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Svankmajer E & J: Mouth to Mouth

Clare Kitson describes, and explains, a continuing exhibition of Jan and Eva Svankmajer's surrealist work at the Annecy Castle Gallery.

Mind Games: Three different scenes from the film Dimensions of Dialogue, which won the Annecy Grand Prix in 1990. All images © Athanor.

Mind Games: Three different scenes from the film Dimensions of Dialogue, which won the Annecy Grand Prix in 1990. All images © Athanor.

When Annecy Castle was suggested to Jan and Eva Svankmajer as the venue for their exhibition, they must have been delighted. For Gothic castles, cellars and dungeons are everywhere in their work. Jan probably felt a frisson of horror as well, for he has a fear of the dark, of enclosed underground spaces, dating back to his childhood. It is an obsession with him. That is why the underground proliferates in his films.

Like most people, I came to this body of work via Jan Svankmajer's films. I loved them for their sardonic humour, their cruelty, their inventiveness. I even, in my role as commissioning editor for animation at Channel 4, put some money into one of them (Food, 1992). (My predecessor there had, likewise, invested in Alice, in 1987.) But it was not until I became -- tenuously -- involved with the current exhibition, as translator for the book accompanying it, and started the research needed for this job, that I finally realised I had glimpsed no more than the tip of a giant iceberg.


Sardonic humor, inventiveness and a sense of horror are hallmarks of Jan and Eva Svankmajer's work as demonstrated here in the film Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996. Jan Svankmajer works in various media, including sculpture, seen here in Mes chaussures préférées, 2001.

Many Forms

To start with, the films may be the most visible part of his oeuvre, but this man also sculpts, paints, engraves, pots... He has even built masturbation machines. All this work links into his films. And, what is more, he is not alone. Unknown to most of us, his artist wife, well known in surrealist circles, is by his side and she also sculpts, paints, engraves, pots, writes poetry and even a novel... Both artists have individual talents and individual obsessions, but they have lived and worked together since 1960 and have affected each other's creations massively. They also make art works together, and Eva very often participates in Jan's films, as designer, animator or puppet-maker. Her main inputs into the mix? Probably a certain playfulness; sometimes a biting, satirical humour; and a savage eroticism, often with a feminist slant. A love of folk-art also informs her work and sometimes slips, via her, into Jan's. (Notably, the wonderful animated storybook illustrations in Otesánek.)

But there are other inputs too, and before looking at the exhibition itself, it is probably worth noting what these are. Mannerism is an important influence, especially on Jan, and especially in his early work, but continuing through to the present day. The Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) ruled his empire from Prague and assembled there a glittering team of artists and craftsmen, notably the painter Arcimboldo. Jan was aware of this heritage from his earliest youth. As well as Arcimboldo's idiosyncratic paintings (he is known for his portraits constructed of fruits and vegetables), Svankmajer was familiar with the 'curiosity cabinets' in Prague Castle, a 17th Century speciality, in which all manner of art works and natural history exhibits were carefully assembled into display cabinets.


Eva Svankmajer's illustration for the film Otesánek combines her own unique sense of eroticism, feminism, humor and folk art. Influenced by the 17th Century "curiosity cabinets," Jan Svankmajer created Natural History Cabinets in 1973.

The surrealist movement is another major factor in both artists' work. Jan joined the Prague surrealists in the late 1960s, while Russian tanks were rolling into Prague, and this new affiliation marked a definite progression in his film style. From the earlier engravings, knick-knacks, Gothic concerns as seen in J.S. Bach: Fantasy in G Minor (1965) or Historia Naturae (1967), there is a move into a greater surface realism and a greater use of live-action, with surrealist jokes inserted into these realistic settings. There is also the surrealist concept of 'communicating vessels,' which maintains that dreaming and waking are two, equally important, sides of the same existence. His latter films manifest a greater element of dream, culminating in the quintessential surrealist dream film, Alice. Eva, for her part, was discovered by the international surrealists in 1970. She was surprised to learn that not only was she already a surrealist painter, but she was hailed as a 'medium' -- one who has paranormal powers. (Though 'mediums' in the surrealist sense of the word, do not claim contact with the dead.)


The final major influence was tactilism, the belief that touch is the oldest and most important of the senses and should be encouraged in us, and re-trained. This is another great passion of the surrealists and especially of Svankmajer, who was banned from making films from 1973 to 1980, and spent a great deal of this time researching and documenting tactilism as well as constructing tactile sculptures.

