Eva Svankmajerova

Painter, ceramicist and art director

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.

Marcus Williamson

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links