This year’s Glasgow film festival held a retrospective of the magical and macabre works of Jan Svankmajer. In part one of this retrospective of the master animator’s oeuvre, Steve Williams discusses his relationship with surrealism and use of puppetry within his films.

Glasgow, an old Glue Factory, February 2012. It seems fitting that as part of a Glasgow Film Festival event organised by arts collective 85A this site, where animal matter was broken down to form an adhesive for binding materials to form a cohesive whole, should find itself hosting a retrospective of that master alchemist, Czech visual artist, Jan Svankmajer. Visual artist is not my description, nor is it the description of most people familiar with his work. The terms ‘animator’, ‘filmmaker’, ‘surrealist’ are all relevant but not entirely accurate and are labels that Svankmajer himself feels uncomfortable with.

85A’s retrospective takes place in a theatrical space of the imagination. The space provides a welcome and contrasting ‘other reality’ to the concrete ossuary of the retail estate in which it is located. Svankmajer’s films are screened unconventionally – in a puppet theatre, an enclosed box, in a cafe setting and in a basement – yet this appears entirely at ease with the grotesque and malformed conventions of Svankmajer’s own created worlds. Characters from his films prowl and scuttle amongst the crowd, further encroaching on reality. It is a beautiful, charming and lovingly created environment in which to show his films.

The retrospective covered almost all of Svankmajer’s short films – a noticeable absentee was his Novy Vlna era ‘political’ film The Garden (1968). Svankmajer’s work contains repeated themes and fascinations– de Sade, Edgar Allan Poe, childhood, eating, puppetry, meat and further inspirations Max Ernst, Benjamin Peret, Alfred Jarry, Lewis Carroll, Sergei Eisenstein and Edgar Allan Poe.

Svankmajer has been a member of the Czech Surrealists since 1964 and admits that his own notions of surrealism were superficial prior to joining the group. He rejects Surrealism as an art form, seeking to correct its many misperceptions by stating, ‘It is a journey into the depths of the soul, like alchemy or psychoanalysis.’ He sees Surrealism as an approach to life that touches politics, philosophy and magic.

Puppetry has cultural significance in the history of the Czech lands, Bohemia and Moravia, as well as in Svankmajer’s own personal history and work. An expansive tradition of puppetry played a role in maintaining Czech culture in the face of occupying powers and ideologies, and helped sustain an imaginative form of expression when other arts were subjugated to dogmatic restrictions.

In the context of Svankmajer’s work the duality of the puppet is significant – Peter Hames points to the Czech theatre theorist Otakar Zich’s two possible ways of perceiving them. They can be seen as either as lifeless objects constructed from inanimate materials, highlighting their comic and grotesque nature. Alternatively our consciousness of this quality fades in our perception and we see them as living beings with exaggerated movements, evoking a sense of the mysterious. The coalescence of these opposing qualities uncovers new truths in the Surrealist approach.

This could be a mirror reflection of the subconscious world, an irrational element of our human nature made concrete and acceptable as it is carried out by caricatures of us. This in turn relates to Freud’s concept of the uncanny. In Svankmajer’s films Punch and Judy (1966), The Last Trick (1964) and Jabberwocky (1971) marionette and doll figures are perfectly appropriate for the acting out of sublimated irrational desires and violent or sexual impulses

Of further significance is the theatrical space. Providing a threshold between real and illusory, between performer and audience, the spatial border is often transgressed in Svankmajer’s films, as in the brilliant Don Juan (1969) for example. The threshold of the real world is also blurred by the use of actors to portray puppets; this also occurs in The Last Trick – the manipulator is engulfed by the manipulated.

Puppets, dolls and marionettes are perfect for exploiting the tensions between real and imagined space, animate and inanimate but also between past and present – much about them is anachronistic. Their faithfully but artificially aged appearance in his films speaks to us of a past coming back to visit the present. They are a haunting from the realms of the archetypal.

This anachronism is carried over into the surrealist concept of the ‘romantic ruin’ in Svankmajer’s film and their mysterious and tactile qualities. The ruin was considered a form of objet trouvé, an outmoded element, discarded and displaced by processes of capitalism. The ruin is regarded as having redemptive and restorative powers in connecting us with a disregarded past. It puts us concurrently closer to death and to life by connecting us with a part of our ancestry. They are ghosts that become real, made concrete, if not made flesh. By reanimating them Svankmajer brings out this history and their nature. His 1965 film J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (1965) exemplifies this. Svankmajer reanimates the inner lives of the faded and decaying buildings of his beloved Prague through the process of examination. This is an animation without physical manipulation.

Svankmajer speaks of his desire to ‘revive an impoverishment of sensibility,’ considering touch to be the first and most important sense. He perceives the dominance of the visual in society and his experiments into tactility have led him to believe that touch was able to transcend the gap between subjective and objective perception.

His use of a visual medium, either through collage or film, to communicate the haptic qualities of objects is interesting. In forcing the viewer to consider them, they enter the imagination as haptic and present a cross-sensory experience.

The objects in Svankmajer’s films never appear simply to have been animated and manipulated. They are restored to being, a secret inner life having been uncovered, their natures unleashed. Take, for example, Games with Stones (1965) in which the featured stones themselves seem possessed by a twitching mischief. ‘The more an object has been touched, the richer its content,’ Svankmajer has said, and he believes that the transference of emotional charges during heightened times of sensitivity resides in an object. He merely brings it out, by developing a relationship with that object – an approach he sees as anti-consumerist – and uncovering the memory of these objects, the marvellous from the mundane and everyday things within our reach.

In Part Two, Steve Williams will look at Svankmajer’s use of everyday objects within his films and the destructive drives that are a recurring theme throughout his work.