Art reviews: Jitka Hanzlová | Lucknow to Lahore: Fred Bremner’s Vision of India

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SIMPLE yet haunting portraits give us a window on an artist’s life in exile during the Cold War and her return to Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Iron Curtain

Jitka Hanzlová

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Lucknow to Lahore: Fred Bremner’s Vision of India

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Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Photgraphs have become as ubiquitous as words. They are all around us, constantly demanding our attention. Like words, too, they can carry information as an apparently neutral vehicle, but can also be elevated to make claims as art, a vehicle for metaphor, for meaning above and beyond the merely prosaic.

Ubiquity is no guarantee of meaning or value with images any more than with words, however. Nevertheless, like true eloquence, photograps do sometimes simply command our attention. Jitka Hanzlová’s pictures at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery have that effect. They seem simple, yet they are quite haunting.

Hanzlová is Czech. She was brought up in a rural village a long way from the centre of things. When she was ten years old, for instance, she remembers the Russian invasion of 1968 as a distant, inexplicable but frightening event. In 1982, at the age of 24, she left Czechoslovakia. An exile, she was unable to return home until 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Granted asylum in West Germany in 1983, she settled in Essen, the heart of the Ruhr and of modern industrial capitalism. Unintentionally perhaps, though geographically quite close, the Ruhr was in other ways as far as she could have gone from her rural communist home. She then studied photography in Essen – her choice suggested that perhaps by finding herself in an environment where she had no command of the language, of words, she decided the visual could serve her instead.

Her exile turned the ordinary displacement of memory into actual displacement, and although the clichés about photography, time and memory are endless, she does seem to have found a visual equivalent for that displacement, to have seen how the gap between memory and reality is like the gap between a photograph and what it records. Certainly the condition of being a stranger in a foreign land and the distancing and detachment that it entails seem to have shaped her photography. This was apparent straight away. When she returned home for the first time after the revolution, she decided to make her graduate project at university a study of her native village of Rokytník and its population of just 200 people, the friends and neighbours of her childhood. When she went back, she says, “I slowly felt my way around my long parked memories of childhood.” This first group of works is simply labelled Rokytník. The pictures themselves are anonymous. (Indeed nothing in the show is titled individually or identified beyond a collective title on the wall.) A woman with a shopping bag stands in the middle of the road and the middle of the picture, not exactly confronting us, but not responding to our presence either. A man stands at his door absorbed in thought and unaware of us. A small boy sitting on his potty, indeed it is a quite a throne, does look at us indignantly however. Other pictures are just details of ordinariness – washing on the line, a burning pile of leaves – but some are also quite strange. A blond boy stands in the middle of the road looking defiant behind a sword and shield. A girl dancing with a goat hints at a pagan rural world of nymphs and satyrs. The pictures are all simply composed, indeed they are often centred. The colour seems ever so slightly bleached, hinting at a kind of distance, the distance of fading memory perhaps; these photographs are not taken out of time as the conventional account of photography suggests, but rather they actually suggest time’s passage.

Later, in Essen, Hanzlová paired these nostalgic pictures of her childhood home with pictures of her new city and its inhabitants: the city under snow, a boy with a comic looking warily up at us, or a woman with an Afghan hound and a distinctly melancholy air standing among autumn leaves. Commissioned to make a series of pictures of Brixton, the results are similar, people – women and girls, in fact – confront us uneasily, in the middle of a city but apparently quite alone in empty streets.

In one striking group of works, she identifies her habitual vision of isolation and melancholy detachment with the cool objectivity of Holbein or Dürer. Since the beginning, photography, whatever impact it had on painting, was itself also shaped by painting’s well tried form. There was no break. When David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson made their calotypes, pioneering art photography, Sir Henry Raeburn was their model. Not long afterwards, Julia Margaret Cameron made a point of modelling her portraits on paintings. Hanzlová has done the same, creating a remarkable group of portraits (though still anonymous) in the starkly detached style of certain painters of the Renaissance. The similarities are striking.

By economy of composition and colour and concentration of detail in the face, she has mimicked the sharp-eyed economy of the first modern portraits and their strange blend of intimacy with detachment. A girl with her hair in a knot and wearing a black sweater is seen in profile against a grey wall; a boy in a dark scarf and sweatshirt standing against a concrete wall looks round at us as haughtily as any Renaissance prince. A man with heavy jowls looks as though he were a German merchant, once painted by Albrecht Dürer or Lucas Cranach the Elder, now reincarnated.

Equally striking, but quite different, are her photographs of the forest near her childhood home. In Britain it is really millennia since the forest really figured in our lives, but in eastern Europe even now it has a real presence, just as it did when it inspired the dark tales still told to children. This is recognisably Hanzlová’s forest, but when she knew it as a child, it was not simply frightening. It was a place to play. Indeed, she recounts how when she and her friends heard of the invasion of 1968, their reaction was to pin anti-Russian literature to the trees in the forest as though they felt intuitively that it possessed a benign power of its own. Now in her pictures it is still not sinister. The shadows under the trees are deep and dark, but there are also spiders making their webs and there is running water. Permanent, but constantly changing, the forest as she sees it is a living organism. Eternal against any human measure, it has its own much bigger sense of time than the one we bring to it; time not as it is measured, but as it is experienced; or as John Berger put it, writing about these pictures, “they are like another creature’s experience of duration.” A nice insight from a photographer, dependent on time as she is.

Also in the Portrait Gallery, a new display, Lucknow to Lahore: Fred Bremner’s Vision of India is devoted to the photographs of Fred Bremner taken in India at the end of the 19th century. This is documentary photography at its best and most interesting. Bremner’s subjects – or perhaps the Bremners’ subject, for in at least one case the photographer was his wife Emily – were the people and landscapes of the Raj. There are pictures of tranquil markets, fishermen with their nets and boats, and of wild-looking Afghan soldiers – at this stage in history, apparently on the British side. His Highness the Khan of Kalat with his sons is a particularly fierce- looking local dignitary. So in her way is the Begum of Bhopal, although apparently she was in fact fervently Anglophile. Her photograph, taken in the harem is definitely the work of Emily Bremner. No man would have been granted such access and have lived to tell the tale.

• Jitka Hanzlová until 3 February 2013; Fred Bremner until 7 April 2013