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Jan Švankmajer. Drawing, touch, sight.

Mediumní kresba III

Jan Švankmajer is certainly the well-known Czech film-maker whom a lot of us know, but he is also an author who expresses himself through a multiplicity of languages, sculpture, installation, collage and drawing, fully consistent with his will of recreating the universe, of putting on his “wonderland” which, as he himself claims with certainty, has substance and is worthy of existence as much as the most rational side of reality.

Between the ‘70s and the ‘80s the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia forced the film-maker to only make short films which were exclusively inspired by literary classics; in this way, for instance, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Zánik domu Usheru) based on tale of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe, was born. Films like “Castle of Otranto” (Otrantský zámek) and “Dimensions of Dialogue” (Možnosti dialogu), instead, were censored because of the unconventional and ironic social criticism, which, in fact, characterizes the entire Švankmajer’s filmography.

Svankmajer “Dimensions of Dialogue”

Mediumní kresba, 2004

However, it was exactly in these years that, with obsessive perseverance, Švankmajer dedicated himself to another genre of artistic production. He entered the still not much explored territory of Tactilism and made it the essence of his artistic view. This predilection  definitely  finds its roots in the juvenile upbringing while studying puppetry at DAMU (Prague) and in the deep knowledge of Marinetti’s theories about Tactilism. Making puppets, paying attention to the slightest details, from the wooden skeletons to the padding and the set, the daily study of the materials and their rendering in the movement, made Švankmajer a master of plastic arts.

Švankmajer supports the liberation of the objects from the simple utilitarian function, and thus his puppets and inventions become his personal golems, and as a real, if not the last, Surrealist he reminds us that every object has a story of which it releases powerful impressions if one comes close to it, activating the receptors of the unconscious which elude the laws of logic. Only in this way can one access reality, which is double , ambiguous and senseless, always.

Švankmajer, Mediumní kresba IV, 2001

Mediumní kresba IV, 2001

“free Touch from the dependence on Sight”

According to the French Surrealism, one had to close the eyes to be able to finally see; however, according to Švankmajer, this is not enough: the sense which, more than every other sense, amplifies the power of the unconscious is touch, and, in order to learn how to use it, obviously, we have to look at the interior, close the eyes, but also “free Touch from the dependence on Sight”.

The works which explicitly investigate the dimension of touch are the gestural sculptures, like “Suicidal Gesture” (1994), the installations and the tactile collages, like “Civil War” (1996). However, the series in which we are more interested here is a series of drawings which Švankmajer made from 2000 to 2004. The author calls them “Mediumní kresba”, which immediately makes us think of the remembrance of the mediumistic drawings, which have not been able to find a proper and deserving place in the history of language yet. Still, the author himself reveals, in a piece of writing which we report here in an unpublished English translation, that the above mentioned drawings are the result of a state of psychic meditation, which has a mystical, ritual and magical character like a contact with the afterlife.

“Try it yourselves, even though you think that you lack the talent. The automatic drawing is not art, it is an activity of the spirit, and everyone has it (or almost everyone).”

Švankmajer has always buried himself in the human dimension of the dream and therefore very little of his graphic research deals with the mediumistic nature, but rather it is close to Michaux’s and Surrealists’ automatic drawing, on which we touched in the second issue of VAV, in which 108 explained to us how his landscapes/trance-drawings are born. In the automatic drawings the hand is guided by the unconscious which emerges and acquires sign, traces and space. A characteristic which associates a lot of automatic drawings of different authors, either they were writers, painters or simple personalities who were attracted by this kind of language, is that the drawing tends to go beyond the border of the surface of the paper, it overflows along with the stream of this symbolic unconsciousness.

Svankmajer mediumni Kresba

Mediumní kresba III, 2001

In Švankmajer’s drawings, instead, the controlled study of the composition and the thoughtful choice in the use of colours are apparent, but mostly, a lot of drawings of this series, although not all of them, were made by using another technique appreciated by Surrealists: the frottage. The clipping of a shape which serves as a base for the final drawing implies a consideration and a time for construction, and it is not conceivable that the final result may be produced only by a meditative state of the creative mind, although the use of this shape may be assigned to chance. What arouses our interest in these Švankmajer’s drawings is that the author considers the drawing not as an investigative instrument which can be useful to something else, but as the investigation itself, which is pursued by combining different linguistic elements, static and plastic elements, visual and tactile elements; therefore, the object is freed from its function, carrying out the exhortation made by the author in “Touching and Imagining” (Hmat a imaginace, 1978).


Mediumní kresba I, 2001

The “Mediumní kresba” reflect the parallel investigations which have been carried out by the author during his entire career. On the one hand, there are the meticulous investigation of the detail and the formal analogy, which is typical of his imaginary sculptures and of his Historia Naturae, of which we find echoes in a lot of his cinematographic and animated works; on the other hand, Švankmajer uses a fully trailblazing expedient of gestural sculpture, which he defines “pure form of the tactile act”, in which there is no antagonism between the subject and the object, between the interior model and the exterior model and, we would add, between the interior sign (the idea) and the exterior sign (the expression). The ornaments which constitute the sign have a primordial common sense, they multiply in modules which are inspired by natural elements: the ornament builds the shape and gives immediacy to the graphic invention. According to us, the surprising aspect of these drawings is not much the surrealistic investigation of the possibilities of the unconscious in linguistic games, but rather the process of building of the sign, which definitely comes from imagination, but also from a very realistic element which is the tactile experience, or better, the gesture.

Mediumistic drawings1

All the mediums who draw, insist on affirming, without exception, that it is not them who draw, but someone else to whom they lend their hands. We cannot fail to remember Rimbaud and his “I is someone else”!

The mediums are convinced that their hands are guided by the spirits of other dimensions. Those who have read Sigmund Freud know that it is the unconscious the thing which shows itself in those circumstances, but, as a matter of fact, this “rational” explanation is not less mysterious and obscure than the spiritualist interpretation. The psychic automatism is still unknown, although one is aware that it is the pillar of an artistic creation. The mediumistic drawings are something more primordial and fundamental than the art which derives from “civilization”; they are more similar to the creations of the primitive populations, and not much because of their morphology, but rather because of their spiritual essence. According to a mistaken belief, it is believed that the mediums who draw, do it in a sort of a trance state, with bulging eyes and almost foaming at the mouth. It is not always like that.

The automatic drawing requires the mind to reach a state of absolute relaxation, as it happens in the meditation. The deeper the relaxation, the higher the perception of the person who draws that it is not he himself/she herself who draws. It seems that the hand acquires a will of its own and that draws what it wants most. Or better, it is as if it did something uncontrollable which, however, clearly makes sense, although we still cannot understand it. Moreover, the movements (and the drawing along with them) start to acquire rhythm, and a sort of “deep ornament” – which does not have a decorative function, but it is an organic expression like that of the spirit – starts to expand itself until it invades the surface. This is what the automatic drawing and the creations of the “primitive” populations have in common. Try it yourselves, even though you think that you lack the talent. The automatic drawing is not art, it is an activity of the spirit, and everyone has it (or almost everyone).

Jan Švankmajer, 2003

1 Dibujos mediumnicos in Jan Švankmajer, Para ver, cierra los ojos. Pepitas de Calabazas ed. , 2012