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High-Art Amateur

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Czech Brought Avant-Garde Innovation Into Mainstream

These days, cameras are so common they come on cell phones, making photos a critical part of both regular life and high art.

At the beginning of the 20th century though, that was not the case. But a group of Czech and Slovak amateur photographers, led by Jaromír Funke, helped to transform the movement into a true modern art form, melding amateur fascination with avant-garde innovation.

This summer, Funke — and a select number of his compatriots — are celebrated in the National Gallery of Art exhibit “Jaromír Funke and the Amateur Avant-Garde,” which marks the first major showing of Funke’s work outside his Czech homeland in nearly a quarter of a century.

Matthew Witkovsky, who recently became the curator and chair of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Photography, previously served as an associate photography curator at the National Gallery, where he decided to bring the exhibition.

“[It was] a great starting point for a show,” Witkovsky told The Washington Diplomat, noting that the National Gallery had purchased a group of 15 works by Funke five years ago. “His art has gained increasing attention in the marketplace and among lovers of fine photography privately, so it seemed time to bring it to the fore in a museum setting.”

The three-room setup covers photographs taken in the 1920s and 1930s, placing Funk’s career “at the center of an important, if often overlooked, history of amateur photography that developed quickly in Central Europe between the wars,” according to Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery.

Initially, in the 1920s, Funke won acclaim for powerful yet simple urban images of his surroundings, including a staircase in Old Prague and a bridge being built in Kolín. Over time, his style became heavily influenced by Cubist painting and the “anti-art” photo experiments of American artist Man Ray, with abstract compositions and dramatic perspectives vastly different from other contemporary art.

Throughout his career though, Funke remained what the gallery describes as a “committed amateur,” never making a living off his work, while at the same time pioneering the use of avant-garde experimentation in amateur photography. The Czech Photographic Society, which Funke founded in 1924 as “an attack on the amateur mainstream,” became known for utilizing crisper and more sharply focused print representations than ever before — and for not trying to earn prizes and awards through the work, according to the exhibit brochure.

The son of a well-to-do lawyer, Funke was a law student when he became entrenched in the amateur photography movement. As a result of his influence, many other amateurs abandoned old-fashioned box cameras to start using faster, hand-held cameras.

In 1931, Funke became an instructor at the School of Applied Arts in Bratislava. This period of teaching, along with some of his students’ images, are included in the National Gallery collection. For the first time in a museum, the gallery is also displaying prints from Eugen Wiskovsky, Funke’s high school teacher who was inspired by his student to pursue photography, completing a well-regarded portrait of Funke that’s included here.

The final section of the exhibit examines the artist’s exploration of both social photography and surrealism in a series of images he completed during the 1940s. These photos illustrate, for example, a peasant village removed from industrial society, the gothic St. Vitus cathedral in Prague and, notably, the bloodied landscapes of World War II in “The Unsated Earth” (1940–1944).

Funke himself died in Prague in 1945 during the final weeks of World War II of an unexpected illness. Witkovsky said Funke’s legacy lives on and lies in bridging the world of avant-garde art and serious photography in an original, approachable way.

“In doing so, he made a case for the value of photography as modern art,” Witkovsky said, “something we take for granted nearly 100 years later, but which was by no means certain in 1920, when Funke began working with a camera.”

“Jaromír Funke and the Amateur Avant-Garde” runs through Aug. 9 at the National Gallery of Art, located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW. For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014