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Exhibition

Masters of Czech Avant-Garde Photography

Authors: Drtikol, Funke, Rossler, Wiškovský
Pálffy Palace (show Contact)
6. 11. 2015 - 6. 12. 2015
Curator: Vladimír Birgus

            France, Germany, and Russia are with good reason generally considered to be the centres of Avant-garde photography between the two world wars. Nevertheless, in Czechoslovakia in the same period many outstanding works of photography were also being made; not merely imitative of foreign models, they are strikingly original contributions to the development of art photography. Some of them have only recently come to be fully appreciated.

            František Drtikol (1883–1961) was the first Czech photographer to achieve world renown. His earliest works are influenced strongly by Art Nouveau and Symbolism. Even though he himself reproached Avant-garde artists for an excessive emphasis on experimentation with form at the expense of ideas, many of his works from when he was at his peak, 1923–29, were markedly influenced by Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, abstract art, and modern dance. The painted backgrounds of his nudes from the preceding period were then substituted for by geometric decoration which he designed himself and commissioned the workshops of the National Theatre in Prague to make. By giving his models taut ropes to hold, Drtikol emphasized dynamic poses; elsewhere he created the illusion of motion by photographing them with their legs spread wide, and completing the compositions with crossed ropes, bars, and shadows. The dynamic quality was also intensified by using elevating stage platforms tilted diagonally and having his models lie or stand on them, and also by juxtaposing the rounded human shapes with the sharply rectilinear decorations. Sometimes the models are depicted only in silhouette or in blurry outline, and the main motifs are then the decoration itself or even the cast shadows in the background (reflecting the influence of his long-standing pupil and assistant Jaroslav Rössler). They often seem to depict transcendental light. Drtikol did not shy away from the erotic, and openly showed naked bodies in a shockingly natural way. In their day, many of his photographs were very daring and some of them were even removed from several exhibitions abroad after the censors had intervened. In his works, Drtikol accented the ideal of the harmonic union of spiritual and physical beauty. Although his works were among the most forward-looking examples of the nude in 1920s photography, a number of them were, even at the time, full of symbolic meaning, already reflecting his growing interest in Buddhism and other philosophical and religious thinking of the Far East, which would dominate the final period of his work, in 1930–35.

            Jaroslav Rössler (1902–1990) was the only professional photographer to be made a member of the Czech Avant-garde group Devětsil, which was led by Karel Teige. He was inspired chiefly by Constructivism and abstract art, but his work also contains influences of Futurism and New Objectivity. Beginning with his Opus I (1919), the first Czech Avant-garde photograph, he used diagonal compositions in his photographs and photomontages, and depicted objects from bold angles. Some of Rössler’s works recall the photograms of artists like Christian Schad, Man Ray, and László Moholy-Nagy, with the difference, however, that Rössler made these works using a camera. Some of his works from the first half of the 1920s are, together with Coburn’s, Strand’s, Bruguiėre’s and Schad’s, among the first examples of abstract photography. Beginning in 1923, he photographed light from spotlights, using long exposure times and special unfocused lenses. These photographs show blurry rings, bulging objects, and distorted cones, which in the viewer bring to mind feverish phantasms and flashes of recollections of the distant past. Rössler focused on light, the key element of his photographs. In 1923–25, he made compositions using everyday objects, for example, ashtrays, candles, and wine glasses, against a background of geometric shapes cut out of black-and-white cardboard. Other compositions depict fragments of the metal constructions of the Petřín Tower in Prague and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which he saw as symbols of modernity, like the train, motor car, aeroplane, and radio. He often depicted steel structures as objects in a dream, and set them in almost abstract black-and-white environments. Inventively employing a number of approaches from Avant-garde photography, a number of his photographs, photomontages, and collages, with subject matter of modernist architecture and technology, striking photograms, and distinctive advertisements, were made during his years living in Paris (1925-1935). After a long pause, Rössler, in the second half of the 1950s, returned to making non-commercial photography, and with his own imaginative experimental pictures, often employing special techniques, he rejoined current trends in art.

