A flash of avant-garde, or Jaromír Funke

"But mere reality can also become a pretext for something completely different, which has nothing in common with the given reality. Photography is also capable of awakening visions derived by the intentional emphasiz-ing of some object, or by simple positioning motley elements against each other in order to make them merged into something completely different, or, by confronting two worlds, new possibilities are being open for us."
Jaromír Funke
(From Pictorialism to Emotional Photography.
"Fotografický obzor" XLIV, 1936, p. 149.)

A small popularizing monograph by Antonín Dufek has been brought out by the publishing house Torst on Jaromír Funke, a supporter of far-reaching innovations of Czech inter-war photography. His legacy ranks among the most inspired avant-garde expressions in the world.
The first three books on the photographer had been published during the socialist era and the period has left its mark on them. The oldest monograph on Funke was written fifteen years after his death (Lubomír Linhart: Jaromír Funke. Praha, SNKLHU 1960); Funke was taken up by the artist's contemporary and that was of great significance: as a Marxist aesthetician Linhart could - unlike the theoreticians of the period who had different opinions - slowly put through the rehabilitation of the avant-garde representatives. Therefore he was as early as 1958 entrusted with the introductory essay in the catalogue of retrospective exhibition of Funke’s life’s work. (The choice of exhibits was carried out by the photographers Josef Ehm and Josef Prošek.) The retrospective was presented by the Photographic Cabinet of Jaromír Funke of the House of Art of the City of Brno. The establishment of the permanent gallery of photography within the network of cultural institutions meant that photography was officially respected as a medium which allowed adequate artistic expressions. That was something new. The naming on Funke’s honour had become the manifestation of the avant-garde return to the scene: in the 1950s and also in 1940s it had been proscribed - by both Stalinist and Nazi censors.
The oldest photograph (from less than a hundred of reproductions in the first Funke monograph) dates from the year 1922. It was taken by a twenty-six-year old novice in art. Also the choice made by the photographer Dagmar Hochová for the second monograph begins with the date 1922 (Ludvík Souček: Jaromír Funke. Prague, Odeon 1970). The introduction to the album lacks scholarly information about inter-war artistic and social efforts. Although the number of reproductions was increased (by a third in comparison with the first book), ill-considered cross-sections had been employed again.
The picture of the inner line of Jaromír Funke’s creative development remains unclear in all his monographs published by communists; for the synthesis of his life’s work was not captured by the third book either (Daniela Mrázková, Vladimír Remeš: Jaromír Funke. Fotograf und Theoretiker der modernen tschechoslo-wakishen Fotografie. Leipzig, VEB Fotokinoverlag 1986).
As the most revealing publication concerning Jaromír Funke’s heritage remains (after eight years since its publication) more than two-hundred-page Czech-English catalogue from the Moravian Gallery in Brno, prepared by Antonín Dufek for the exhibition Jaromír Funke. Pioneering Avant-garde Photography (1896-1945) / Průkopník fotografické avantgardy (1896-1945). Dufek's introductory essay from the year 1996 Jaromír Funke: Avant-garde Photographer, Theorist and Pedagogue subtitled From a monograph in progress has 16 pages of A4 format (in a new monograph of half-size format Dufek’s introduction takes 16 pages as well). The catalogue from the year 1996 has only 16 whole-page pictures; in a small format, however, it includes 142 reproductions of all exhibits of the retrospective held on the occasion of 100th anniversary of the artist's birth. They date from the years 1922 to 1944. Funke had taken photographs since his childhood, though, while about three hundred positives have been preserved from the years 1920 to 1921. The fresh monograph of Torst begins with the reproductions from the year 1923 and includes 82 of them in total.
The dominating components of Dufek’s research work from the mid-1990s are extensive chapters of Anthology / Antologie (that is of theoretical articles by Jaromír Funke) and Biography / Biografie (where commentary is interspersed with excerpts from correspondence, diaries and other sources). Antonín Dufek rightly presents the theoretical activities of Jaromír Funke, as far as their significance is concerned, as parallel to his photographic contribution. Thanks to the researcher Funke’s opinions, dispersed in a number of specialized periodicals, or in the daily press, have been concentrated. Thus the artist's contribution to the development of thought on photography and reflection of visuality in general has come to the fore. Incidentally, Funke himself had ranked himself among those who literally push photography forwards: “And the development goes on…Do we know where it is, do we know which way it will go? We can guess! The very goal of photography is multiplied and heightened by cyclic arrangement of photographs. Photography can bear these requirements, because it can fulfil them.” (J. Funke, From Photogram to Emotion. Foto-grafický obzor XLVII, 1940, No. 11, p. 123.)

