European modern photography is once again on view at the National Gallery of Art. “Jaromir Funke and the Amateur Avant-Garde” unravels the strands of Czech photography woven into the museum’s exhilarating 2007 survey, “Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945.”
The new show is smaller and less revelatory than the earlier exhibit, but more inclusive in its picture of photography between the world wars as both picturesque and abstract. In the first gallery, romantic, soft-focus views of cathedrals and other old structures are displayed opposite cubist still lifes of balls and cubes. They reveal how Czech amateurs practiced pictorialism — atmospheric images imitative of paintings and prints — and sharper modernism at the same time. The common goal of these differing approaches was to raise the still-developing medium of photography to the level of fine art.
Funke, who is represented by both styles, is certainly deserving of his own career survey but doesn’t hog the limelight in the show. More than half of the 70 photos on display are by other photographers, including the better known Josef Sudek, who took to the camera after losing his right arm during World War I.
Curator Matthew Witkovsky, who organized the “Foto” show and has since left the National Gallery for the Art Institute of Chicago, categorizes these Czech photographers as amateurs. The term isn’t altogether accurate, given their passion and commitment to the camera. Funke, who aborted a career in law and medicine, became an influential photographer, teacher and writer, and others eventually turned their hobbies into careers.
In 1924, the two friends joined other colleagues to launch the Czech Photographic Society, an anti-establishment group of modernist amateurs. This enterprise promoted “straight” photography, inviolate negatives and prints without retouching and cropping.
The idea was borrowed from the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz whose journal “Camera Work” was introduced to the Czechs by Drahomir Josef Ruzicka, who frequently traveled between Prague and New York in the 1920s. In the exhibit, Mr Ruzicka’s view of rooftops only hints at the bold expressions favored by Stieglitz.
As Mr. Witkovsky notes, the amateur movement in Czechoslovakia was largely conservative in valuing visual harmony over unpredictable experimentation.
Even at their most avant-garde, the photos are restrained and carefully composed as in the coiled hose in Funke’s “Spiral.” While admiring of Man Ray’s photograms (pictures made on photographic paper without the aid of a camera), Funke rejected the technique as forsaking technical mastery through the lens and the negative. Instead, he aimed his camera at shadows, reflected light and geometric forms to create mysterious pictures of an indeterminable dream world.
Such an abstract approach was taught by Funke at the School of Applied Arts in Bratislava and the State Graphic School in Prague. He established a Bauhaus-style photography curriculum at both institutions to prepare students for commercial careers.
Starkly ordered photos of plates, shoes and textiles reveal the German school’s influence on designs for advertisements. Strong, diagonal lines and off-kilter perspectives of buildings, including the Tower of Pisa, are also reflective of the Bauhaus approach.
Inspired by this vanguard, Czech amateurs fully embraced a modernist spirit in the 1930s. Standouts among the two dozen photographers in the exhibit include Milos Dohnany, whose dynamic “Study with a Cone” clearly bears Funke’s influence. Miroslav Hak scores points with his bold architectural views, including a spherical gas tank framed by boxy structures.
Another talent worth noting is Eugen Wiskovsky, a high school teacher who was encouraged to take pictures by Funke, a former student. His cropped, close-up views elevate mundane industrial objects such as electric insulators and chain-link fences into things of beauty.
In the last gallery, surrealism makes a brief appearance along with social reportage of the poor. Noticeably absent are experiments with photomontage, which became a highly visible form of modern art in Central Europe during the 1920s and ‘30s.
One of the high practitioners of this collage technique was the Czech writer, exhibit organizer and artist Karel Teige. He is merely represented in the exhibit by his 1943 book, “Modern Czech Photography,” featuring the work of Funke, Mr. Sudek and others showcased in the galleries.