            Jaromír Funke (1896–1945) was among the most important pioneers of Czech Avant-garde photography. Also of great importance, however was his writing in periodicals, his theoretical essays, and his organizational and teaching work. In the early 1920s, romantic pictorialist landscapes and Impressionistic genre scenes alternated in his works with sober photographs of the streets of the town of Kolín, just east of Prague. In 1923, he began to use Constructivist composition in his photos, for example, After the Carnival and Leg. At the same time, he made simple still lifes, showing the possibilities of making reality abstract and suppressing spatial perspective while completely preserving the features specific to the medium of photography. In his compositions with panes of glass, bottles, kitchen implements and a starfish, shadows began to play the leading role. The object as such was no longer important; what was now primary was its shadows and the reflections of light. The topic of light, translucence, and reflections of light came to a peak in his Abstract Photo series (1927–29). At the same time, he made photographs in the spirit of Constructivism (for example, a set of photographs from the building of the Kolín Power Station and the Masaryk Hall of Residence, Brno) and New Objectivity. The use of unconventional compositions, daring angles of view, and diagonal arrangements facilitated capturing simple subject matter in its basic form. The principles of the new photography in the second half of the 1930s was strikingly applied under Funke’s and Ehm’s guidance as teachers in the works of their pupils at the State School of Graphic Art in Prague, mainly in exercises with geometric objects in space and in photos for advertisements. He was also the first Czech photographer to make Surrealistic works. In the Reflections series (1929), depicting the phantasmic juxtaposition of reality and its reflection in glass, he was responding to Atget’s works; in the subsequent The Time Persists series (1930–34), by contrast, Funke was searching for unusual encounters between various objects outdoors. He also made landscape photography and photography of his country done in a patriotic spirit (like Heimatfotografie in Germany), and he also made several series critical of conditions in society (Bad Housing and Subcarpathian Ruthenia).

            Though still under-appreciated internationally, Eugen Wiškovský (1888–1964) was a photographer of radical, highly original works. He made unusual still lifes of metal rods, turbines, and concrete pipes, electric insulators, gramophone records, and other ordinary objects, in carefully thought-out compositions. With a keen sense of detail, taking things out of context, transforming coloured reality into black-and-white photographs, and the rhythmical repetition of motifs, he succeeded not only in changing the traditional perception of the object, but also in discovering its surprising symbolic meanings. It is fair to say that showing the object in such a way as to make it represent something else entirely, as Edward Weston, for example, was doing at the time, is the main feature of Wiškovský’s work. His photographs in the style of New Objectivity are rigorously rational, yet full of imagination. The objectivity of the perfect depiction of details of the surrounding world overlaps with the subjectivity of the photographer’s view, distinctive vision, thinking, feeling, intellect, and inner world. His photographs are strikingly distinct from the reality that they depict; reality in them is artistically defamiliarized; they are special works of art in which the photographer’s personal style is clearly recognizable. In Wiškovský’s most famous work, the photograph Lunar Landscape (1929), a composition of detachable collars is transformed by suppressing the scale, isolating repeating details, inventively lit with a light bulb placed amongst the collars, and adding the outline of a coin placed, in a later version, on photographic paper like a representation of Earth, a fantasy picture of the lunar surface with its craters. In parallel with the New Objectivity photos, he made Constructivist photographs, for example, of the Kolín Power Station as it was being built and from the café and swimming pool at Barrandov on the outskirts of Prague. Wiškovský was not only a depicter of modern architecture, but also an interpreter of it; the buildings were often only a starting point and inspiration for his art. When people do appear in his photographs, they do so mostly as mere staffage in a landscape or urban environment or in Constructivist compositions. In the second half of the 1930s, Wiškovský’s interest shifted to landscapes in Prague suburbs, where he focused mostly on impressive geometric shapes, unusual structures and textures, and metaphor-like analogues of form. In addition to his art work, Wiškovský also wrote forward-looking essays on theory. He stands out not for the quantity of his work but for its originality and depth of content.

            The young Czechoslovak Republic was an important centre of Cubism, Functionalism, and Surrealism. And an originally Czech Avant-garde trend also emerged here – Poetism. The work of František Drtikol, Jaroslav Rössler, Jaromír Funke, and Eugene Wiškovský was not made in isolation from the rest of Czech photography of the interwar period. Other important Avant-garde works were made by Jindřich Štyrský, František Vobecký, Miroslav Hák, Vilém Reichmann, Václav Zykmund, and many other Czech photographers. During the German occupation and the Second World War, and after the Communist take-over and establishment of totalitarian rule in early 1948, however, Avant-garde art was severely suppressed and its artists were silenced and often persecuted.

 

Vladimír Birgus

(translation Derek Paton)

 

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Drtikol, Funke, Rossler, Wiškovský

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