Wendy Jackson reviews the 1998 book Anima Animus Animation, a collection of creative works by the Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer and painter Eva Svankmajerov.
Alexander Alexeieff & Claire Parker. John & Faith Hubley. John Halas & Joy Batchelor. Nag & Gisèle Ansorge. Jan & Eva Svankmajer. In the history of animation as a fine art, there are a handful of couples who have achieved the marriage of their lives, love and art.
One of the most prolific and artistically experimental of these partnerships is that of Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer and painter/sculptor Eva Svankmajerová. Independently and together, the two artists have worked in nearly every medium imaginable: animation and live-action film, sculpture, collage, printmaking, painting and poetry. "Although they choose different approaches, both Jan and Eva Svankmajer seem to have been following the same goal on various levels and planes of expression," observes Frantisek Dryje in his essay in the new book about the Svankmajers' creative work, Anima Animus Animation: Between Film and Free Expression from Prague-based Slovart Publishers. This sturdy volume is the closest thing to a "coffee table book" ever published about either artist. The publication accompanies current exhibitions of the Svankmajers' work throughout their country, including the Czech Gallery of Modern Art, the Regional Gallery of Vysocina, and the East Bohemian Gallery, Pardubice. Itself an exhibition within a book, the pictorially rich Anima Animus Animation is an excellent visual companion to Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Svankmajer, a collection of analytical texts edited by Peter Hames and published by Greenwood Press in 1995.
A Gallery in a Book
More than 100 luscious, full color prints and close to 200 more black and white illustrations depict selections from the Svankmajers' extensive body of work. Prints of paintings, machines, tactile objects, films, pottery, puppets and collages are mixed with poems, interviews, screenplays, games, diaries, texts and dreams. The book is divided into ten loosely-interpreted "chapters," each beginning with a brief statement on the themes commonly explored in their work: Anima, Animus, Animation; The Structures of the Beginning; Eros and Thanatos; Historia Naturae; Touch and Gesture; Manipulation and the Puppet; Alchemy and Magic; Games and Dreams; the Arcimboldo Principle and The Increased Difficulty of Communication. The back of the book contains 12 pages of biographies, a joint filmography, and bibliographies of exhibitions, catalogs and texts written on both artists.
Chapter I (Anima, Animus, Animation) contains prints of animated objects and collages; sequentially arranged pieces of art which are not filmed, but which illustrate small progressive or repeated movements. Five ceramic vases give birth to a cup in "Birth," a metal spoon feeds lumps of clay to itself in "Autocannibalism," and abstract figures alternate body parts in "Excuse me, but you have valuable tubes inside you."
In Chapter VII (Alchemy and Magic), a selection of diary entries written by Jan Svankmajer in 1993, describe the ominous ill fortune that befell the cast and crew of the film Faust during and after its production (the film's star, Petr Cepek, mysteriously died shortly afterwards). After being asked by a journalist what he thought of the re-release of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Svankmajer also writes, "Walt Disney is one of the leading destroyers of European culture. Perhaps most significant, because he destroys it in utero-in children's minds."
In Chapter IX (The Arcimboldo Principle), we see a collection of work inspired by the 16th century Mannerist artist, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose composite-head paintings inspired 2-D works and films such as Dimensions of Dialogue, which won Svankmajer the grand prize at Annecy in 1982.
In Chapter X (The Increased Difficulty of Communication), we see iconographic studies, such as rebus paintings by Eva Svankmajerová which use images and hands in sign language poses to depict visual riddles for the viewer to decipher.
Words on Paper
Although the book is published in Prague, with support from Czech organizations, the text is published solely in English. While the text of the artists' writings is fascinating and seems to be translated well, "Formative Meetings," the six-page text about their work, and the only form of introduction, written by Frantisek Dryje, is at once redundant and baroque. Too many contrived words strive to classify the artists' work, using terms such as "neo-cubist," "negativist," and "pseudo-naive iconography." This use of language may be a necessary step to gain acceptance of the artists' work in the international world of "high art." However, the very approach used seems an attempt at elevating the art unnecessarily and perhaps even against the naturalist, unassuming philosophies inherent in the Svankmajers' work. Perhaps the inclusion of this material and the use of English is an effort to produce evidence to the Western world of the Svankmajers' rightful place in the fine art world. If this is what it would take for a full scale touring exhibition of their work to be mounted outside of Eastern Europe, then it is a reasonable expense. Besides, the text lends context to a book that would otherwise be a mere collection of art. Overall, the book, like the Svankmajers' work, is an essential volume in any study of fine art animation, and should be included in any library on the subject. For those natives and travelers lucky enough to be in Prague in the near future, a trip to GAMBRA, the Czech Surrealist Group's gallery, located on the Svankmajers' property at 5 Cerninska Street in Prague, is highly recommended. There, one can see and purchase all of the catalogs, books and original art, including sculptures, prints and paintings, by Jan Svankmajer, Eva Svankmajerová and other artists in the Czech Surrealist Group. How to Obtain a Copy Anima Animus Animation, by Jan Svankmajer and Eva Svankmajerová, Prague, Czech Republic: Slovart Publishers, Ltd. and Arbor Vitae Foundation for Literature and Visual Arts, 1998. 184 pages, illustrated. Anima Animus Animation is available by mail order from Galerie GAMBRA. Prices (postage included): 1800 Kc (approx. U.S. $55) by surface mail 2100 Kc (approx. U.S. $65) by air mail Send VISA, Diners Club or JCB credit card information (number and expiration date) to: Galerie GAMBRA Cerninska 5 118 00 Praha 1 Czech Republic
Read an interview with Jan Svankmajerin the June 1997 issue of Animation World Magazine. Visit Animation Heaven and Hell for a look at the animated films of Jan Svankmajer. To purchase a Jan Svankmajer video, visit the AWN Store. Wendy Jackson is associate editor of Animation World Magazine. In August, she will give a presentation on Czech animation at the tenth annual Society for Animation Studies Conference.