Jan ŠvankmajerOccupation / Title:
4/11/1934Date of death:
Jan Švankmajer is a Czechoslovakian surrealist artist, filmmaker and animator. His work revolves around the exploration of imaginative meanings within objects of the everyday specifically through their tactile qualities. Filled with grotesque imagery, visceral texture and sharply evocative sound, his films at once evoke the real and the unreal, and dark surrealism and fantasy of childhood and the unconscious. His work is part of a fascinating history of Czech film and animation, and was in large part produced during Soviet control over Czechoslovakia and multiple phases of censorship. Švankmajer speaks to these themes of censorship and control within his work, while also drawing on strong Czechoslovakian traditions in puppetry, theatre and film.
In 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, beginning an era of complicated social and artistic negotiation with authority and censorship. Jan Švankmajer was working on The Castle of Otranto when he received edits from an internal censor of Czech national film studio Krátký Film. He refused to comply with the censor’s edits, and was therefore banned from producing films in Czechoslovakia from 1973-1979. The distribution of his films in Czechoslovakia was also banned during this time.
Already a part of the Czech Surrealist Group since 1970, Švankmajer thus committed himself in light of this ban to exploring mediums other than film. Over the next several years he conducted several projects, experiments and collective games involving the whole Surrealist Group. The group as a whole had gone underground during this period of “normalization” (the regaining of Soviet control and totalitarian discipline over society after the brief cultural thaw of the Prague Spring), and so worked together on these new artistic endeavours. A major aspect of these explorations was that of “tactile structures,” in which Švankmajer looked in detail at the tactile qualities and meanings of objects. These investigations led to several works of art that have since been exhibited, and proved to play a huge role in the development of his animation and film work once the ban was lifted.
Much of Švankmajer’s work involves the animation of the everyday, and the imparting of everyday objects with an eerie sense of purposelessness. He breaks them out of their place in an organized and well-defined world, and gives them a visceral, emotionally and “bodily” quality. Though unique in many ways, his techniques draw on themes within the surreal relating to the uncanny, the exquisite corpse and the animated doll. In this sense he drew on themes emerging from the surrealist movement, and specific Prague surrealist group, but also on Czechoslovakian traditions of puppetry. Marionette puppetry as a form of art and entertainment in Czechoslovakia goes back to the early Middle Ages. This tradition had also found its way into very early Czechoslovakian animation, being used by the pioneers Hermína Týrlová and Jiří Trnka who made animated films in the 40s and 50s. Švankmajer’s work is also reminiscent of the techniques of montage, which already had established use in evolutionary and sociopolitical film – the Soviet filmmaker and the technique’s originator, Sergei Eisenstein, being a point in case. His work also involves the use of live action, pixilation, claymation and stop-motion animation.
Over the course of his career, Švankmajer has made several short films and feature films (which he continues to produce). His short films include: The Last Trick (1964), Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasy in G minor (1965), A Game With Stones (1965), Punch and Judy (1966), Et Cetera (1966), Historia Naturae (Suita) (1967), The Garden (1968), The Flat (1968), Picnic With Weissmann (1968), A Quiet Week in the House (1969), Don Juan (1970), The Ossuary (1970), Jabberwocky (1971), Leonardo’s Diary (1972), Castle of Otranto (1973-1979), The Fall of the House of Usher (1980), Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), Down to the Cellar (1983), The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope (1983), Virile Games (1988), Another Kind of Love (1988), Meat Love (1988), Darkness/Light/Darkness (1989), Flora (1989), Animated Self-Portraits (1989), The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990), and Food (1992).
His feature length films include: Alice (1988), Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), Little Otik (2000), Lunacy (2005), and Surviving Life (2010).
Peter Hames: Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Svankmajer, Praeger Paperback, 1995.
Michael Richardson, “Jan Svankmajer and the Life of Objects,” Surrealism and Cinema. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.