First World War ended in 1918 with the defeat of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). The Great Powers’ (Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Italy, and the United States) victory had far-reaching consequences: Germany lost her colonies and territorial areas, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and new successor countries such as Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia emerged. The world was thus divided into blocs of the victorious and the defeated – and power tensions did not lessen with the war’s end. The defeated powers continued to seek the revision of the Treaty of Versailles (1919), the strict armistice conditions imposed by the winners.

In this context of a defeated Austria-Hungary, an independent Czechoslovakia emerged. This soon became a thriving democratic republic with a rich cultural life rooted in in the pre-First World War period when progressive artistic trends developed. World-renowned are especially František Kupka – the pioneer of abstract painting – and the unique Cubist structures by architects Josef Chochol and Josef Gočár. The inter-war period saw Czechoslovakia emerge as a key centre of functionalism and surrealism, creating original Czech avant-garde trends such as poeticism and artificialism.

Prague, which still lived in the shadow of Vienna and Budapest, rapidly transformed into a modern European city. While fascists or fascist regimes incrementally came to power in neighbouring countries, Czechoslovakia remained a democracy until 1938, and after Hitler’s accession to power was a refuge for numerous German and Austrian emigrants.(1) Czech photography in the 1920s to 1940s period responded to the cultural and social changes resulting from the fledging Czechoslovak state, the economic crisis, and the world war. Photography was influenced by developments in modern and avant-garde art – responding to poetism, constructivism, functionalism and subsequently surrealism – became a discipline newly applied to graphic design, cultural publications, promotional graphics and photojournalism. Key proponents included Jaromír Funke (1896-1945), Jaroslav Rössler (1902-90), Eugen Wiškovský (1888-1964) and František Drtikol (1883-1961).

František Drtikol was the first Czech photographer to achieve global recognition. Initially influenced by art-nouveau and symbolism, his most productive period (1923–29) was strongly influenced by cubism, futurism, expressionism, abstraction and modern dance. He used geometric decorations, dynamic poses accentuated by tensed ropes and tilted planes on which nude models lay or stood. Models were sometimes shown only in silhouette or as out-of-focus outlines, with central motifs being decorative elements or background shadows. He emphasized the harmonious ideal unity of spiritual and physical beauty.

Jaromír Funke is a key figure in Czech avant-garde photography. Responding to contemporary constructivism and functionalism tendencies, his journalistic and theoretical activity also played a leading role. Funke mainly applied his innovative compositional techniques in still life. In his compositions of glass plates, bottles, kitchen utensils and sea horses the primary role was played by shadows and reflections – the subject itself became of secondary relevance. The theme of light, transparency and light reflexes culminated in his Abstract Photography (1927-29), one of the most radical examples of abstract trends in Czech photography. Funke also created photographs in the spirit of constructivism and new realism. In the 1920s and 1930s, he applied the surreal method of atypical encounters of objects in the exterior (It Takes Time cycle, 1930-34) and distorted reality as reflections in glass (Reflection cycle, 1929).(2)

Jaroslav Rössler pioneered purely abstract photography. His work from the early 1920s is considered the first examples of abstract art in world photography.(3) With slow exposures and special blurred lenses, he illuminated photographs with spotlights. He created compositions of blurred circles and convex objects that evoke memories and feverish states in viewers. His work was based on constructivism and abstract art, and partly on futurism and new realism. Some of his photographs formally resemble those of Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagye. In 1923-25 he photographed compositions of everyday objects against a background of geometric shapes cut from black and white cardboard. Other compositions show fragments of metal structures, such as Petřín watchtower (Prague) and the Eiffel Tower (Paris), which he evaluated as a symbol of modernity.

Eugen Wiškovsky – an associate of Funke – was also a proponent of modern photography’s new concepts of realism. His output represents an inventive connection between the austere view of photography and the imaginative depiction of reality. In the late 1920s to early 1930s he applied his sense of detail with still life photographs of metal rods, turbines and fittings: objects taken out of context to rhythmically uncover new and surprising meanings.(4) For example, Isolator with Spring (1935) and Moon Landscape (1929) illustrate his vision about the influence of shape psychology on photography compositions. Wiškovsky’s photography showcases the objectivity of a perfect representation of details of the surrounding world, blended with the photographer’s subjectivity – his individual vision, thinking and feeling, intellect, and inner world.

Czech photography reached an international level thanks to several leading figures in the inter-war period. In the 1920s and 1930s the country produced original photography that strongly contributed to the development of international artistic photography.

(1) For example the brothers Thomas (1875-1955) and Heinrich (1871-1950) Mannové, John Heartfield (1891-1968), Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980).
(2) Reflection cycle can also be viewed as a response to the work of Eugene Atget (1857-1927).
(3) For example compare with the photographers and artists Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882–1966), Paul Strand (1890–1976), and Christian Schad (1894-1982).
(4) Edward Weston continued in a similar fashion (1886-1958).