek documented Nova Sedlica, the easternmost village of then Czechoslovakia. He captured one of the last islands of rural togetherness where people lived traditional lives only minimally different from ones their ancestors led, in ever-present negotiations with nature. Where people worked with farm animals and their time unfolded in the rhythm of alternating seasons and Orthodox holidays. Vavrousek photographed a community not yet affected by unifying globalization. He noticed the vanishing and endangered and captured it while it lasted. The last village. For the next four decades, the photographs laid unseen in an archive.

Photos from the exhibition opening and launch of the book Nova Sedlica

The last village

Pavel Vavrousek (*1946) started photographing at the age of twenty-three thanks to his friend Pavel Stech. First, Vavrousek documented his friends hiking in the nature or during their weddings, and later he was like many drawn in by the world of the Romany people. He discovered his life’s theme in the easternmost north of Slovakia, in Bukovske vrchy below the Kremenec hill. In the fall of 1971, he visited the area for the first time when hiking with two friends. Vavrousek was fascinated by the landscape, traditionality of the village, Orthodoxy and hospitality and friendliness of the locals. As an introvert, he tended to struggle with approaching others with a camera and ask for their permission to photograph them. But there he was able to photograph naturally, organically. Locals did not feel violated by being photographed; on the contrary, they were delighted that their lives were a subject of interest to a foreigner who decided to live among them. “Here in the Czech Republic, it was much harder to come close to people than there. I’ve spent all my allocated photography time in Nova Sedlice. I was most drawn to the sense of otherness – it would’ve been hard to find a place like this in the Czech Republic, even then.” He continued visiting the family of “aunt” Zimovcakova for the next ten years. “It was important for me that the locals followed an Orthodox, i.e. the Julian calendar. It was inconceivable to me that I would not spend Christmas at home. This way I could spend Christmas home with my family and then leave to photograph Orthodox Christmas.”

In the post-war period and loss of the Subcarpathian Russia, untouched rural life in its authentic and true form could mostly be found in Slovakia only. Martin Martincek photographed Liptov’s mountaineers since the end of 1950s. The pursuit of an expressive visual shortcut and true reflection of the mountaineers’ hard lives lead Martincek to abstract graphism. Marketa Luskacova found her Slovakian village, one of the last islands of traditional rural life in Horehroni, at the southern foot of the Low Tatras. At that point she has already been photographing Slovakian fairs for four years. Within Czech Republic the rural setting has been systematically explored only in Krnovsko and Bruntalsko by Gustav Aulehl, or by Dagmar Hochova as a part of her magazine reportages. Miroslav Pokorny photographed the village Bukova and its surrounding Novohradsko in 1973-1988, and in 1978 he began focusing on the rural Bruntal region, the home of Jindrich Streit, then a director of a small school.

The hilly region of northeastern Slovakia is one of the most documented parts of Slovakia. Following Pavel Vavrousek, the region has been immortalized by local photographers who periodically returned there such as Jozef Ondzik and Tomas Leno (Starina, 1981-1986 and Rusins 1996-2003) or Lucia Nimcova. In the last three decades, the region has welcomed the repeatedly visiting Slovakian reportage and documentary photographer Andrej Ban.

Vavrousek had always been a city man, something which he was humbly and acutely aware of while visiting the rural region. His storytelling makes it clear that when entering the region, he found the place of his life’s feeling. He was struck by the villages with no asphalt roads, where everyday life was interconnected with nature, animals, and the world of Orthodoxy. He was drawn to the distinct faces of the locals, to the landscape without wires or electric poles, to the old cottages with no antennas. Coming from the atmosphere of moral decline of the normalization period, he was refreshed by the hard life lived in the virginal nature in accordance with deep faith.

Pavel Vavrousek captured the imagery of vanishing rurality. He photographed an environment not yet disturbed by the unifying globalisation and tourists, not only full of rich folklore. He aimed to capture the one, original, perhaps even the last village, and the last villagers. He focused on the disappearing and endangered and captured it while it still lasted. He presents us with a timeless image of a traditional village. He shies away from politics and negative aspects of the life such as alcoholism, poor housing conditions, lack of access to medical care, poor transport connection, creeping gentrification, and migration of the young toward cities. Vavrousek is not a socio-critical photographer, he doesn’t want to expose the viewers to the poverty and difficulty of the village life, but he seeks to expose us to a particular lifestyle which to a certain extent harmonizes with his values. To capture it while it lasts. Currently this photography collection presents Vavrousek as a supporter of the humanistic documentary values, which have had many followers in the Czech space since the mid-50s exhibition Family of Man. Vavrousek’s “Family of Man” resided in one of Bukovske vrchy’s village, at the then border between Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Soviet Union. The collection presents us with a raw world of the rural village which gives an insight into what life could have been like in a central European village many decades ago through themes of relationships with animals, agriculture, life in the rhythm of the seasons and Christian holidays and festivities. Throughout the process of photographing, Vavrousek aimed to consciously capture the life lived in accordance with the yearly cycle of spring-summer-autumn-winter, and in accordance with the Orthodox calendar. The editorial traces one year in the rural village from spring to the end of winter, as centred around the seasons and holidays determined by Christian milestones and nature’s processes.

