Painter, ceramicist and art director
Wednesday 02 November 2005
Eva Svankmajerová saw the art establishment as a world where "artistic artefacts" are "exploited by civil servants of every stripe". Proposing an alternative to this utilitarianism, she declared, "What interests us more than the mere artefact is creativity itself, that secret boiling and bubbling of the soul. Our task is to take the lid off."
She was born Eva Dvoráková in 1940 in the Czech town of Kostelci nad Cernymi Lesy. In 1958 she arrived in Prague to begin her studies at the School of Interior Design, later moving on to the Theatre Department of the Music Academy.
In 1960 she met Jan Svankmajer, who was at the time creating his first theatrical production Skrobené hlavy ("Starched Heads") for the Semafor Theatre, where the couple held their first joint exhibition in 1961. Their artistic collaboration on film, painting and ceramics would continue for the rest of her life.
Svankmajer left the Laterna Magika Theatre in 1964 and made his first film, Poslední trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara (The Last Trick), in association with Svankmajerová and other members of the Black Theatre. Svankmajerová's signature work of the late 1960s is a series known as the "Emancipation Cycle" in which works by old masters are reinterpreted, replacing the women in the pictures with men. This use of irony established her place on the Czech scene.
The couple joined the Surrealist Group in Prague in 1970 and were continually active in the movement, contributing to the group's journal Analogon and hosting many exhibitions at their Gambra Gallery, a room on the ground floor of their home in the Czech capital. Speaking of their conversion to Surrealism and joining of the group, Svankmajer said, "It was not until my meeting with Vratislav Effenberger and the active force of the group that I realised how superficial my notions of Surrealism really were."
Censorship by the neo-Stalinist Czech regime of Svankmajer's "horror documentary" film Kostnice (The Ossuary, 1970) and Leonarduv denik (Leonardo's Diary, 1972) led to his being banned from making films for seven years. The couple therefore took to other projects, including three-dimensional "tactile art" as well as ceramics, using the pseudonyms E.J. Kostelec (Eva/Jan) and J.E. Kostelec (Jan/Eva).
In 1981 the couple purchased a derelict château in Horní Stankov, Bohemia, and transformed it over time into a Surrealist palace, including a former chapel filled with many of the animation puppets used in their films.
The exhibition "The Communication of Dreams", organised in 1992 in Cardiff by the Welsh Arts Council, was the first opportunity to see Svankmajerová's work in Britain. Further exhibitions in Western Europe followed in 1994 (Sitges), 1996 (London), 2001 (Rotterdam) and 2002 (Annency).
Svankmajer and Svankmajerová won Czech Lion awards (the country's equivalent of the Oscar) in 1994 for Lekce Faust (The Lesson of Faust), a film for which Svankmajerová was art director. In 1998 they organised a touring exhibition, "Animus Anima Animace", which visited venues throughout the Czech Republic. The show was accompanied by an extensive English-language catalogue, Anima Animus Animation, which remains the best source of information on their work.
The publication of Surrealist Women: an international anthology in 1998 was the first opportunity to read Svankmajerová's writings in English, including poems and prose. The editor, Penelope Rosemont, notes: "The fact that Svankmajerová is a painter definitely outside every 'trend' in today's art market makes it all the more notable that she also happens to be one of the most widely known Surrealist painters of our time."
Svankmajer's inspiration for the film Otesánek (Little Otik, 2000) came from Svankmajerová's illustrations for a children's fairy tale by K.J. Erben. This is the Surrealistic story of a tree-stump with a voracious appetite, raised by parents who are unable to have children of their own. The film won Czech Lion awards for Best Film, Best Art Direction (Svankmajer/Svankmajerová) and Best Film Poster (Svankmajerová). Svankmajerová's most significant contribution to the work is a short film-within-a-film which retells the Erben original in two-dimensional animation.
Baradla Cave was published in 2001 by Twisted Spoon Press as the first English translation of a novel, Jeskyne Baradla, which had appeared originally in samizdat in the 1980s. The work examines the role of women in society whilst providing a satirical look at the "mother-state" and consumerism. "The playfulness in Svankmajerová's art and her twisting of gender expectations in order to satirise their limitations saturates almost every line of Baradla Cave," the book's translator Gwendolyn Albert says:
English has limited resources for expressing the complex kind of grammatical jokes based on gender contained in the original - it was almost impossible to capture all of the humour of the text in translation.
When I asked her how long it took to write, she said it was a work that had come basically in a long rush of inspiration that she captured and didn't much alter afterward. It is eerie how some of the central themes seem to foreshadow the demise of the regime and the subsequent controlled chaos of the transformation that was to occur in Czechoslovakia in 1989.
A film documentary about the lives of Svankmajer and Svankmajerová, Les Chimères des Svankmajer, by Bertrand Schmitt and Michel Leclerc, was released in 2001. Schmitt said of their work:
The more I worked with Jan, the more I realised that the influence of Eva was essential. Their whole life is dedicated to their work, which takes on gigantic proportions, without separation . . .
Last year a major retrospective of Svankmajerová and Svankmajer's work was held at Prague Castle. Svankmajer's film Sílení (Lunacies), on which Svankmajerová worked extensively as art director, premieres in Prague this month and will serve as testament to their work together.
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