PRINT March 1990


When light penetrates
into the dark corners
of the so complicated
mechanism of silence, it
remains motionless before
the beauty of indifference
turned stupid in the
madness of this age.
—Jindřich Heisler
, On the Needles of These Days, 1941

THE 1980S ENDED in Czechoslovakia with thousands of street demonstrators jingling house keys, poignantly announcing the advent of unimaginable political reforms after 41 years of absolute communist rule. Because this heterogeneous nation is so firmly rooted within the ancient history of Central Europe, and Prague in so many ways represents the quintessential medieval city, it is quite easy to forget that Czechoslovakia, as such, was not established until the autumn of 1918, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is even more difficult to remember that the unbearable lightness of being an independent state lasted for the painfully brief period of only 20 years. The 1938 Munich Agreement between Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy effectively reduced the Czechoslovak Republic to the regions of Bohemia and Moravia, and by March 1939 the Germans had invaded the truncated remains of Czechoslovakia and declared it a “protectorate.”

The Czech photographer, theoretician, teacher, and editor Jaromír Funke died in 1945, the same year that Czechoslovakia was liberated from German occupation, and three years prior to its full absorption into the Soviet bloc. Funke was born in 1896; his life spanned, almost precisely, the period that is the subject of the major survey “Czech Modernism: 1900–1945,” initiated by curators Anne Wilkes Tucker and Jaroslav Anděl at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Funke’s rich, eclectic photographic production in the ’20s and ’30s, which includes examples of late Pictorialism, abstract compositions, and quasi Surrealism, offers an encapsulation of the dominant photographic interests of the avant-garde during the republic’s two halcyon decades of democratic independence.

This was an avant-garde fed by several sources. As a number of the catalogue essays point out, and as the work in question demonstrates, Czech artists were energized by theoretical and artistic advances throughout Europe and the Soviet Union: Alexander Rodchenko, László Moholy-Nagy, and Man Ray were all eagerly assimilated into the inchoate Czech Modernist idioms. A second influence came from the later developments within American Photo-Secessionism, transported to Czechoslovakia notably by Drahomír Josef Růžička, a physician living in the United States who had studied with Clarence H. White and who returned to his native country regularly between 1921 and 1936. Růžička brought with him not only his photographs, exhibited in Prague in 1925, but also American photo-publications and examples of the leading photographers’ work. Maintaining the purity of the medium was his insistent Modernist message. A third, and the most self-evident influence at the time, one that in fact affected all Czech photographers, was the by now declining tradition of Czech Pictorialism. Although not entirely a negative heritage, the academicism and mediocrity that had taken hold of Pictorialist ideas by way of the various photography societies and amateur photo-clubs was badly in need of overthrow.

The Modernist imperative of the dynamic surface—of formal tension distributed uniformly across the picture plane—announces itself as one hallmark of Funke’s photography between 1924 and 1932. Initially, this early “master” of the diagonal composition and tightly cropped frame directed his abstracting impulse toward minimal situations, giving simple found objects geometric order on the camera’s ground glass. In the mid ’20s, as this exhibition documents, he had a brief brush with cameraless photography, but the resulting photograms were perhaps a bit too serendipitous to sustain his interest. Subsequently, Funke’s experimental studio work led to a series of photographs dealing with light modulation and shadow projection, some of which create highly animated and suggestive figurations. That Funke was able to commit himself to such a wide range of visual modes was indicative of the times generally, but also of the absorbent, synthesizing character of the Czech artistic temperament.

Funke’s exact contemporary and friend Josef Sudek, for example, in addition to his moody and poetic large-format contact prints of subjectivist still lifes and somber landscapes, for which he is well known in the West, is also represented here, quite surprisingly, with a number of photographs that demonstrate a command of objective formalism akin to that of early Funke. From 1928 to 1936, as a member of the collaborative Družstevní práce (Cooperative work), which championed the movement of avant-garde photographers into the realm of the applied arts, Sudek produced a series of product photographs for such manufacturers as Ladislav Sutnar China. During these years, both he and Funke categorically resisted any physical manipulation of the photographic negative or cut-and-paste photomontage as violations of photographic purity.

Alphonse Mucha and František Drtikol are the most recognizable and remarkable names from the early Modern period of Czech photography. Of the two, Drtikol proves by far the more interesting and influential. He began his photographic studies circa 1900 and was thoroughly versed in the techniques of the Pictorialist tradition—including the estheticizing pigment (bromoil) and gum printing. Working in the Pictorialist mode, he was one of the photographers to modernize successfully its imitative soft-focus approach (once described by Funke as “asthmatic artiness”1), transforming it into the reproduction of pure erotic form. His most familiar and admired images of agile nudes in Art Deco studio settings, done in the ’20s when he himself would have been influenced by avant-garde initiatives, served as a vital model for younger photographers, which was precisely the case with Jaroslav Rössler, who apprenticed for three years under Drtikol (and his partner, Augustin Škarda), and continued working with him until 1925.

