Helene Funke

Helene Funke
Courtesy Nachlass Helene Funke
1869-1957 / Austrian-German expressionist
“I am a solitary Steppenwolf myself.”
Helene Funke in a letter to her friend Hermann Hesse, 1944
Beginnings as an artist

When the young artist Helene Funke left her home in the industrial city of Chemnitz in 1899 in order to enrol at the Münchner Damenakademie Malerei (Munich Art Academy for Women), it was a bold, almost unheard-of step for a young woman at that time. Her upper-middle class family was outraged: “Having a daughter who wanted to become a painter was almost like having a daughter become a prostitute,” recalled her nephew and biographer Peter Funke. But headstrong Helene, the only girl among five siblings, refused to be tied down and managed to escape the patriarchal confines of her parental home. Women were refused admission to the State Academy of Arts, so instead Funke went to the Damen-Akademie, where she studied alongside Gabriele Münter for two years – until the academy became too provincial for her developing tastes. 

Helene Funke an der Pariser Seine
Courtesy Nachlass Helene Funke
Montmartre as inspiration

Following initial participation in joint exhibitions in Munich and Berlin in 1904, two years later Funke moved to Paris, where she lived and worked in the heart of Montmartre. Elated by the city’s modernity and her new-found freedom, she absorbed all the new artistic directions that were being explored at the time – in particular the fauvism of Henri Matisse and André Derain. Those influences were to fundamentally transform her own style of painting. Funke henceforth employed explosive colours and clear, decisive lines, applying the paint in thick layers. While in France she maintained close contacts to Germany, and from 1909 she took part in exhibitions in Chemnitz, Hamburg, Bremen, Mannheim and Vienna. She was also represented at the first exhibition of the Künstlervereinigung Dresden.

Helene Funke, „Akt in den Spiegel blickend“, 1908/10
Courtesy Belvedere Kunstmuseum Wien / Foto: KOBERSTEIN FILM

In Paris, Funke ventured into the field of nude drawing – a pursuit that was taboo for women in Germany at that time. She created candid, deliberately non-erotic nudes, and this self-determined depiction of women was to become a favourite theme. Before long, Funke had established herself among the Paris avant-garde. She became a regular fixture in the Salons d’Automne and Salons des Indépendants, exhibiting her works alongside those of Matisse, Braque, Vlaminck and Picasso. In addition to painting and graphic art, Funke became passionately interested in the fledgling art of photography. In the early years of the 20th century she created “selfies” with the newly-developed self-timer. This was a highly unusual practice at that time, and today those works are considered early examples of feminine self-portrayal in the field of photography.

Helene Funke auf dem Dach eines Wiener Wohnhauses, 1912
Courtesy Nachlass Helene Funke
An explosion of colour

In 1913 Helene Funke decided to take her life in a new direction. She left Paris for the “faded arts capital” of Vienna. The avant-garde artist was a great hit in her new home, taking part in large exhibitions of the Vienna Secession, the Hagenbund, and the Wiener Kunstschau. In 1917 she participated in the VBKÖ (Austrian Association of Women Artists) exhibition in Stockholm, where she enthralled Swedish critics with her unabashed nudes. They wrote that Funke’s nudes “demonstrate a pronounced indecency and an almost perverse emphasis of the sensual.” Funke also co-founded “Bewegung”, a radical expressionist group, in 1918.

Helene Funke, „In der Loge“, 1904
Courtesy Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz/ Foto: KOBERSTEIN FILM

Despite positive reviews by critics – who wrote that Funke’s works were a “true explosion of colour” – Funke’s audacity in adopting an exceptionally modern style as a woman elicited hate-filled tirades in the press: “These images daubed crudely by a woman’s hand like a bricklayer with his trowel are abhorrent”; “Women can never sire art, they can only bear it. For a woman has no art inside her.” But Helene Funke did have art inside her – indeed, in the 1920s she was one of the very best. In 1928 she was awarded the Austrian State Prize – only the second woman in the country’s history to receive the accolade.

Helene Funke, „Träume“, 1913
Courtesy Belvedere Kunstmuseum Wien / Foto: KOBERSTEIN
Forgotten in her own lifetime

During the Second World War, Funke’s painting commissions dried up. She supported herself by taking on cleaning jobs, and withdrew into her own private world. Although she had two exhibitions in 1948 – in Vienna and Welz – Funke had effectively fallen into obscurity. She died in 1957, in poverty and seclusion. The works she left behind were widely scattered, and it took her nephew Peter Funke 40 years to draw up a catalogue of her work. This catalogue led to a rediscovery of Funke’s oeuvre, and in 1998 the first retrospective of her art took place in Vienna, followed by an exhibition in Linz in 2007. Thanks to the ongoing documentation of her works, a more comprehensive retrospective could be held in her hometown of Chemnitz in 2018.