In 1977, Vratislav Effenberger signed Charta 77 on behalf of the entire Surrealistic group the members of which at the time included Alena Nádvorníková, Karol Baron, Martin Stejskal, Juraj Mojžíš, Emila Medková, Ludvík Šváb, Albert Marenčin and Eva and Jan Švankmajerovi, among others. Effenberger accompanied the position of the surrealists to the signing with a text in which he openly opposed any power system whether it was the Communist regime or capitalistic style democracy. This standpoint serves as an example of the surrealists’ approach to the political situation at that time. They did not remain indifferent to the current situation, they did not turn to escapism as some of their actions could insinuate, but, on the contrary, they defended a clear and specific critical opinion. They found themselves in double opposition as Effenberg later called it; they retained, however, their own field of thought, free for individual creation of opinions and sufficiently opened to imagination. Such a position can also serve as an instruction how to characterize the free art work of Jan Švankmajer.
It is precisely imagination that serves surrealists as an instrument for questioning any intellectual or emotional conventions. The power of imagination lies in the fact that it strives to disrupt learned perception and stereotypical ways of learning. In order for a new, metamorphosed world to be created, the original one has to be destroyed. That is why surrealistic actions will always be accepted in a negative way because reason hinders adaption to a new situation. In his work, Jan Švankmajer puts an emphasis precisely on the unaware component of the psyche; the disruption of existing conventions, however, does not remain only in the content aspect. Švankmajer also experiments with actual media, which he uses, whether it is an object, puppet theatre or film.
His first independent artworks originated during his studies at the Academy of Performing Arts (1954–1958) where Švankmajer pursued the double-major in fine arts and direction. Initially they are drawings referring to primitivist and overseas art, and later they are objects and bas-reliefs, which are very similar to Czech informel but evade this classification. In his assemblages Švankmajer interconnects diverse materials and objects and allows them to speak for themselves. It is not only a game of association with random things, instead he rather tries to reveal stories through random groupings and memories concealed behind them. According to Švankmajer things have their own memory, which one can haptically relate to. “For me objects have always been more vital than people; more stable, but also more expressive. More exciting with their latent contents and memory far exceeding human memory. Objects conceal stories, which they have witnessed (…) The more an object has been touched, the more its content is charged,” Jan Švankmajer writes in the magazine Film a doba (Film and Time), 1982. The artist’s assemblages can hardly be classified within the tradition of Czech informel, because rather than striving for existential expression or resistance to imagery and formality of modernism, he strove for a specific encounter of shapes, which he further developed at the beginning of the 1960s.
Hi material assemblages in which matter succumbed to varied shaping, kneading and interconnecting, related in their form with the difficult time period in which Jan Švankmajer tried to experiment with puppet theatre. And this was not only in his final exam project from the year 1958, which was the production of the satire by Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi from 1762 The Stag King, but also later in his own ensemble Theatre of Masks, which functioned for several years under the umbrella of Semafor Theatre. For Švankmajer the medium, whether it was film or theatre play, never played a role of the intermediator of the story. It was rather a field for examination of the boarders between genres and disrupting traditional positions. Relationships between actors and puppets, between the living and nonliving are emphasized in Švankmajer’s early puppet shows. Questions arise here regarding conflicting binary compositions between vital organic nature and illusion of life, between the controlling and the manipulated. Švankmajer’s experimental games inspired, in their form, by Russian and German avant-garde film and theatre, were not very well received by the public at the beginning of the 1960s. Repetitive misunderstanding from the side of the audience and disagreements with the management of the Semafor Theatre led to the moving of the Theatre of Masks ensemble under the umbrella of Laterna Magika in 1962, where Švankmajer was enchanted by the possibilities of a different media – the film.
