A piece of art can rarely be completely separated from the life of the artist himself. Sometimes the bonds are tighter, sometimes this correlation is swept by the passing time, but sometimes the life story of the artist is so important that along with his work it makes up almost a new and distinct artwork. The recently rediscovered work of the Slovak photographer Vladimír Koštial is one of those accompanied with a good story.
Koštial was born in 1912 in Stará Turá, a small village near Nové Mesto nad Váhom, but he spent his childhood in Bratislava, where he also got trained as photographer in the studio of Emanuel Procházka. By family tradition, his life-long journey of a photographer was launched by his mother’s decision. To ignite a young photographer for photography was not too difficult, and at the age of twenty-five Vladimír Koštial opened his own photographic studio in Tatranská Lomnica. It was here where he was able to fully bind his artistic talent with love and admiration for the mountains which in the meantime were to become one of the core themes of his pictures. However, at that time it was not only the wild nature and its inhabitants that inspired him, but also a very complicated love affair with Júlia Schranková, which itself seems to have fallen out of a romantic tale and which, despite many pitfalls, eventually ended up fulfilled, and Júlia became both Koštial’s wife and a fine muse. The path to creating an interesting and exceptionally colorful work opened.
The following decades of Koštial’s life were rich in an intense photographer´s work, when he worked out from a basically unknown, small-town author to finally rank with the elite of the Slovak photography. Despite the tough years of World War II and the nationalization of his studio after 1948, Koštial succeeded in retaining a considerable amount of creative freedom. He carefully recorded the High Tatras landscape, its natural wealth and cultural heritage, the purity of the local inhabitants, their customs and rituals. Gradually, his attention was attracted basically by anything that was going on in the region.
It seems that Koštial´s creative efforts culminated in the 50s and 60s when he was also admitted to the Union of Czechoslovak Fine Artists and he was officially recognized by the socialist state as a reputable artist. His photographic view of the world at that time had to cope with many new challenges. The first was purely technical. At that time Koštial, as one of the first in Czechoslovakia, began to use color films, which had been linked almost exclusively with advertising until then. For artists with artistic ambitions, color photography was basically banned in Czechoslovakia until the time of normalization, and with the documentary pictures, it took even longer. Another challenge was related to the rise of Communism after February 1948 where the official doctrine became the art of so-called Socialist Realism. Although it was partly based on folksiness and folk art, nevertheless, it was folksiness that was devoid of the Christian tradition, which was particularly difficult to achieve in the mountainous, heavily religious, regions of Slovakia. And the third, Vladimír Koštial had to cope with the expanding tourism due to which the High Tatras and their inhabitants began to change rapidly.
So when we look back today at the Koštial’s work as a closed piece of art, we can find two distinctive authorial positions. One is clearly rooted in the tradition of ethnographic photography reflecting the life and habits in under-mountain villages, heavily linked with Christianity and a close attitude to the country. The second line of photographs are images capturing the dynamic expansion of tourism and modern lifestyle, full of camps, hotels, cars and entertainment.
During his life Vladimír Koštial presented his photographs in dozens of publications, countless magazines, as well as advertising brochures and postcards. He was a relatively well-known artist when his life story was hit by a severe personal loss – the death of his beloved wife Júlia. He basically stopped photographing in one day even ceasing to pay attention to his extensive archive. During his life Vladimír Koštial probably ran only a single solo exhibition. Fortunately, the story goes on and today we can appreciate the quality of his photographs thanks to the dedication of his son Vladimír Koštial and the photographer Lucie Petrůjová who are working together to process the whole archive. Hence we can meet a work as it is reinterpreted and reordered by contemporary curators, a work that is perhaps a bit different from the picture that would be set up by the author himself, but certainly a work of great historical and artistic quality closely tied to the time and life of his author.