Book Review The Epic Love Story of a Warrior. By Peter Puklus Reviewed by Adam Bell Framed as a comically grandiose romance, The Epic Love Story of a Warrior by Peter Puklus ambitiously covers almost 100 years of European history in a metaphoric collage that references everything from World War I to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Reviewed by Adam Bell
The Epic Love Story of a Warrior.
Photographs by Peter Puklus.
SPBH, London, England, 2016. 468 pp., color and black-and-white illustrations, 6x7¾".
Despite our best attempts, history must always be rewritten for the present—to clarify what we’ve missed or misunderstood, to help address contemporary challenges, or simply to recast it in personal terms. In the wake of Brexit and a destabilized and war-torn Middle East, Europe and the European Union face grave challenges. The promise of a peaceful and prosperous Europe is no longer assured and those who hold onto that dream must fight and remember how we got here. Framed as a comically grandiose romance, The Epic Love Story of a Warrior by Peter Puklus ambitiously covers almost 100 years of European history in a metaphoric collage that references everything from World War I to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Moving in and out of the studio, Puklus’ novelistic photobook attempts to visualize the arch of European history in an intensely personal and idiosyncratic way, refashioning a history for the present and future.
Covering a wide range of subjects and monumental in scope, the brick-like book is arranged into four chapters with a short introduction. Themes and images repeat, like nudes and studio still lifes, and sequences of images (again often nudes posed like heroic statuary) are seen from various angles or in short cinematic bursts. While the historic scope of the book is revealed in the dated chapters, any direct connection between the disparate subject matter and exact historic events is fairly obtuse. As the publisher’s text tells us, a “cluster of nails [in the book’s opening sequence] marks the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.” Like many of the references, it is unlikely any reader will deduce these connections on their own. Instead, the photographs allude to various historical sources and images that have been refracted through Puklus’ personal history. The stilted, propped up nudes recall Soviet realist statuary and the clumsy, angular studio constructs of plywood slyly point to the utopic architecture of the former Soviet bloc.
Although the book starts in the back and moves to the front chronologically from 1918, the book can be read in either direction. Backwards or forwards, history is reimagined and recast. The only text, aside from the chapter titles, is a single poem that is spread piecemeal throughout the book, one letter at a time, at the bottom of almost every page; reassembled, these letters form a poem by the Russian poet Marina Ivanova Tsvetaeva. A grim, but hopeful poem, Untitled (How many people fell in this abyss…) forcefully confronts the tragic events of the early 20th century and asserts the poet’s humanity in the face of an uncertain future. Deliberately obscured in its graphic placement, the poem is a cipher or subliminal undertone throughout the book. Just as the chapters and images require scrutiny and repeat visits, the poem takes work to piece together.
Although the book makes numerous references to Modern art and contemporary photography, the most appropriate point of reference might be theater (think Eugene Ionesco or Richard Foreman). Again and again, history is dramatically (and abstractly) staged and reenacted in Puklus’ studio for the camera. Like these playwrights, Puklus’ work pulses with a dark humor. The female (and occasional male) nudes fumble in the studio and pose absurdly. Crude studio sculptures are paired with tired Brutalist structures. Other times, we simply see the messy edge of the seamless or studio set-up. These farcical reenactments take us behind the curtain partially deflating the stated ambition of the book, but also pointing to the provisional nature of all histories and their inherent stagecraft.
Puklus tackles the darker events of the past century just as obliquely as the rest of the book’s subjects. Naked and prone bodies resemble corpses prepped for burial or autopsy, and a solitary shoe recalls the personal belongings of Holocaust victims or refugees that have been cast aside. In other instances, these events appear more forcefully, such as the naked man with an erection who wears a black hood, gloves and socks and raises his hand in the Nazi salute or the disrobed women kneeling on the floor with her hands bound behind her back. Other images simply show guns or what appear to be graves.
In the end, it is important to remember that this is a love story. Although never stated, the belovéd is most likely Europe, and the hero, who is also never named, is Puklus. It is also countless others willing to fight for their beloved. Set against the backdrop of European history, The Epic Love Story of a Warrior has the ambition of a multi-generational family novel but in the end is an absurdist costume drama. Playfully drawing on the rich trove of images from Europe’s past, Puklus crafts a history all his own. Although we may be unable to decipher all Puklus’ images, he asks us to look back, and as we struggle to create meaning from a tumultuous past, move forward into an uncertain future. —Adam Bell
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer. His work has been widely exhibited, and his writing and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Afterimage, The Art Book Review, The Brooklyn Rail, fototazo, Foam Magazine, Lay Flat, photo-eye and Paper-Journal. His books include The Education of a Photographer and Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts. He is currently on staff and faculty at the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Art. (www.adambbell.com and blog.adambbell.com)