Jan Švankmajer

“Others confuse Surrealism with absurdity. […] Above all, Surrealism is not art. It is a certain spiritual path, […] is a journey into the depths of the soul, like alchemy and psychoanalysis. Unlike both of these, however, it is not an individual journey but a collective adventure.”

Jan Švankmajer

(Hames, 2008, p.102)

Short biography

Jan Švankmajer is a Czech filmmaker and artist whose films include mix clay and other stop motion techniques, pixilation, puppetry and live-action, and his artwork consists of installations, and collages. Švankmajer has been an advocate of Surrealism for decades, and his films are some of the best examples of surreal films in the history of cinema. Švankmajer’s work has greatly influenced famous filmmakers like the Brothers Quay, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. His work has become famous worldwide during the 80’s, despite the fact that Švankmajer has been making films since the 60’s. The Communist Regime that existed at Czechoslovakia at that time censored his work and a few of his films were banned due to their political messages and notions against Stanilism.

Švankmajer was born in 1934, making him a witness to different political regimes that affected the course of Czechoslovakia’s history such as, pre- war and post-war democracy, Stalinism, Nazi occupation, the Prague Spring of 1968 and Soviet invasion, the post-1989 democracy and finally the division between the Republics of Czech and Slovakia in 1993. The constant changes of the political state in Czechoslovakia influenced Švankmajer’s work and are reflected mostly in his political films like Zahrada (The Garden, 1968),  Tichý týden v dome (A Quiet Week in the House, 1969) and Konec stalinismu v Cechách (The Death of Stanilism in Bohemia”, 1991).

Švankmajer studied at the College of Applied Arts in Prague and later he specialised in puppetry by moving to the Department of Puppetry at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts. He worked in Emil Radok’s film Doktor Faust (Doctor Faust, 1958), and Radok’s work was a great influence to him. Later he worked at Prague’s Semafor Theatre and he founded the Theatre of Masks. He then moved on to the Laterna Magika multimedia theatre, where he renewed his association with Radok who was Laterna Magika’s first artistic director. Theatricality is characteristic in Švankmajer’s work, and especially in his early work like Poslední trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara (The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar, 1968).

Švankmajer’s early work was greatly influenced by mannerism however, he moved from mannerism to surrealism because of the work of theoretician Vratislav Effenberger. The influence of surrealism on his work is first observed in his film Zahrada (The Garden, 1968). In 1970 Švankmajer joined the Czechoslovakian Surrealist Group. The Surrealist Group was established in 1934 and contributed greatly to the growth of Surrealism in Europe, Paris and Prague were the centres of Surrealism. Artists from Prague and Paris would collaborate and arrange exhibitions in both cities until the suppression of the Czechoslovakian Surrealist Group by the Communist Regime after the end of the Second World War. Even though, the work of Surrealists was abolished by Stanilism, the Surrealists kept working and arranging secret meetings allowing Surrealism to endure the restricting, suffocating and controlling nature of Communism. In 1972 the Communist authorities banned Švankmajer from creating films for seven years and later his work was closely monitored and censored. Nevertheless, Švankmajer continued working in the film industry and on his own personal artwork, installations and collages focusing on his projects about tactilism.

By the end of the 80’s his reputation grew, especially in Europe, and after the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 and the return of the liberal democracy in Czechoslovakia, Švankmajer’s work was no longer censored and were no limitations to its thematologies. Since then, he worked on numerous short films and directed many feature films like Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996) and Otesánek (Little Otik, 2001) that contain live action and animation. He also arranged exhibitions of his work displaying installations, artworks, puppets and props from his films.

The Garden 1968
Zahrada (The Garden, 1968), directed by Jan Švankmajer.

 

List of references

Bertrand, S. and Leclerc, M. (2001). Les Chimeres des Švankmajer. [DVD]. France: 24 Images.

Hames, P. (ed.) (2008). The cinema of Jan Švankmajer. 2nd edn. London: Wallflower press.

Švankmajer, J. (2001). Interview by Ales Kisil. Czech TV Interview. Czech Television. [Television]

Griffiths, K., Quay, S. and Quay, T. (1984). The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer: Prague’s Alchemist of Film. [DVD] BFI.

Švankmajer, J. (1967). The Garden. [DVD]. Czechoslovakia: Krátký Film.