Funke’s quoted proclamation of photographic series is usually related to the legacy of László Moholy-Nagy. For instance, Anna Fárová has written: “the principle of cyclicity, expressed by Moholy-Nagy in the study published in the Telehor magazine (Brno 1936) : ‘… a series aimed at a certain target can be the most powerful weapon, but also the most tender poem.’ And Funke responds to that in the article From Photogram to Emotion in the year 1940.” (See Anna Fárová: Avant-garde and intellectual Czechoslovak photographer Jaromír Funke. In: Funkeho Kolín, Kolín, Regional Museum, 1993, non-paged).
Dufek’s discovery of Funke's manuscript reflection from the January 1924 makes clear the photographer’s practical promotion of a sequence of photographic shots inspired by cinematography. On the one hand, it precedes Moholy-Nagy's Malerei Fotografie Film (1925), but, primarily, it allowed Funke's putting an end to his early artistic creation in the spirit of amateur pictorial tradition. Precisely with the year 1923 Dufek dates the change of Funke's orientation. It is manifested in still lifes, which gradually pass to the abstract plays of shadows of the late 1920s, which are perhaps the most admired nowadays. Let Funke’s period commentary explain his artistic points of departures: “What the pictures is but a photograph, a faithful print of an object, whose arrangement is artificially changed, which plays its own role here and which has to be shown in the shot that is sharp and perfect in technical respect. The object is photographed, it is shown to the viewer and the ideal to be achieved is the arrangement of objects creating continuous space for the action so that subtitles can disappear. Indeed, if arrangement is bad (actually, it is direction in a film), the film itself is bad. And the viewer also puts emphasis just on this aspect. I would refuse with thanks if progress in film was searched for in the structure of a shot and if something had been done with it.” Let those words be understood as a response to Teige's paper Foto Kino Film. It was read by Funke immediately after its publication (spring 1923 at the latest): as part of one of the period compositions he made use of the open Collection of New Beauty Život/ Life, in which Teige printed a sample of rayogram and expressed a forecast: “As soon as the cinema gets hold of Man Ray’s invention in the way it had appropriated hitherto all photographic achievements, it will cross the threshold of a new, unsuspected sphere.” Well, photogram-based cinematography rightly seemed abstruse to Funke. The photographic base of a film medium quite suited him: “And let us admit that on numerous occasions we have caught ourselves feeling envy, when on the screen there were beautiful shots taken in nature or directed in plain air, feeling envy in view of with what ease (they) were shot in a film, hundreds of them with perfection and brightness of a recording equipment. And shots are always perfectly cut from the whole, since it is directed with a discriminating eye of an experienced director. Yes, it is directed. If photography is to follow the spirit of the period, it has like the pictures to turn its attention to direction and learn more from the film than from theatre directors, and not from painters, which had been a basic mistake. And when an amateur goes to a painter for advice, it should always concern the question of direction, not of expression, which cannot and must not be changed by photography.”
The announcement of a new vision culminates in the manuscript in the words: “For the difference between film and photography is very insignificant, actually, photography is also a print of a moment, and it presents an album of moments and the film an album of moments with their temporal division. By and large, it is the same. Therefore it is necessary to take lessons in the pictures (…) nonetheless, there are thousands of possibilities how to arrange in front of an objective the objects of one's world, ever new and different in most varied arrangements and make a collection of moments. (…) In order not to make art from one photo,” Funke concludes, “an exhibition should rather be a series of albums, surprising more by quantity than by quality of a photo, albums, in which the individual personality would be summarised in objects he or she is fond of, which were encountered or searched for by him or her.”
The artist who claimed that “the thing that was solved once already cannot be repeated”, related himself to direction in var-ious ways over all seventeen years which had passed between his first and last theoretical proclamation. Funke had stood up for the assessment of a specific character of the chosen medium. He had drawn on the precondition that “photography is to remain photography”, while in cyclic segments he had seen a potential development of expression.
So the pedagogic legacy of Jaromír Funke had scored satisfaction with the aid of Dufek, even if Funke’s colleague, Josef Sudek, at one time had to make a certificate on their collaboration, without which Funke would not have been able to enter upon a teacher's career: for the most versatile personality of Czech photography, the man with phenomenal art historian knowledge had not found enough perseverance for the institutional crowning of his university education.
Funke started his pedagogic career at the School of Arts and Crafts, Bratislava, in the autumn of 1931. To the date February 1st, 1935 he was redeployed by the Czechoslovak minister of education and national culture to the State School of Graphic Arts in Prague. Soon afterwards the school in collaboration with Funke and the director Ladislav Sutnar brought out an interesting publication in the spirit of new objectivity Photography Sees the Surface; V. V. Štech contributed in it with the text The Photographed World. Its reprint was published in the Torst publishing house last year.

