Tag: Jan Švankmajer

Czech Puppets Behind the Scenes




Our Strings Attached: The Living History of Czech Puppets exhibition opens today. Thanks to our Curator Carole Genshaft, who documented the installation, you can see how the exhibition came together (from the unpacking and uncrating to putting the Czech puppets together). These rare objects are presented thanks to an international collaboration between Columbus Museum of Art, the Arts and Theatre Institute, Prague and the College of Arts and Sciences at The Ohio State University.

More than 140 puppets and set designs are included in the Czech puppets exhibition, many of the puppet designs influenced by fairy tales, literature, and art influences such as surrealism and the Bauhaus, and more.

Since the late nineteenth century, Czech artists have been fascinated by the creative possibilities of puppets. Artists in opera, ballet, dance, drama, and film— who are not originally puppeteers—have used puppets to enhance their artistic expression. The use of string puppets by contemporary artist Petr Nikl and stop-motion filmmakers Jan Švankmajer, Jiří Trnka,  and Jiří Barta (all of their work is included in the show), and many others, demonstrates the increasingly vibrant legacy of traditional Czech puppetry. These and other European artists have influenced stop-motion animated filmmakers the world over including, Americans Tim Burton and the Brothers Quay. In addition to film techniques incorporating puppetry, Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas (1993) and his latest film Frankenweenie (2012) and the Brothers Quay The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984) and The Street of Crocodiles (1986) reflect the dark, gothic quality that permeates many, popular Czech puppet and stage productions. Judging from the success of contemporary Broadway productions such as The Lion King (1997), Avenue Q (2003) and Warhorse(2007), Americans are embracing puppetry just as their Czech counterparts have done for centuries.

Puppets, yes, I said puppets

My recent trip to Prague was indeed about puppets. I traveled there with our Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Lisa Dent, our Multimedia Producer Jeff Sims, and Joe Brandesky, a Theatre Professor at OSU’s Lima campus who specializes in Russian and Czech Theatre. Several years ago, we worked with Joe on Spectacular St. Petersburg: 100 Years of Theatre Design, a wonderful exhibition that CMA had the privilege of sharing with our community.

Our latest undertaking is an exploration of the Czech Republic’s incredible puppetry tradition.  We are currently working on a collaborative exhibition for the summer of 2013 (we really do work that far out).  Many of the art works (and yes, these puppets are works of art) have never been to the U.S. before.

It is the Czech puppetry tradition that  inspires Jan Svankmajer, a Czech artist and filmmaker known for his stop-motion productions.  Svankmajer in turn influences The Brothers Quay Henry Selick and Tim Burton.

We visited The Naive Theatre in Liverec, The Museum of Puppets in Chrudim, the Divadlo Drak Theatre in Hradec, and the National Museum in Prague and met with potential partners for the project. It was a whirlwind education.

We had the unique privilege of meeting Petr Matasek, a Czech artist, set designer, director and associate professor at the Department of Alternative and Pupplet Theatre at DAMU, in Prague. (This website has more information, but is in Czech.)

We were able to watch a rehearsal of Matasek’s latest production of Roald Dahl’s James and The Giant Peach, but the real honor was watching him carve. He rarely carves puppets these days, so it was truly wonderful to be able to watch his creative process.

Below is a picture of Petr Matasek (on the left) and Joe Brandesky.

And these are photos of puppets designed by Matasek.

From a production of Pinocchio

And puppetry really is a rich and varied tradition in the Czech Republic. The photo below is of puppets from the 19th century.

Many families even had puppet theatres in their homes (entertainment prior to television).

And, demonstrating that puppets aren’t just for children,  these are photos of puppets used in a production of Shakespeare’s Tempest.

And here is a behind the scenes photo of Jeff Sims putting on his own puppet show.

And, I have to tell you, these is a wonderful Eastern European tradition that you share a toast at the beginning of new projects to celebrate working together. Even if it is 10:30 in the morning.


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Nannette Maciejunes, CMA Executive Director