After several years of photographing Nova Sedlice, in 1975 Vavrousek was admitted to FAMU, then the only Czech university offering standalone photography education. He attended the university while working. The same year marked the start of Vavrousek’s childhood friend’s Pavel Stecha’s seminars and documentary photography exercises at FAMU. Stech’s students include a strong generation of documentarians, amongst others Jaroslav Barta, Jan Reco, Dusan Simanek, Iren Stehli, Jan Maly, Jiri Polacek or Jaromir Cejka. They were all connected through the use of reportage candid shots, the emphasis on black-and-white imagery and refusing to interfere with the reality taking place in front of the camera. Vavrousek also takes over Stech’s photographic distance, a certain pictorial candour, and an emphasis on condensed description. As an author he wants to keep a certain distance and remain unseen behind the simple composition. He values quietly serving, introducing the viewer to the villagers’ customs and ceremonies and to capture them while the people who perform them are still alive. As if he wanted to combine the sober documentary poetry with a balladlike testimony.

Pavel Vavrousek’s work has until now only been recalled in a short note by an art historian Anna Farova written for Vavrousek’s exhibition in Prague’s Drama Club (Cinoherni klub) in the spring of 1981: “Pavel Vavrousek photographs village life seriously and meticulously in the form of distinct and clearly demarcated photographic imagery. Their atmosphere is one of finality and festivity. The quest to the village can become an unconscious seeking of something exotic, the pursuit of capturing something unusual and new is the first layer of mapping, which is followed by true understanding. The long-standing focus on this theme tends to overlay the initial exotic and aesthetic excitement. The author has been photographing in Slovakia’s Nova Sedlice, 900km from Prague, since 1971. Orthodox customs and traditions are still maintained here, which form the basis of the photographer’s capturing of the Christmas holidays. Vavrousek’s narration is not drawn out, he succinctly summarises into essence-like images that give rise to photographs classically balanced in their form and content.” As per the quote, the 1981 exhibition presented the author’s work capturing the village’s Christmas. In his subsequent and now legendary exhibition 9 & 9 in Plasy, Vavrousek introduced a selection of horse photography, which he re-exhibited during his independent exhibition at the Nerudovka Gallery.

Through the exhibitions at the foyer of the Drama Club and at Plasy in 1981, Anna Farova placed Pavel Vavruska alongside the strong documentarian generation such as Libuse Jarcovjakova, Dusan Simanek, Borivoj Horinek, Jiri Polacek, Dusan Palka, Pavel Stecha, Ivan Lutterer, Jaroslav Barta, Iren Stehli, Ivo Gil or Jindrich Streit, most of which graduated FAMU in the 1970s. With the culmination of his studies at FAMU where he presents his Nova Sedlice collection as his thesis, Vavrousek’s photography of the last village ends. And without knowing it at the time, so does his interest in documentary photography. After making an appearance in a few foreign photography magazines, the Nova Sedlice collection disappears from the photography scene for many years. After graduating from FAMU Vavrousek mostly focuses on his work and family, he returns to photography only sporadically to capture his other hobbies such as hiking, or to immortalise his bell ringer friends. “In the spring 1981 I graduated from FAMU. It was clear that I won’t be able to make a living as a photographer. Especially as a documentarian, and when it comes to commercial or architecture photography that made a living for Pavel Stecha was something I was neither good at nor interested in. I enjoyed my work at the Telecommunications Research Institute very much. I also got married, my son was born… Perhaps I didn’t have the right Koudelka-esque lifelong verve to pursue photography in spite of everything.”

When the borders opened after 1989, most Czech citizens travelled to first experience previously practically inaccessible western countries. In contrast many photographers such as Iva Zimova, Josef Koudelka, Jaroslav Pulicar, Pavel Hroch, Jarmila Simanova or Karel Cudlin headed east. They photographed in Poland, Transcarpathian Ukraine, and mostly in the Romanian Banat, a village not yet touched by tourism or large agricultural and animal production cooperatives, a village that attracted the photographers not only with its originally Czech inhabitants, but also with its rudimentary and to an extent still authentic relationship with nature and faith. It was the same yearning that drew Pavel Vavrousek to Nova Sedlice two to three decades earlier.

Tomas Pospech, curator

Pavel Vavrousek

Pavel Vavrousek was born on August 8th, 1946, in Prague. He is a graduate of the Secondary Industrial School of Electrical Engineering (1964) and FAMU’s extraordinary photography programme (1975-1981). He was employed at the Telecommunications Research Institute in Prague from 1964. He focuses on photographic documentary from 1971. At first Vavrousek photographed hiking trips, and in addition to his series on the Romany people he created a collection from the science institute showcasing a laboratory with animals, or a medallion of the painter Karel Chaba. His long-standing theme throughout 1970s has been the Ruthenian village Nova Sedlice, the easternmost locality of then Czechoslovakia. He presented the collection of Nova Sedlice photographs as his thesis at FAMU and thanks to the curator Anna Farova showcased it to the public at the Drama Club and at the join exhibition 9 & 9 in Plasy.

Tomas Pospech

Tomas Pospech (*1974) is a university pedagogue, photographer, art historian and curator. He graduated from the FPF Institute of Creative Photography of the Silesian University in Opava (1992-1998), and studied art history at the Faculty of Arts of Palacky University in Olomouc (1992-1995) and Faculty of Arts of Charles University in Prague (1995-1999). Since 1997 he is an associate professor at the FPF Institute of Creative Photography of the Silesian University an Opava. He is also the curator of the Museum of Applied Arts in Prague’s photography collection.