The stories told by the Czech artist and animation filmmaker Jan ‘vankmajer (b. 1934) are weird and dream-like and seem to unfold in a realm beyond time and space. Having exercised a decisive influence on filmmakers like Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Henry Selick, and Darren Aronofsky, ‘vankmajer has become a legend among cineastes. And yet his works are generally only known to connoisseurs of the animation film. The Kunsthalle Wien’s show, prepared in collaboration with the Ursula Blickle Foundation, now offers the first survey on display in the German-speaking world that spans the entire range of ‘vankmajer’s oeuvre and, in addition to his cinematographic works, also comprises his sculptural objects and etchings presenting the filmmaker as a multimedia artist.
The gamut of ‘vankmajer’s production ranges from surreal films oscillating between horror and humor to sensually sculptural explorations of objects and materials and absurd graphic pictorial compositions. ‘vankmajer is clearly interested in literature, especially in Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Carroll, whom he considers ‘mentally on the same side of the river’ as himself. This is why the exhibitions in Kraichtal and Vienna are centered around his literature-inspired films such as Alice, a dark, brooding version of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and ThePendulum, the Pit and Hope, based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The film The Fall of the House of Ushermight be complementarily titled ‘A Tactile Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe.’ The camera moves through a house going to ruin, the floor comes alive, the walls break open. In an interview, Jan ‘vankmajer described his fascination for Poe as follows: ‘The effect of Poe’s stories does not reside in their plot, but in his ability to evoke feelings of horror that emanate from the inner being of the characters. He succeeds in describing the most intimate reactions of the human soul to that primal horror that rises up through our unconscious, for which the situations in which we find ourselves are simply a kind of explosive trigger.’ ‘vankmajer’s films are characterized by a special stop-motion technique the animator kept developing over the years; he frequently relies on combining cuts with atmospheric sounds. The animation methods he uses are not aimed at creating something like a complete illusion but at bringing everyday objects to life.
Besides making (short) films exploring the surreal, ‘vankmajer builds sculptures for which he uses shells, bones, feathers, and bird eggs. He adds porcelain hands and legs to skeleton parts of dead animals, transforming them into bizarre, surreal and disturbing creatures that seem to have sprung from the depths of dreams or nightmares. Some of these creatures resemble fabulous figures that have enthralled people for centuries. The passionate collector has picked up the materials for all his objects on his innumerable journeys. ‘vankmajer succeeds in imbuing dead matter with life. He looks for the morbid features in what lives that hint at the dark side of human existence, the uncanny, the intricate paths of the soul. His unusual perspectives produce unmistakable, bewitching works of art full of irony and wit, menace and fear.
Resembling historical zoological, anatomic or botanic studies, ‘vankmajer’s etchings also display fabulous figures, results of an eerie encounter of organic materials. Thus, the artist continues to bring forth fantastic creatures from his subconscious, which he regards his most powerful source of inspiration: ‘Whatever comes out of my subconscious I use it because I consider it to be the purest form; everything else in your conscious being has been influenced by reality, by art, by education, and by your upbringing, but the original experiences that exist within you are least corrupted of all experiences.’
Jan ‘vankmajer was born in Prague in 1934 and still lives in the city that André Breton called ‘the magic capital of Europe.’ It was a present that marked the beginning of the artist’s career: the eight-year-old boy was given a puppet theater by his parents. In the 1950s, he studied at Prague’s College of Applied Arts and, subsequently, at the Department of Puppetry at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts (AMU), where he was strongly influenced by Soviet avant-garde theater and film. After finishing his studies, he began working for Prague’s Semafor Theater where he founded the Theater of Masks. Some time later, ‘vankmajer changed to the famous Laterna Magika Theater, where he made his first film The Last Trick, which was released in 1964. In the late 1960s, he met the Surrealist painter Eva ‘vankmajerová, whom he married. He joined the Czechoslovakian Surrealist Group which had formed around the theoretician Vratislav Effenberger. Jan ‘vankmajer was banned from making films by the Communist authorities from 1972 to 1980, which did not prevent him from pursuing his work. His films were only screened abroad during these years, though. In 1988, he produced his first feature-length film, Alice, which became a cult movie. ‘vankmajer’s films, objects, and etchings have been exhibited all over the world since the Velvet Revolution of 1989. His works have attracted particular attention in Japan, Great Britain, and France.
The exhibition Jan ‘vankmajer. The Pendulum, the Pit, and Other Pecularities has been prepared together with the Ursula Blickle Foundation. The presentation in Vienna focuses on the three black-and-white works The Flat (1968), The Fall of the House of Usher (1980), and The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope (1983), as well as Jan ‘vankmajer’s first Surrealist film The Garden (1968), all of which will be screened in the central space of the Kunsthalle Wien. The Ursula Blickle Foundation will also show ‘vankmajer’s Alice (2000). The exhibition at the Ursula Blickle Foundation in Kraichtal will be on display from September 4 to October 16, 2011.