Into The Castle

As you walk round the exhibition, these factors leap out at you via familiar motifs and ideas that pervade art works in all media, film sets and the screens showing film extracts.

When he was banned from making films, Jan Svankmajer turned to creating tactile sculptures. He continued the art form in 2000 with Éruption examthème.

When he was banned from making films, Jan Svankmajer turned to creating tactile sculptures. He continued the art form in 2000 with Éruption examthème.

The first section deals with the complex relationship between the two artists, and the first exhibit to catch my eye was Jan's Tactile Portrait of ES, made in 1977 when he was prevented from making films. Stuck over the face of a photograph of, presumably, Eva, a black fabric sleeve hangs down, and we are invited to feel inside this sleeve. This portrait of his wife includes a soft, downy section, a smooth, slippery surface with a cold, metal spike sticking out of it, numerous other elements until, finally, in the lower left-hand corner, "a ladies' stocking filled with crumpled tin foil, clothes pegs and largish pieces of pounded glass which force you to leave the tactile portrait of ES forthwith, taking with you the feeling that you have been hurt."

More harmonious testimony regarding their relationship is provided by a series of lithographs in the Cadavre exquis series. Cadavre exquis was a game much loved by André Breton and the French surrealists, who would each take a turn in progressing either a drawing or a sentence, but with the preceding elements folded over and therefore invisible. The name of the game comes from one of their early efforts, which produced the sentence that translates as, "The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine." Eva and Jan's products seem far more in tune. Despite their use of entirely different styles and even different media in their respective parts of the lithographs, these works achieve an overall coherence, a humorous tone and a highly erotic punch.

kitson10.jpg Eva Svankmajer displays her offbeat sense of humor in L'armoire catalogue des meubles (2000), in which she updates an old country-style cupboard with sexual images. kitson11.jpg The film Alice features paintings by Eva Svankmajer.

Playfulness, humour and eroticism are evident in many artworks, by both artists. Eva, as a child, loved rebuses (puzzles which combine letters and pictures to express a word or sentence) and she has done a whole series of paintings in this form. Other of her paintings manifest a similar jokiness, such as the old country-style cupboard, which she has decorated, inside and out, with some extremely graphic sexual acrobatics. Many of her comic paintings have a distinctly feminist tone. The Birth of Venus (1968) has a bearded man rising naked from the shell in a parody of Botticelli's famous work, while The Female Regiment on the Obstacle Course (also 1968) has a phalanx of very large, Rubens-esque naked women draped over the kind of obstacles that soldiers make such light work of. One of her more sly jokes can be seen in the design of the Queen of Hearts, which Eva painted for the film Alice -- for she has given the wicked Queen her own face.

Meanwhile Jan, not to be outdone, has been scrabbling in the archives to find engravings, photographs and maps ripe for some kind of intervention on his part. Thus, chastely but pertinently, he has added a set of teeth and gums to a map of Prussia (1973). Far more mischievously, he has juxtaposed a set of (I think) 17th Century erotic engravings, depicting groups of naked people using ingenious props and formations in the service of sexual pleasure, with not dissimilar (at first glance) photographs of near-naked men in similarly close and unusual formations, presumably proponents of the Nazi health cult, and has entitled this Physical Education in the Service of Eroticism and Militarism (1976).

Streams of Influence

The couple's penchant for eroticism and humour, together with Jan's studies of tactilism, came together most startlingly in the feature film Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), which merits a whole room in the Annecy exhibition. We see the life-size puppets of Mr. Pivonka and Mrs. Loubalová, and the actual masturbation machine used in the film, incorporating a television screen for visual stimuli and two pairs of arms able to administer a whole range of sensations to the person sitting at the machine. But most intriguing to me (and what could that say about me?) were the wide assortment of gadgets used as stimulators in this film, things like rolling pins with different kinds of brushes and nails attached to them.


Another stream of work could be said to derive from the mannerist tradition and the curiosity cabinets. Yet, this being the Svankmajers, the art works are often at the same time shot through with varying doses of humour, eroticism and surrealism too. During the '70s, Svankmajer produced various series of art works related to natural history, on the basis that "if the environmental catastrophe we are now experiencing means that dozens of animal species die each year, there is nothing for it but for the imagination to replace them with others." Svank-meyers Bilderlexikon and the Natural History tab. group are two series of very authentic-looking, seemingly 18th Century engravings of the most extraordinary creatures, perhaps the most magnificent of which is the Coy Longtail, whose enormous tail transforms into a penis for the purpose of mating. Mating, incidentally, is done back-to-back, earning the creature his 'coy' epithet. The Natural History Cabinets, also made in the '70s, are the 3-dimensional equivalents. Perhaps the most striking representative of this genre is Copulating Agates (1994), which features two lumps of agate in a display case, which have been furnished with all the human limbs needed to copulate (no heads, though), and are about to give it a try.

