November 9: Limn

Date #9November 9: “If I have many beautiful objects, and I know them, and enjoy looking at them, why would I not play lovingly with them, arrange them so that they are united by light, diversity, the special quality of line, and then capture them? The same objects, say, in a number of arrangements, again and again. This is how I show the viewer that they are my objects and how much I like them. I show them as wholes and also together with their details, which I further emphasize with the play of light.” 

These are the words of Jaromír Funke (1896 – 1945), the subject of a show at Le Centre tchèque de Paris, 18 rue Bonaparte 75006 Paris, entitled Jaromír Funke: pioneering photographer curated by Vladimír Birgus, which opens tonight at 7:00pm.

Jaromír Funke (1923-1924) untitled abstraction, printed 1994

A pioneer of Czech avant-garde photography in new objectivity, abstraction and surrealism, Funke is as widely known as compatriot contemporaries František Drtikol (1883–1961) and Josef Sudek (1896–1976), each of whom, though to a lesser extent in the case of Sukek (whose work, though luminous, remains always representational), abandoned pictorialism, an imitation of painting, and moving toward abstraction between the wars.

Jaromír Funke (1924) Solitude and Glasses.

Funke’s description, at the head of this post, of the light-play involved in making his object-based studio abstractions makes this transition comprehensible as a shift in practice to an inward-looking meditation which held the upheavals of the period in the outside world at bay.

Certainly one can relate their shift to developments in painting and sculpture but for these photographers that remains speculative, a conceivable cross-media influence rather than a matter of defining and deliberate imitation.

c. 1923 MEDIUM Gelatin silver print DIMENSIONS Image- 9 1:8 × 11 1:2 in. (23.2 × 29.2 cm) Sheet- 9 1:8 × 11 1:2 in. (23.2 × 29.2 cm)
c. 1923 Gelatin silver print, 23.2 × 29.2 cm

The series of photographs, below and at right, are made from slightly different distances, with many of the same props and with lighting positions that vary only a little, but with radically different exposure.

They illustrate the subtleties of his ‘play’ in the studio which effectively achieves radically different compositions.

Jaromir Funke Composition Glass Plate c.1923 Gary Schneider 1994
Jaromir Funke (c.1923) Composition with Glass Plate, printed by Gary Schneider 1994
Jaromir Funke (c.1923) Composition

Made in 1923 these are his first consciously avant-garde photographs, eighteen of which  were included in the First Exhibition of the Svaz českých klubů fotografů amatérů (Association of Czech Camera Clubs) in Prague.

By 1924 he was publishing his first essays on photography and theories of photography, and also entered his work in the international salons in Paris and Toronto, thus reaching a wide audience. Joining the Česká fotografická společnost (Czech Photographic Society) he and other forward-looking young photographers rejected the pictorialist pigment processes for silver gelatin. He experimented with photograms which were a logical extension of his creation of shadows with studio lights.

Jaromír Funke, Photogram, 1926
Jaromir Funke (c.1926) untitled photogram

From 1927 he produced his Abstraktní foto series which are among his best work,in which the ‘figurative’ elements of bottles, glass panes and mount card are replaced with less recognisable forms.

Jaromír Funke – Abstract Photo. Composition, 1927-1929
Jaromir Funke (c.1927-9) untitled abstraction

A collaboration with the stage designer Zdeněk Rossmann in a production of Synge’s Riders to the Sea in Brno no doubt accelerated the development. In the theatre, slides of Funke’s abstract photos were projected as part of the Constructivist scenery.