Inspired by recording shadows cast by objects which stood outside the shot, Funke specified in the end objections against the identification of a photographic or film record with a motif, which at first was shared by him at least in the form of the idea of close relationship: “photography is rather a print than an image.” Nevertheless, “it does not concern plain reality, but the reality which being photographed is negated as physical reality”.
Funke presents a retrospective explication of his personal activities in his most frequently printed text from the year 1940. Summarization of the article From the Photogram to Emotion, with which Dufek’s anthology on Funke is closed, figures also in the second volume of the trilogy Theorie der Fotografie, representing opinions of the world - wide leading representatives of the field. (Compare: J. Funke: Vom Fotogramm zur Emotion. In: Wolfgang Kemp, Theorie der Fotografie II, 1912-1945. München, Schirmer / Mosel 1979. In English: J. Funke: From the Photogram to Emotion. In: A. Fárová: Jaromír Funke, Köln, Rudolf Kicken Galerie 1984.) Funke’s self-presentation in this article is not particularly confusing because the author presents himself as first among non-equal, but it is misleading rather due to the dictate of causality. Funke begins a generalizing survey of the actions of the last two decades with “from the year 1922”, starting from the evocation of pictorial fascination with the beautiful prints to achieve the formulation: “In principle, the mission and purpose of photography are not doubted today. Photography is a document and it is ne-cessary to regard it in this way. Photography depends on its spatial model - therefore it should near that model as much as possible in its photographic rendering.” Nevertheless, in accordance with the title the aim is to achieve emotional photography, “with which the development has culminated for the present.” Funke’s definition of the photographic expression of emotion is simple: “It is everyday reality cleared of simple description.”
Is reality for Funke only an impulse (pretext, inspiration) for photographing - or does he want rather capture the reality faithfully in a documentary way? Many would say it is either one way or the other, but not Funke: “…every good photographer works successfully in several fields of photography at the same time”. In the new Torst monograph, Dufek comments on it as the Funke’s only approach near to postmodernism. In my personal opinion, more can be read from Jaromír Funke’s actual photographic works.
Funke may be seen as an electric discharge, which explodes to allow a general pattern emerging from short paths of single sparks. However, with the epicentre falls all causality that is described as objective process by the photographer himself.

Texts of artists tend to be focused on a personal creative activity and most often they subjective poetics... History of photography definitely does not look the way it had been outlined by Funke in order to take the central role in it. The sequence of steps taken one by one, and oriented from the lower to the higher, does not allow revivals, that means nor the orientation espoused from the beginning of the war by Funke’s great colleague Josef Sudek.
But the acquired knowledge, however, is not simply out-dated and then thrown out forever. Nor the points of view determining the approaches to photography in 19th century have been put aside in every respect and replaced by other systems of perception and explication. Presumably it is not allowed by the nature of current practice.
Jaromír Funke lost his life when he was less than forty-nine years old, when during the air raid in March 1945 he could not be provided in time with the necessary operation. His untimely death personifies in a hyperbole the central-European art history repressed by totality, the art that did not manage to make synthesis of an avant-garde exploit. One may speculate as to which direction the development of Funke’s work would take. It is sufficient, though, that it is clear where the artist managed to lead his artistic creation. From the end of the 1930s Jaromír Funke had been looking for austerity comparable with that which was achieved by Josef Sudek after his experience with modern versatility.