During the same time period Švankmajer’s work is starting to be penetrated by his fascination with Prague Mannerism, the collection of Rudolf II. and the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. He creates assemblages where products of nature, created artefacts and drawn and written documents are all encountered in one object. Individual articles are matched together according to loose associative relationships and occasionally they are also labelled and numbered like in classicist natural science collections. Between the years 1971 to 1972 Švankmajer started to create a cycle of collages and graphics, which he called Švank-meyers Bilderlexikon. This title works with the artist’s name and the title of 52-volume encyclopaedia Meyers Lexicon, but it is far from being a stiff scientific catalogue. Švankmajer’s ensemble is some sort of imaginary and utopian encyclopaedia, which tries to include all areas of human knowledge – biology, geography, art, technique, etc. He came back to this project in the 1990s with his collage Systemless Anatomy. Related to encyclopaedia is another collection, however – assemblages from animal skeletons and various objects, which Švankmajer interconnected in diverse fantastic shapes of strange animals and creatures. He later used assemblages in the film Alice (Něco z Alenky) (1987) and they also became the foundation for section Scientika of the Kunstkomora (Kunstchamber) (or as the artist calls it himself: Kunstcamera), which he built in his house in Horní Staňkov. Švankmajer’s Kunstkomora fully reveals the artist’s approach to creative work and the way he sees the world as a “magic universe”, in which the main role is played by imagination as the “queen of human abilities”.
It is not only Švankmajer’s older theatre productions that contain contrasts between traditional approaches and new experiments with images and actors, hybridism of classical methods and combining of genres, these can also be found in his films. Such films continue to be in opposition to the conventional way of filming and also to the perception of the audience. At the same time they are always received with disconcertion, enfolded in provocative undertone, in spite of the fact that Švankmajer’s older films belong among the classics of Czech cinematography. Already when the young Švankmajer was completing his studies at the Academy of Performing Arts in 1958, he received an offer from director and screenwriter Emil Radok to cooperate on short-footage film Johanes Doctor Faust. Six years later Švankmajer produced his own original short film The Last Trick (Poslední trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara), which a number of actors from the Theatre of Masks cooperated on. In this film Švankmajer combined some sequences from his theatre plays and from the very beginning he places the viewer in front of a sequence of fast image clips, thanks to which he builds a dynamic and contrasting structure of some sort of anti-narrative. The same principle then recurs in many other Švankmajer’s films, like in the short film Historia naturae (suita) from 1967, where he gradually introduces the viewer to varied natural-scientific species and combines artefacts with products of nature (stuffed as well as living) and drawings. The film originated parallelly to his interest in Rudof II. Mannerism and fantastic creatures, which Švankmajer visualized in his collages and objects.
During the 1970s Švankmajer was not allowed to work on films and he alone did not have sufficient technical equipment to be able to make films on his own. That is why he started to once again fully pursue objects, which again were the subjects of the character of the materials, but this time with the intention to underscore their tactile character. The objects that originated – tactile chairs, rolling pins, cutting boards and wooden spoons – designated for the touch of varied parts of the body, were supposed to activate the tactual knowledge and behaviour and release this human sense of utilitarianism. The objective was supposed to be an intensive exacerbation of the senses, emphasizing the significance of the sense of touch and arousing imagination. Švankmajer did not only use objects to achieve this, but also experiments during which he let members of the surrealistic group touch the structures he created while he recorded their word associations. Švankmajer compared the results of his touch experiments with visual perceptions and he compiled these into some sort of final reports, which he published in 1994 in the book Touch and Imagination (Introduction to Tactile Art) [Hmat a imaginace (Úvod do taktilního umění)].
Since the 1980s Švankmajer has been systematically pursuing, in addition to making “animal” creatures, also the production of collages and object assemblages and primarily making feature films (from the most recent ones we should mention Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996, Little Otik, 2000, Lunacy, 2005 and Surviving Life, 2010). In any of his activities he never ceases to place an emphasis on the concept of imagination and on the need for its continual activation. Švankmajer’s surrealistic motto “All power to imagination” did not become the slogan of the socialistic and squatter movement for no reason. It is not merely a simple peek into the fantastic world but rather an attempt to implement the possibility to change or to at least indicate it, because until a change (whether political, artistic, social or life) becomes conceivable, it will never happen.
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