Jan Švankmajer (born 4 September 1934, Prague) is a Czech surrealist artist. His work spans several media. He is known for his surreal animations and features, which have greatly influenced other artists such as Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, The Brothers Quay and many others.
An early influence on his later artistic development was the puppet theatre Švankmajer 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. In 1958 he contributed to Emil Radok’s film Doktor Faust 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 Czechoslovak Surrealist Group.
He was married to Eva Švankmajerová, an internationally known surrealist painter, ceramicist and writer until her death in October 2005. She collaborated on several of his movies including Faust, Otesánek and Alice. 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 at the time of writing.
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 coming alive and being brought to life through stop-motion. Many of his films also include clay objects in stop-motion, otherwise known as claymation. Food is a favourite subject and medium. Stop-motion features in most of his work, though recently his feature films have been including much more live action sequences rather than animation.
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 truly 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 he is one of the most celebrated animators in the world. His best known works are probably the feature films Alice (1988), Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), Little Otik (2000) 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), selected by Terry Gilliam as one of the ten best animated films of all time. His films have been called “as emotionally haunting as Kafka’s stories.
- FilmographyFeature-length films
Alice (Něco z Alenky) (1988)
Faust (Lekce Faust) (1994)
Conspirators of Pleasure (Spiklenci slasti) (1996)
Little Otik (Otesánek) (2000)
Lunacy (Šílení) (2005)
Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) (2008)
The Last Trick (Poslední trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara) (1964)
A Game with Stones (Hra s kameny) (1965)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasy in G minor (Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasia G-moll) (1965)
Punch and Judy, also known as The Coffin Factory and The Lynch House (Rakvičkárna) (1966)
Et Cetera (1966)
Historia Naturae, Suita (1967)
The Garden (Zahrada) (1968)
The Flat (Byt) (1968)
Picnic with Weissmann (Picknick mit Weissmann) (1968)
A Quiet Week in the House (Tichý týden v domě) (1969)
Don Juan (Don Šajn) (1969)
The Ossuary (Kostnice) (1970)
Jabberwocky (Žvahlav aneb šatičky slaměného Huberta) (1971)
Leonardo’s Diary (Leonardův deník) (1972)
Castle of Otranto (Otrantský zámek) (1979)
The Fall of the House of Usher (Zánik domu Usherů) (1980)
Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu) (1982)
Down to the Cellar (Do pivnice) (1983)
The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope (Kyvadlo, jáma a naděje) (1983)
The Male Game, also known as Virile Games (Mužné hry) (1988)
Another Kind of Love (1988) – music video for Hugh Cornwell
Meat Love (Zamilované maso) (1988)
Darkness/Light/Darkness (Tma, světlo, tma) (1989)
Animated Self-Portraits (1989) – Švankmajer was one of 27 filmmakers who contributed to this portmanteau work
The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (Konec stalinismu v Čechách) (1990)
Food (Jídlo) (1992)
Animation and gadgets in film
Dinner for Adele
Tajemství hradu v karpatech