The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer

The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer was a documentary made in 1984 which apparently brought his work to a UK audience for the first time. It was made as part of a Channel4 arts series and we can safely assume that there probably wouldn’t be funding available for this sort of thing  nowadays. The Brothers Quay, then fairly unknown, provided an animation sequence, shown below:

This tribute has led to them being taken for massive fanboys of the Svank, although in reality they are not. That infonugget came from Michael Brooke, who will be doing the free illustrated talk next Tuesday and made the introductory remarks in place of Keith Griffiths, who directed the docu but was unfortunately not able to make it down to the debate tonight.

The docu was interesting, especially because it dwelt on some of the shorts we had just seen on Sunday. Overall the various Surrealist talking heads said a lot of tosh about the Svank and the various traditions he is supposed to be embedded in. For me that’s not too interesting, he is simply a great artist, making stuff in whatever discipline he can.

In the discussion afterwards (which featured the word tacticity way too much), there were some fascinating points made about his creative process. For example, when he was banned from making films for 7 years (and his films were shown as examples of how NOT to make movies!), Svank simply switched to so-called ‘tactile experiments’ in clay and whatnot, which then provided inspiration for later works such as Dimensions of Dialogue.

Despite the respect Švankmajer commands nowadays, there is no funding available to make another feature, but this does not seem to bother him, since he will probably switch to another medium. Restrictions can be productive, as I suppose they were with Ivan Klima, who actually chose to return to Prague in 1968, rather than staying in London (he said the streets of London didn’t mean anything to him). Subsequently he was banned from writing and forced to work menial jobs, but then drew on them as inspiration for his samizdat works. Incidentally, Klima has just released his autobiography, My Crazy Century.

What was not really discussed and yet what interests me most about Švankmajer is his intersection with politics and social change. He is clearly a political artist for me, although I’m sure some would disagree. Marina Warner talks of Svank as “a scathing allegorist of the deadliness of power”. And like Klima, to continue to create even when forbidden to do so is in itself an intensely political gesture.

It’s about freedom at the end of the day. Personal freedom, collective freedom, freedom of expression.


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