This year’s Glasgow film festival held a retrospective of the magical and macabre works of Jan Svankmajer. In part one Steve Williams discussed the master animator’s relationship with surrealism and use of puppetry within his films. This final part will look at Svankmajer’s use of everyday objects within his films and the destructive drives that are a recurring theme throughout his work.
The object, particularly the everyday and the bland, has a vital function for Svankmajer and also for Surrealism itself. For him, perceiving the ordinariness of an ever-present, dull, utile object eventually reveals magical qualities. His shorts such as The Flat (1968) and A Quiet Week in the House (1969) not only explore these qualities but also a latent menace lurking in the domestic setting, the uncontrollable nature of one’s own immediate environment. It more than hints at the sanctity of these surroundings being ruined by the distrust and inherent suspicion brought about by the Czech communist authorities attempts to control every aspect of their citizens lives.
Arcimboldo – court painter of Prague’s 16th Century eccentric art patron Emperor Rudolf II is a central obsession for Svankmajer – one that causes his him to shed his hatred of imitation. Arcimboldo curated the imperial collection of curiosities – the Wunderkammer – which included ivory and coral artefacts, precious stones, silverware and treasures from other cultures. The influences of this Mannerist period on Svankmajer are seen most directly in the Arcimboldo like portrait figures animated from fruit, vegetable and kitchen utensils that devour and regurgitate each other in his masterpiece, Dimensions of a Dialogue (1982).
A further influence stems from the Prague Court of Rudolf II. Like him, Svankmajer is a collector of objects which hold a fascination or interest saying, ‘I collect impressions of my scattered feelings which I find in certain objects.’ The Hapsburgs, in seeking to gain an understanding of the curiosities held in the Wunderkammer, began a process of classification and categorisation. This inevitably led to a greater involvement and interaction with the objects and artefacts. Naturalia (natural world) were displayed together with Artificialia to form a magical and marvellous microcosmic world. Classification of this sort is played with partly in Et Cetera, but most strongly in Historia Naturae (Suita) (1967), which was explicitly dedicated to Rudolf II.
This encyclopaedic classification is close to surrealist dialectics, in that it throws together seemingly opposing elements to coalesce on a new plane and reveal the marvellous – ‘the eruption of contradictions within the real’, as Breton defined it. However, as Roger Cardinal points out, Svankmajer executes this process with an almost scientific precision and fascination, and this deep thinking is what sets him apart from other artists working with similar themes.
Interestingly, the animate and the inanimate are also distinctions made in classifications of nouns in the Czech language. However, probably of more relevance are links in the obscure classification systems of hermetic philosophy. Rudolf II’s fascination with occult learning also embraced Alchemy search for the Philosopher’s Stone. Surrealism’s greatest figures all possessed a fascination with alchemy. Andre Breton identified shared aims and shared methods in his search for the Philosopher’s Stone for Surrealism, which would ‘take revenge on the world of inanimate objects’. Max Ernst, a profound influence on Svankmajer, had an abiding interest in the subject, referring to collage as ‘alchemy of the visual image’.
The US film critic Robert Bennayoun compares animators to alchemists and Svankmajer talks of ‘distilling the waters of my experiences – childhood, obsessions, idiosyncrasies, anxieties’ to create his work. The reduction, rarification and distillation of objects through the process of animation bear strong resemblances to alchemical processes. They transmute matter into new, magical forms. In Svankmajer’s work they are reduced and unified into their quintessence, yet one that operates on manifold levels of feeling and meaning. Alchemic language is symbolic and, as with Arcimboldo’s paintings, the objects in Svankmajer’s films possess multiple layers of meaning, lending his films their depth and bringing the murk of the subconscious fleetingly into the light.
Also unleashed in this process are the repressed destructive drives and violent forces of the subconscious which are evident in Svankmajer’s films. There is a dark humour – Svankmajer himself admits that he uses ‘the sarcastic and the cynical as better weapons against the spiritual erosion and absurdity of our times.’ This humour has led him into trouble with the communist authorities on previous occasions. The wonderfully mischievous Leonardo’s Diary (1972) ensured that Svankmajer was ‘forced to rest from the cinema’ after editing in unauthorised images of a Czech society atrophying under the communists. His mischief here was smuggled in an artful formalism, and is employed again to similar, although less impressive, effect in Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990).
As the human psyche is based on ambivalence, there can be no purely negative motivation for destruction. Svankmajer obsessively destroys everything he has brought to life – everything he has animated. Yet, in a psychological context, this destruction is compensatory. On the destructive impulse so prevalent in Svankmajer’s work and processes of decay and degradation in evidence, Ludvik Svab, member of the Prague Surrealist group who also appeared in Food (1993), comments that it is ‘difficult to imagine such a one-sided expenditure of mental and even physical energy not being compensated by an opposite reaction – the inner need to destroy.’ This fits with Freud’s theories on the conflict between Eros and Thanos – the forces of life and death, as suppressed drives and instincts released by tapping into the subconscious through surrealist techniques. This is not far-fetched at all. Who hasn’t spent hours on a beach proudly and carefully constructing a sandcastle, only to lovingly destroy it shortly afterwards?
The influence of Sergei Eisenstein’s montage techniques is clear in Svankmajer’s work too – his editing is crucial to creating the unique rhythm and episodic nature in his films. This is especially notable when Svankmajer abandons animation for simple observation of the already extant absurdism of a setting, as with The Ossuary (1970). Filmed in the Sedlec cemetery near Kutna Hora, the bizarre and macabre structure is comprised of human skulls and bones and Svankmajer has no need to manipulate the physical environment. It is already crystallised in its ‘marvellous’ quality. He need only direct and compose with the camera and – with music – to bring it to life.
Svankmajer maintains that his films are ‘fantastic documentaries’ and that they must retain an element of the real in form, in order to be to be subversive. He classifies them also as part of a ‘surrealist investigation’, revolutionary in seeking to return ‘magic functions to everyday objects’ and to restoring to life the childhood imagination imprisoned by the ‘arbitrary laws of utility of the adult world.’ He says, ‘I create my golems to protect me from the pogroms of reality’ – the reality of a world that has appropriated surrealism for advertising, and disregarded art in favour of the distraction afforded by mass culture. He believes in ‘the enduring nature of the magic function of art’ and, as such, is still one of the most interesting and vital filmmakers alive at work and play.
Please note that there was a minor error in part one of this piece. Svankmajer joined the Czech and Slovak group of surrealists in 1970.