Jan Švankmajer is an extraordinarily creative figure in the international context. And thanks to Ivan Melicherčík’s collection, “the phenomenon that is Jan Švankmajer has a significant right of domicile also in Sloavakia.” (J. Mojžiš) His artistic activities extend to several fields: first and foremost, short and feature film. This is where he won recognition for his unique experimental work with animation, which is considered a link between film and visual art activities including free visual art – collages, objects, prints, ceramics, tactile art and working with words. Let’s not forget his collection of African art and various natural organic and inorganic materials which he uses to create artefacts and which form the content for his “Natural History Cabinet.”
Švankmajer’s creativity is based on an extraordinary imagination which “humanizes man” and removes the boundary between dream and reality, with an emotional relationship between the world and creation according to an internal model. His attitudes about the world and art brought him so close to Surrealist principles that he became a member of a Surrealist group in 1970. As its most prominent figure, he transformed original Surrealist methods into new unorthodox techniques. Establishing a balance between rational and irrational views of the world opened possibilities to reveal new space for true creativity. Švankmajer’s work opens spaces where the worlds of myths, magic formulas and rituals, and monsters from bestiaries meet; he gives a different existence to combinations of things in which they escape from reality. Everything this artist touches takes on a different life which follows bizarre paths marked by dream-inspired imagination. This space is designated by the coordinates of freedom where the laws of aesthetic categories do not apply, because for Jan Švankmajer, “creation is like permanent liberation.”
Unconventional thinking and an untamed imagination have driven Švankmajer’s work from the very beginning. Trained in puppetry, he inclined toward a magical game with fetishes and the transformation of reality into magical, dream-like illusions. This transformation was based on the creation of new wholes composed of real objects on the principle of Dadaistic objets trouvés. He included the results of his collecting in his cabinet of curiosities, and driven by his imaginative compulsion, he created new zoological monsters which resulted in a “Natural History Cabinet.” The method of their construction and presentation in exhibition cases of natural history cabinets creates a real illusion. They were created at the beginning of the 1970s in various forms, either as objects or flat artwork, collages, prints and paintings. The flat artwork that preceded objects are included in Švankmajer´s Bilderlexikon, a kind of alternative zoology which mystifies the present and the past. According to Švankmajer, realistic detail is important and the more realistic, the more it multiplies the fantastic effect and helps to penetrate its internal depths.
“Imagination is the greatest gift given to human kind.” (J. Š.)
Jan ŠVANKMAJER (* September 4, 1934 in Prague), film director and artist. Jan Švankmajer graduated from the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague (1950 – 1954) and from the Theater Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague with a specialization in directing and scenography for puppet theater (1954 – 1958). He founded the theater of masks ensemble at the Semafor theater, while also working as director at the Laterna magika theater and stage designer at the Činoherní klub. He entered the field of film in the 1960s at the time of the celebrated new wave era. In 1964, he made his first short film entitled Poslední trik pana Schwarzewaldea a pana Edgara (Mr. Schwarzewalde and Mr. Edgar’s Last Trick); Přežít svuj život (Surviving Your Life) released in 2010 concludes the series of his almost three dozen short and feature films. He cooperated with his wife Eva (†2005), a surrealist painter, on many of his films. Their two children – Veronika and Václav, are also active in cinematography.
During the period of normalization, his creative activities were curtailed. In fact, he was forbidden to shoot any films from 1973 to 1979. He closely cooperates with producer Jaromír Kallista and in 1989 they founded the Athanor production company. All of his feature films were shot in the Athanor studios located in the town of Knovíz. From 1962 to 1964 he was a member of the creative group Máj. He has participated in the collective activities of the Surrealist Group in Czechoslovakia since 1970 and is the chairman of the board of editors of Analogon, a surrealist revue.
In addition to film, Jan is also active in the field of independent visual art; he works with printmaking and ceramics and has created distinctive objects, assemblages and collages. Since 1974 he has experimented with touch in relation to the imagination. He presented the outcomes of his experiments in the book entitled Hmat a imaginace (Touch and Imagination) (Kozoroh, 1994). He lives and works in Prague, Knovíz and Horní Staňkov.