Jaromir Funke (c.1927-29) Abstraktní foto 1
Jaromir Funke (c.1927-29) Abstraktní foto III
Jaromir Funke (c.1927-29) Abstraktní foto IV

In this series we can trace similar geometric forms, but they are impossible to identify as objects, and their natural orientation of the images becomes arbitary, to be decided by Funke at the point of printing, as is indicated by the need for notations on the back of the following print…

Jaromír Funke ABSTRAKTNÍ FOTO with 'Oben' and directional notations in pencil on the reverse, framed, circa 1927-29 29.9x24.1 cm
Jaromir Funke (c.1927-9) Abstraktní Foto with directional notations in pencil on the reverse, 29.9×24.1 cm

During the production of the Abstraktní Foto series Funke began to publish in the Avant-garde periodicals ReD and Index and in a return to representation, he shifts his imagery toward Surrealism, which was then in full swing, the first among Czech photographers to do so.

Jaromír Funke – Exotic Still-life, 1928-1929
Jaromir Funke (c.1928-9) Exotic Still-life

Exotic Still-life exhibits Miro-esque forms while Reflexe is clearly a nod to Atget’s use of reflection so admired by the French Surrealists. Z cyklu cas trva (from ‘The Cycle of Time’ series) exercises the photographic flattening of space to metaphysical effect.

In 1931 Funke was able to hold his first solo show in Köln and also commenced teaching, an occupation that begins to occupy more of his time along with his involvement in commercial commissions, photo organisations and the periodical Fotografický obzor (Photographic review), to the detriment of further radical innovation, right up until 1944 when the Nazis closed the State School of Graphic Arts just prior to, and probably precipitating, his death on 22 March 1945. However very significant international recognition came in 1932 when he was invited by the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain to show in The Modern Spirit in Photography, alongside André Kertész, Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, Edward Steichen, Henri Cartier-Bresson, František Drtikol, and Josef Sudek.

Jaromir Funke (c.1935) untitled

Urbanautica Institute, in collaboration with mi*GALERIE, presents during PARIS PHOTO: Foire internationale de photographie d’art the exhibition Tiny Tears (les belges), curated by Dieter Debruyne, featuring Aurore Dal Mas (*1981), Katlijn Blanchaert (*1978) and Peter Waterschoot (*1969). Well matched, the interest of this trio is sensitive to the current world zeitgeist; their individual series Polvere, Limen and Ikebana Blues, shift away from the light and into a sombre obscurity. Each settles on an individual subject matter on which they practice variations, mostly to do with lighting and its photographic rendition, a strategy they share with Funke, but which can no longer be called modernist.

The title Limen (Latin for threshold) of Katlijn Blanchaert‘s nightmarish narrative situates her images in the no-place of the Roman god Janus, between past and future, on the edge of recognition in glancing light that is neither day or night, provoking a sense of anxiety and isolation.

Peter Waterschoot‘s (*1969) Ikebana Blues photographed between 2012 and 2017, mostly in shabby one- or two-star hotels, also exists simultaneously in a physical and psychological space. While they may be shot in Venice or Osaka, neither is represented specifically as his work shifts toward an abstraction across an idiosyncratic palette of colour effected with reflection or transparency.

Aurore Dal Mas’  Polvere (‘dust’ or ‘powder’ in Italian) is certainly not stardust, but portentous, black, greasy and corrupt. Like Waterschoot’s interspersed imagery of the female figure dressing, through her series it comes to represents to us a degenerate world that has become decadent and vain. In her own words it ‘evokes something that darkens, that collapses, rugged and ravaged from the inside’

Opening also tonight at 6pm at Galerie Piece Unique, 4 rue Jacques Callot 75006 Paris, Seb Janiak (*1966) exploits that aspect of photography which digital imaging has made so familiar and accessible to us; photomontage. With that procedure the photographer is able to preserve numbers of images, a library of the most valued visual elements (like Funke’s ‘beautiful objects’), as the raw material for composing new images. In effect, this is another manifestation of the  ‘play’, or creative operation that we see Funke adopting in his studio with treasured objects, or as do the Belgian trio of Little Tears in their inventive and deliberate modulation of colour.

Daft Punk 2001
Seb Janiak (2001) Daft Punk

Janiak, has a long career in photography behind him, including his early adoption, in a former career as a graphic designer, of the Quantel Paintbox a device which permitted retouching and assembly of video and still images. He used the workstation for the production of detailed photorealist backdrops using  “digital matte painting”.