Rössler, the most diversely talented photographer of his generation (he was born in 1902), created some of the earliest and most strikingly original examples of Czech Constructivist photographs. His Bez názvu: komposice s lampou radia (Untitled: composition with radio tube, 1922), for instance, demonstrates a complete command over a decentered design that spontaneously identifies itself with the electro-mechanized world of the airwaves—here, form and function perfectly meld. Unlike Funke and Sudek, Rössler did not shun photomontage as a working method; and given his abilities and interests, he was greatly welcomed by the most challenging avant-garde collaborative group in Prague, Devětsil, as its first photographer member. Founded in 1920, Devětsil (Svaz moderní kultury Devětsil—Association of modern culture of the nine powers) temporarily coalesced the disparate threads of Czech creative spirit with its broad effort to elicit an affective visual poetry from Constructivist structures. When Karel Teige, principal spokesman and motivating force of Devětsil, said photography was not an art, he meant to liberate it from the stifling, airless atmosphere of bourgeois cultural expectations. Imagination was at the vortex of the Devětsil program; however, this center, with its utopian fervor for integrating various art practices and techno-media, could not hold. By the 1930s Devětsil’s unification of “construction” and “poetism” divided along two tracks: while the “construction” camp increasingly reflected the functional rationalism of architecture and design movements of the time, those who pursued Czech “poetism” eventually arrived at a full-blown, independent Surrealist movement.

Surrealism did not come to Czechoslovakia by name until the early ’30s, but found there a native home, a familiar subterrain, and a pictorial language that was mutually understood. Czech photographers had already crossed its nameless border and explored its provocative visual forms. In addition to Funke, who worked close to the perimeter rather than at the heart of Surrealism, and Sudek, portrayer of melancholia in velvet tonalities, there are also František Vobecký and Miroslav Hák, both of whom were conversant in the various Surrealist methods of releasing psychic apperceptions. Vobecký learned much from the chance operations of collage, cutting his own photos into free forms and reconfiguring them into complex, unexpected compositions that he then rephotographed. Among other inventive techniques, Hák transposed “automatic drawing” from the studio to the darkroom, creating an image directly on the print emulsion with developers and fixer.

But the Czech artist who created the most consistent and impressive body of Surrealist photographs is, without question, as this exhibition attests, Jindřich Štyrský. Štyrský’s method was simple and direct—a peripatetic camera and no manipulation of the negative or print. It is the lesson of Eugène Atget taken deeper; the everyday, external world becomes the transport into the unconscious. In this respect, Štyrský’s images are deceptive: no effects, only affect. Muž s klapkami na očich (Man with blinders, 1934) presents a transparent but ambiguous display of bibelots, seen perhaps in a store window, yet provides no certain clue as to who the man with blinders might be. From the mid ’20s on, Štyrský also produced collages that combined photomechanical material with frottage and drawing, and frequently in collaboration with Toyen (Marie Čermínová). Both were artists in exactly the inclusive sense to which Devětsil was committed, that is, they moved freely and productively between drawing, painting, collage, book design, and photography. During the four years they lived in Paris in the ’20s, they together developed, primarily through painting, what they called “Artificialism”—which might be described as an organic lyrical abstraction with metaphysical implications and a highly libidinal motor drive. This last quality did not fully disclose itself in their art until ten years later, when, across much of Europe, Eros played defiantly under the long shadow of Thanatos.

From the early days of Devětsil until well into the ’40s, book projects constituted a serious art form for the Czech avant-garde. Twenty-eight of Štyrský’s Surrealistic photographs, along with poems by Jindřich Heisler written in response to the images, were published in Na jehlách těchto dní (On the needles of these days, 1941). Much of this interdisciplinary activity was inspired and directed by Karel Teige, who, in fact, designed this modest yet prophetic volume. Teige, in his Surrealist incarnation, had transformed photocollage into a subversive art, particularly in a series of collages he executed in the late ’30s and early ’40s. Mixing images from Hollywood film culture and well-known photographs by the likes of Moholy-Nagy, for example, Teige’s collages serve to agitate the imagination and trouble the libido, but, at the same time, seem intended as a sendup of modern (straight) photography.

During the Nazi occupation those artists and photographers who had not emigrated, or died, or been arrested, continued to produce art clandestinely. Toyen worked together with Heisler on books and folios; Štyrský was productive until his death, in 1942. New artists’ groups formed, for example Skupina 42 and Skupina Ra, representing the resilience and defiance of the creative spirit and the will to transcend (not capitulate to) political terror. Funke photographed in cemeteries in search of suitable metaphors, and out in the countryside, which was considered a highly suspicious activity by the Germans. He died a few weeks before they were driven from Czechoslovakia.

It is when one thinks of these historical realities that the deficiencies of the specifically Modernist revisionism of this survey become most apparent. Orthodox Modernism excludes the social narrative; Czech photographers themselves did not. Only two examples of social documentary are included: Před transportem (Before the transport, 1942), by Jan Lukas, and Studenti demonstrujuící proti fašismu (Students demonstrating against fascism, 1936), by Karel Hájek. Between these we are offered some small but significant glimpses of the sociopolitical body of Czechoslovakia, but we are left with the desire for a more adequate representation of the social, contextual horizon than any two photographs can provide.

On the other hand, this ambitious survey has clearly lifted the veil from our Western, self-assured—even arrogant—notions of the known history of European Modern art, which for some time has been triangulated between Paris, Berlin, and Moscow. Czechoslovakian contributions to the theory and praxis of the avant-garde, perhaps most remarkable in the areas of interdisciplinary/multimedia productions and Surrealism, need finally to be acknowledged and factored into that history.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom are artists living in Houston who work collaboratively under the name Manual. They are frequent contributors to Artforum.


1 . Jaromir Funke, “From the Photogram to Emotion,” San Francisco Camera Quarterly 16, nos. 2–3, Summer/ Fall 1989, p. 17.