Jan Švankmajer

Bilderlexikon Zoologie

Jan Švankmajer [shvank-mai-er] (b.1934) is a Czech filmmaker and artist whose work spans several media. He is a self-labeled surrealist known for his surreal animations and features, which have greatly influenced other artists such as Terry Gilliam and  the Brothers Quay. An early influence on his later artistic development was a puppet theater he was given for Christmas as a child. He studied at the College of Applied Arts in Prague and later in the Department of Puppetry at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts.

He contributed to Emil Radok’s film ‘Doktor Faust’ in 1958 and then began working for Prague’s Semafor Theatre where he founded the Theatre of Masks. He then moved on to the Laterna Magika multimedia theatre, where he renewed his association with Radok. This theatrical experience is reflected in Švankmajer’s first film ‘The Last Trick,’ which was released in 1964. Under the influence of theoretician Vratislav Effenberger Švankmajer moved from the mannerism of his early work to classic surrealism, first manifested in his film ‘The Garden’ (1968), and joined the Czechoslovakian Surrealist Group.

He was married to Eva Švankmajerová, an internationally known surrealist painter, ceramicist, and writer until her death in 2005. Švankmajerová collaborated on several of her husband’s movies, including ‘Alice,’ ‘Faust,’ and ‘Otesánek.’ They had two children, Veronika (b. 1963) and Václav (b. 1975, an animator).

Švankmajer has gained a reputation over several decades for his distinctive use of stop-motion technique, and his ability to make surreal, nightmarish, and yet somehow funny pictures. He continues to make films in Prague.

Švankmajer’s trademarks include very exaggerated sounds, often creating a very strange effect in all eating scenes. He often uses fast-motion sequences when people walk or interact. His movies often involve inanimate objects being brought to life through stop-motion. Many of his films also include clay objects in stop-motion. Food is a favourite subject and medium.

Many of his movies, like the short film ‘Down to the Cellar,’ are made from a child’s perspective, while at the same time often having a disturbing and even aggressive nature. In 1972 the communist authorities banned him from making films, and many of his later films were suppressed. He was almost unknown in the West until the early 1980s.

Today Švankmajer is one of the most celebrated animators in the world. Among his best known works are the feature films ‘Alice’ (1988), ‘Faust’ (1994), and ‘Lunacy’ (2005), a surreal comic horror based on two works of Edgar Allan Poe and the life of Marquis de Sade. The two stories by Poe, ‘The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether’ and ‘The Premature Burial,’ provide Lunacy its thematic focus, whereas the life of Marquis de Sade provides the film’s blasphemy. Also famous (and much imitated) is the short ‘Dimensions of Dialogue’ (1982).

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