Amongst these are the music video for Janet Jackson’s Together Again which he directed in 1997 and one of a series of music videos for the electronic music duo Daft Punk,  released in 1999 as a compilation entitled D.A.F.T.: A Story About Dogs, Androids, Firemen and Tomatoes. In 2008 he directed the UFO conspiracy short La Conspiration d’Orion 19min, France.

Seb Janiak (2008) digitally manipulated still from La Conspiration d’Orion 19min, France
1997 Najda Auermann
Seb Janiak (1997) digitally manipulated portrait of German model and actress Nadja Auermann

He has since produced enhanced portraits of celebrity models, some included in the 2009 
Naomi Campbell Retrospective, Art Photo Expo gallery, New York during Art Basel Miami Beach.

Janiak was thus at the forefront during the advent of digital photography well prepared eventually to create an awful beauty in the celestial visions of this series The Kingdom, which was begun in 2008 using the digital editing and masking techniques based in his earlier Quantel matte paintings.

The Kingdom, Bardo Thodol, 2010 Chromogenic print Format 221 x 185 cm
(2010) The Kingdom, Bardo Thodol, Chromogenic print, 221 x 185 cm

Like many autodidacts, Janiak promotes his technical innovations (virtuoso in his case) over his concepts which are defensively left largely unarticulated and deliberately open to interpretation, though in the case of The Kingdom he states in brief that he is inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bardo Thodol which describes a kind of purging of the soul through exposure to momentous, often frightening or awesome visions. He does not make clear specifically how they represent that Buddhist text; they would certainly serve as well for Christian theological illustration such as that seen in works of beleaguered Victorian painter John Martin!

“The Great Day of His Wrath” by John Martin
John Martin (1851–1853) The Great Day of His Wrath
The Last Judgement 1853 by John Martin 1789-1854
John Martin 1789-1854 (1853) The Last Judgement.

Reading between the lines of a widely reproduced hagiography of Janiak, they indicate a personal crisis and perhaps health issues which precipitated his abandonment of commercial work and dedication, since at least 2011, to fine art which he has exhibited widely and very successfully, and his abandoning of Photoshop production to maintain an analogue photomontage practice for his later series such as Mimesis.

Mimesis – Precognitus Christium, 2014 Chromogenic print Format 180 x 180 cm
(2014) Precognitus Christium, from Mimesis. Chromogenic print Format 180 x 180 cm

We may therefore read The Kingdom as contributing to Janiak’s spiritual renewal after a turning point in his life, a cathartic encounter with the heavens and contact with an inner peace, an augmentation of the experience of gazing into the sky and a discovery, through his practice of assembling these, that clouds and the light of the sun and stars provide us everyday with such visions. He says;

My father was an airline pilot, so ever since I was a child I have looked at the sky and asked myself a lot of questions about it.

The Kingdom, Stellar Lights, 2008 Chromogenic print Format 180 x 300 cm
(2008 ) The Kingdom, Stellar Lights, Chromogenic print 180 x 300 cm
SEB-JANIAKThe Kingdom, Couple Of Birds, 2016 Chromogenic print Format 231,8 x 185 cm
(2016 ) The Kingdom, Couple Of Birds, 2016 Chromogenic print, 231.8 x 185 cm

In titling this post ‘Limn’ I wish to use the double meaning of the word to connect these current exhibitions which are on first impression quite different. The verb derives from the Latin via French ‘to make light’ and now means both ‘to describe’ and ‘to highlight’ in a similar but more specific sense of  ‘illuminate’ from the same root.

In the case of all of these artists, describing and highlighting are not acts achieved in one image despite the capacity of our medium to seize upon things immediately, but involve a process, an evolution that comes through a long-term practice, not imitation.  In each case too, light is the instrument of their ludic method.

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