Comparison of both above-named creators of Czech photo-graphy allows understanding the transition of the modernist period to the post-modernist era. The sensitivity metamorphosis can be watched step-by-step, when looking in retrospective. The synthesis had been prepared not by Sudek only, with whom its finish can be exemplified, but by both protagonists.
Between the wars Funke and Sudek had forced their ways through the texture of modernist workshops: purism, constructivism, new objectivity, functionalism, and also poetism and surrealism. They had undergone an awe-inspiring transformation from the heritage of taking a picture in a non-personal manner usual in the 19th century, to the method of making a picture in individualized way. Their early works, created in the vicinity of the central Bohemia town of Kolín during their common walks, bear a touch of civilism themes of the 1940s. And it was so despite the fact that if compared with the civilism itself, in positive processing the works not always had relinquished the me-thods of creative process, including shade variations. Photograms were tested and rejected by Funke in a similar way (1926). Aspi-ration of further extension of horizons had led his restless spirit to fast alternation of subject - matters and searching the changes of their rendering. As late as the mid-1920s he had put together still-lifes from geometric bodies, thereupon he approached from depicting objects to illusive plays with shadows of Abstract Photo / Abstraktní foto (1927 - 1929). Along with non-object visions he had developed imaginative photography, and namely in two ways. On the one hand they were the shots of assemblages fixed as Glass and Ordinary Things / Věci skleněné a obyčejné (1928), or Composition with a Kingfisher / Kompozice s ledňáčkem (1928 - 1929), on the other hand with the shots influenced by surrealism and grouped under the title Reflections / Reflexy (from 1928). Soon afterwards Funke turned his attention to changing functionalist architectures to the areas of diagonal constructivist compositions. These are paradoxically parallel to the surrealism of the cycle Time Persists / Čas trvá (1930 - 1934).
Coexistence of the rational and irrational poles of creation continues to be an interpretation challenge with Funke. The shift from empathetically rendered genre-shots of the first half of the 1920s to the sharper look during the world Depression, especially at the beginning of the 1930s is apparent and easily understandable. Jaromír Funke was at that time attracted by the possibility to serve to social criticism with the realist photography. He became a co-worker of the Left front group Film-foto and partici-pant of the radical Exhibition of Social Photography with the catalogue by Lubomír Linhart (1933), presented in the cities of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia; in Bratislava he joined the group Sociofoto. In parallel of social realism can be seen the due appreciation of simple natural motifs of his early works. Various landscapes of the 1930s, especially Primaeval Forests / Pralesy (1937 -1938), rank in general among the peaks of the photography of the period. They express the essence of all previous experience with image composition and concentrate also the life knowledge of Funke: “Oddly enough, the present period goes ahead very fast in discovering the interesting things originating in technology; but as fast as newly discovered methods follow each other, just as fast they are ageing. Therefore we are not surprised any more by those different photograms, inversions, solarizations and combinations of negative and positive, as might seem at first sight. Everything, however, is saved by the true photographic work, and it would be good to increase its technology even more in the interest of the matter.” (See: J. Funke: Photo-group of Four Exhibits. Fotografický obzor XLVII, 1939, No. 10 - 11, p. 116.) Photographs from Carpathian primeval forests are from margin to margin filled with the drawing that bears existential meaning, emphasised by the anti-war collection Unsated Earth / Země nenasycená (1940 - 1944).
We have seen that twenty-eight-year-old Jaromír Funke had already proclaimed as his program the projection of his inner world to photographs. He had changed his life’s work to the intellectual pictorial autobiography. He had constructed it not only under the impression of external impulses (frequent portraits of friends and acquaintances), but in particular on his own spiritual motifs. What is interesting here is that this happened under the influence of cinematography, which to a great extent merges with impersonal industrial production.•

Josef Moucha

All the photographs accompanying this article are from the monograph Jaromír Funke by the publishing house Torst, Prague. ISBN 80-7215-211-4.