Documentary film discusses the Czech animator, artist, and filmmaker Jan Svankmajer’s films in relation to his cultivation of a personal mythology, interest in alchemy, and attempts to create a magic art. It places Svankmajer’s films in the context of other surrealist uses of animation, including those of Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk, but argues that they are best understood in relation to his own work across the art forms. The chapter shows that Svankmajer negotiates between Czechoslovak surrealism’s focus on concrete irrationality and French surrealism’s assertion of the importance of myth and magic. The result is a creation of minor myths that can be understood as instances of what Gaston Bachelard calls the material imagination.
After studying at the Institute of Industrial Arts and the Marionette Faculty of the Prague Academy of Fine Arts in the 1950s, Jan Svankmajer started working as a theatre director, chiefly in association with the Theatre of Masks and the Black Theatre. He first experimented with film-making after becoming involved with the multimedium productions of Prague's Lanterna Magika Theatre. He began making short films in 1964, and continued working in the same medium for over twenty years, when he finally achieved his long-held ambition to make a feature film based on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (Alice (1988)). He has also exhibited his drawings, collages and 'tactile sculptures', many of which were produced in the mid-1970s, when he was temporarily banned from film-making by the Czech authorities. He has been a card-carrying member of the Prague Surrealist Group since 1969.