Jan Švankmajer retrospective on show at Brighton University as part of Brighton Film Festival

By Adela Ryle | 01 November 2013

Since the mid-1960s, Surrealist artist Jan Švankmajer’s peculiar mix of live and animated films, puppetry and taxidermy have been inspiring and terrifying viewers in equal measure.

Naturalistic Cabinet III. A crow's head with a body of spiralling horn cradles an egg with its skeletal claws.
Naturalistic Cabinet© Kazumi Terazaki
Although prolific across many art forms, 79-year-old Švankmajer is best known for the 34 films he has directed, seven of which have been feature length - a particularly impressive feat given that he was once banned from film-making for almost a decade.

In a major retrospective, CINECITY presents Jan Švankmajer: The Inner Life of Objects, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first film. Alongside artefacts from half a century of filmmaking, the University of Brighton Gallery show houses Švankmajer's Historia Naturae series. Strange beasts assembled from bone, shell, wings and pebbles are displayed with scientific formality.

Bearing titles such as Pumpkin Beast 1, Taming of the Hedgehog and Superceropithecus, the hybrid animals are complemented by intricate anatomical drawings, lending them a sense of absurdist authenticity.
“For me, creating hybrid creatures is a free game of the imagination. In fact, it is playing at god,” says Švankmajer, and there is a sense of sinister power behind the bizarre constructions.

Part of the set from Alice. A doll's house, reached by a ladder, is surrounded by strange objects and creatures, including a skull in a hat on its roof.
Part of the set from Alice© Kazumi Terazaki
In one display, two bone and antler skeletons fight it out over the remains of one of their smaller fellows. The nest of eggs they each carry on their backs lends a sense of desperation to the scene, while their weapons – bone handled cutlery – add a dark humour.

In another, a tower of six armadillos balance precariously, their scales and hair preserved in visceral detail. The smallest of them is so delicate it appears almost foetal.

In the background, Švankmajer’s acclaimed short film, Historia Naturae, Suita, presents eight stages of evolution broken up with footage of a man swallowing lumps of meat. A montage of clips, photographs and stop frame animation, it bridges the gap between the odd creatures and his better known film work.

A selection of clips, sets, costumes and drawings from some of his most acclaimed works, including Alice, Punch and Judy, Lunacy and Surviving Life illustrate his finest screen work.

One of the most startling exhibits in show is a piece from Lunacy, a horror film set in an asylum run by the notorious Marquis de Sade: a huge crucifix looms over the room, featuring what must be the most tortured Christ figure in history.

Nails, shards of metal and even a crowbar are embedded in his skin, while his face, delicately carved, is barely visible under a forest of metal. His erect penis, also studded with nails, is capped with a jaunty patch of furry pubic hair, giving the whole spectacle an irreverent feeling of comedy.

On a screen across the room, Punch and Judy fight brutally and then try to bury each other alive in a tiff over a guinea pig. Next to them stands a teddy, its six inch phallus attached in perfectly matching fabric. These strange juxtapositions of comfort and violence, humour and horror are recurring themes throughout the exhibition.

“For me, animated film is about magic,” Švankmajer says. “This is how magic becomes part of daily life, invading daily life.

"Magic enters into a quite ordinary contact with mundane things, making reality seem doubtful.”

  • Jan Švankmajer: The Inner Life of Objects runs until December 2 2013. Open 11am-7pm (10am-4pm Saturday, closed Sunday). Admission free. A cinema retrospective and a programme of talks, workshops and special events take place during CINECITY from November 14 - December 1. Follow @artsbrighton‎ and @cinecity_bton on Twitter.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More pictures:

Close up of Duel II. A skeletal creature with antlers, horns and wings leans over a plate of scraps holding a set of bone handled cutlery.
Duel II© Kazumi Terazaki
A prop from Lunacy. A statue of Jesus on the cross in which he has been stabbed with hundreds of nails, shards of metal and even a crow-bar.
The crucifix from Lunacy© Kazumi Terazaki
Mineralogical Nutria (2010). A rodent has been cut in half to reveal chrystal geodes in the place of its organs.
Minerological Nutria© Kazumi Terazaki
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