"It took Picasso all his life to understand Cubism. It is impossible to reach greatness in two years or even ten." — Vilem Kriz
Vilem Kriz in his backyard in 1978. Photograph by Michael Goldberg.

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Monday Feb. 12, 2001

Vilem Kriz: Surrealist, Artist, Inspiration

An obscure photographer symbolizes artistic integrity

By Michael Goldberg

In my office is a photograph of an odd-looking man, wearing an antiquated suit, white shirt and tie. He has a goatee, and longish grey hair parted down the middle, each half combed back and to the side so you can see his forehead. He is looking down, in deep thought. Vilem Kriz sits on an old stool, on the grass, in front of a fence that looks like Jackson Pollock painted it. He is wearing striped socks. It is a strangely surreal image.

To me, Vilem Kriz is the patron saint of artistic integrity. It has been many years since I lost touch with Mr. Kriz, a surrealist photographer who for his entire adult life pursued a vision that was out of fashion, but I think of him often.

Two of his photographs, gifts he made to my wife and me, hang on a wall in my office. I look at them every day. One is of an eye, gazing from an open sardine can; the sardine can sits — floats? — on a murky background that makes me think of the universe. The other appears at first to be of a man, gazing. At what? The future? The past? A pretty woman? His regrets? The cosmos?

The second photograph, taken in 1946, is actually of the side of a building in Paris, the city where Kriz lived during the late '40s and early '50s. Much of the photo is taken up by a poster, depicting the man's head, pasted to the side of the building; he peers over glasses with thick, black oval frames. But some of the poster has been ripped from the wall, and beneath it are portions of other street posters. You can see words; I have no idea what they mean.

Both photographs are quite mystical — otherworldly scenes from a place that has existed only in Vilem Kriz's mind. He called the surrealistic world he created through his photos "Sirague City."

It Takes A Whole Life

"Why don't I give up surrealism?" he said during a 1978 interview. "Typical American question! People change from year to year and then what do they know? Nothing! Our time has so few creative people because people go from one thing to another. They just follow what's in fashion. This is very wrong! It took Picasso all his life to understand Cubism. It is impossible to reach greatness in two years or even ten. IMPOSSIBLE! It takes a whole life!"

I am certain that if you had tried to explain "Internet time" to Vilem Kriz, he would have laughed in your face.

Kriz was born in Prague in 1921, and grew up there. Surrealism as a movement already existed in Paris at that time. He once told me that he was taking photographs with a wooden box camera before he could read or write. When he was 14, his father gave him a large-format Linhof camera, which he used from then on. As a teenager he admired from afar what was already a maturing artistic movement in Paris, eventually moving there after World War II. He became friends with Jean Cocteau, who once wrote that Kriz had "breathed into his camera a heart and a soul." And Jean Renoir said of Kriz, "You know how to discover reality behind the masks which are hiding this world surrounding us."

Absolutely Blank Years

He never grew bored with surrealism, even as the movement died, becoming part of history. In both Prague and Paris, walking the streets, he found what he wanted to photograph: gargoyles and old dolls, statues and shadows. He exhibited his art in both Prague and Paris. And then, in 1952, he moved to Berkeley. "Why I left Paris, I cannot say. One does not always know why he is doing things. I cannot definitely rationalize every act. I think it must be a miserable life if one can, because this means you never risked anything, never gambled. Just probably a very scared little man. Well, these people definitely do not move the world."

In the U.S., as an unknown photographer, Kriz could not make a living with his art. And there was nothing that caught his imagination to photograph. The surreal that was everywhere in Europe was nowhere in the U. S.

He took a job as a janitor, and then a photographer's assistant. For a time he lived in New York working in the photography department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He recalled his first decade in America as "hell, absolute hell. I often thought of suicide. I never even took out my camera. Those were absolutely blank years."

In 1964 he returned to Berkeley and with the help of friends landed a teaching job. He had also begun to make headway in American art circles. The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art both purchased photographs for their permanent collections. In 1965, he began taking photographs again — all of the images that followed were taken either inside his house, or in the small yard behind it. "Outside my backyard the atmosphere which I am creating in my photographs does not exist," he told David Featherstone, during an interview that appeared, in part, in the book "Vilem Kriz: Photographs."

A Rusted Typewriter

I went to his house just once. It was in Berkeley on a small street, not far from the intersection of University and Shattuck. It was a modest house, and I thought that a great artist such as Kriz deserved better. He had some kind of big dog. "Back into your cave!" he shouted at the dog, who retreated into another room. At the rear of the house was his darkroom. At one point he pulled out a box of his photographs. He used thick paper with a flat finish. Some of the pictures had a slightly brown tone. They were amazing, each seeming to reveal something of life's mysteries.

We went out into the backyard, and there in the grass were props, some already used in photos, others awaiting the day when he would need them — among them a rusted typewriter, a rake, a bottle with a paper eye pasted to it. We walked over to the fence. I think it was his idea to sit in front of it. He was impatient, and I was nervous as I took his photograph, so I spent no more than a minute. That was all it took.

I made an 11 x 14 print of that photograph. I've had it for over 20 years. During my years as editor in chief at SonicNet it hung on a wall of my office — a reminder. But of what? I didn't think that much about it. Only recently, did I understand the strength I've drawn from that photo of Vilem Kriz, the artist who never compromised.

Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.