In 1939, a Czech artist takes a photograph of a country road near Kutná Hora. One school of critics says, “How could he bother with landscapes when horror was about to sweep across Europe?” Another school says, “Why can’t you see that the very modesty of this art quietly defies totalitarianism?” “Jaromír Funke and the Amateur Avant-Garde,” an exhibition now at the National Gallery of Art, represents the work of amateur Czech photographers from the period between the 1920s and the ’40s. It illustrates the possibilities and the limits of avant-garde art, and it poses a question central to all twentieth-century art: Did modernity free or fragment the individual? Or did it do both? The National Gallery show (which lasts till August 9) focuses on a school of “amateur” photographers led by Jaromír Funke, who appears in a photograph as a Kafkaesque figure with a wild coat and an improbable nose. Funke not only practiced avant-garde photography but also taught it to his fellow Czechs. He encouraged his students to focus on the formal characteristics of everyday objects and perspectives. One woman under his tutelage shot a picture of dark high-heeled pumps, unscuffed but slightly pushed out at the sides, the image combining commercial glamour with the effects of everyday wear. This is just one example of what would become an avant-garde trope: the industrial product that has somehow come to look rounded and organic. In another photograph, a big coil of industrial plastic gets shot to look like a discarded snakeskin. By the ‘40s, industrialism itself had aged and suffered, as witnessed by a photo of peeling factory walls, “Outside Smichov.”
Sometimes the photos seem like jokes or puzzles, reminding the viewer of the old newspaper feature that asked readers to identify familiar household objects seen in extreme close-up. The figure in Bohumil Št’astný’s “Glazier” is photographed carrying a window in which his own head is doubled. Unlike many other avant-garde productions of the same era, these photographs tend to focus on form rather than content: arc and point and shadow without meaning. The Czech amateurs whose work is collected here—some of them art students, some just knockabouts who wanted to try the new art of photography—produced work that is surprisingly apolitical. Although a wall caption notes that one photographer was violating the law just by having a camera on the street after the Nazis took over, very few of these pictures give any hint of their historical context. The exhibit includes a series of photos of the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, which served as a focus of Czech nationalism, and there’s one photo of a poor family titled “Poverty,” in case you were wondering what a poor family looked like. For the most part, however, these photos don’t record social facts. They withdraw, and focus on the observer and his—or, occasionally, her—inner consciousness. The wall captions remind us of our distance from this culture. The very same pictures the museum considers examples of harsh realism may strike the contemporary viewer as elegiac, even transcendent. This is sometimes because of technological-cultural markers (silver gelatin prints look nostalgic to us, no matter how they would have looked in 1935) and sometimes because of more basic aesthetic dynamic (no matter how avant your garde, if you show me sunlight streaming into a cathedral I’m going to have trouble thinking of your photo as nihilistic).
One beautiful photo shows a simple book with ragged pages, but solarized—the photo briefly exposed to light before being chemically “fixed” on the page. The book’s pages lift as if in a fire, turned shockingly white with blackened edges and silvered background. Is this the book’s destruction or its apotheosis? The most insightful choice the curators made was to dedicate a room to the conjunction of surrealist and photojournalist art. The curators argued that both styles relied on the belief that the photograph was a “document,” a valid portrayal of either inner consciousness or outer reality. The association is conveyed vividly if unsubtly by a photograph in which a big plaster eye holds dominion over an array of newspaper kiosks. Here, inner reality confronts society. Some of the photos in this show make it seem as though modernity completely obliterates individuality.
“Student Housing,” for example, shows a blank, sharply angled wall of indistinguishable windows. Yet the exhibition is strongest when it’s most insistent on the individual. Jaromír Funke’s two nudes are the two best pictures in the show. Both of them exemplify the contrast between modern and premodern aesthetic conventions. The first lady is soft, unmistakably fleshly and human, yet her sharply-angled arms and guarded expression place her well within modernist conventions for representing personhood. The other nude is smiling, her expression and pose far more conventional. But she’s photographed underwater, and the optical distortion of her form directs the viewer’s attention to his or her own perspective—the camera’s I. Funke’s nudes are at once classic icons of individuality and reminders of his era’s ambiguities.