In the end, head wars turn into mush in the film Dimensions of Dialogue (1982).

In the end, head wars turn into mush in the film Dimensions of Dialogue (1982).

And then there is Arcimboldo. There are various tributes to this mannerist artist, one of the most striking early examples being Jan's painting Vertumnus and Mona Lisa (1978). Vertumnus wears a suit and, being the god of fruits and vegetables, could not object to a face composed of grapes, mushrooms, etc. Mona Lisa comes off worse, her whole face comprising fish of various kinds. But Svankmajer's best-known Arcimboldo-inspired work is of course the wonderful film Dimensions of Dialogue (which took the Annecy Grand Prix in 1990). Open to various interpretations, it is obvious that these two heads are at war with each other. In the first section it is the materials making up the head that determine the winner at each stage of the battle. Thus metal objects flatten vegetables, vegetables manage to destroy paper elements, etc. But in the end all are levelled to a sorry mush.

Mother's milk works miracles for a lump of wood in the surrealistic film Otesánek.

Mother's milk works miracles for a lump of wood in the surrealistic film Otesánek.

Surrealism, too, is everywhere; in the grotesque humour of Otesánek (the strikingly realistic -- in some aspects -- tale of a childless woman who in desperation showers her love on a lump of wood, which duly comes to life and starts devouring the neighbours), in the dream life of Alice, and in the omnipresence of the ancient art of alchemy. It was a 17th Century book of alchemy that inspired Eva's strange series, the Mutus Liber (1997), paintings one could happily study for many hours in an attempt to solve their multiple mysteries. Alchemy is also the subject of the pièce de résistance of the whole exhibition, a magnificent set from Jan's feature, Faust, featuring life-size puppets of Faust and Mephistopheles and smaller ones of the devil and an angel, in an alchemist's kitchen.

The surrealists are equally enthusiastic about found objects, things taken from nature, which in the context of an art work seem to take on a life of their own. The Copulating Agates would fall into this category, as would many of the elements making up the bizarre specimens of wildlife found in Jan's zoological display cabinets. A further surrealist speciality is the concept of the artist as medium and Jan and Eva have both in recent years produced 'mediumistic' drawings, in which the artist endeavours to draw as an automaton, with no conscious thought guiding his hand. The exhibition includes several such brightly-patterned drawings by Jan.

Alchemy and mystery abound in Jan Svankmajer's 1994 film Faust.

Alchemy and mystery abound in Jan Svankmajer's 1994 film Faust.

There is lots more of note in this wonderful exhibition, but I have exhausted my allocated wordage, and more. Of course, reading a review is no substitute for seeing the exhibition in person. Which you can still do, at the Annecy Castle Museum (Musée-Château d'Annecy) until September 30th and thereafter, from October 30th until January 5th next year at the Institut International de la Marionnette at Charleville-Mézières.

A List of Eleven

But, in finishing, for those who fail to make it to France for the exhibition, here are a few selections from the master's insights, which, in the form of Ten Commandments, are strategically displayed around the exhibition:

Across all the arts there is only one poetry. The antithesis is professional expertise.

Succumb totally to your obsessions.

Animation is not about moving inert objects but about giving them life. [Hence the kiss of life reference in the title of the exhibition.]

Keep changing dream for reality and vice versa. There are no logical bridges.

The deeper you go into a fantastic plot the more you have to be realistic in detail.

Choose themes toward which you feel ambivalent.

He adds, incidentally, as an eleventh commandment: All rules are there to be broken (!) -- except this one: Never allow your art to pass into the service of anything but freedom.

Quote from Anima Animus Animation by Evasvankmajerjan. Prague: Slovart Publishers, Ltd. and Arbor Vitae - Foundation for Literature and Visual Arts, 1997. 184 pages. ISBN: 80-901964-4-6. (hardback US$55)

Clare Kitson wandered into animation by accident very many years ago. A brief spell programming animation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was a signal to stop bluffing get on a steep learning curve. Which finally brought her to Channel 4 TV, where she commissioned animation for ten years until 1999. She is now a freelance animation consultant and translator.