"Jan & Eva Svankmajer: Films and their Surroundings"

by Jeff Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

Laforet Museum Harajuku
Closes Sept. 19

Czech animator Jan Svankmajer is known mainly for his fantastic and macabre animations, such as “Alice” (1988), based on Lewis Carol’s novel, and his interpretation of “Faust” (1994). This new exhibition, however, explores the vast range and variety of the self-confessed surrealist’s other art and introduces his wife Eva, an artist in her own right.

Bringing together around 200 works, including props, drawings and puppets from his films, as well as other prints, paintings, montages and various artworks by both Jan and Eva, the exhibition reveals the inspiration, and tactics, borrowed from the Surrealists; the shock of the unexpected, visual resemblance and bizarre combinations; and the fears and desires of the subconscious — all of which play a part in the filmmaker’s fantastical universe.

His objet d’art bring the unimaginable into reality: a fabulous creature has the body of a bird, the tail of a fish and human feet; and a pair of shoes, covered in soil and wood, are chopped off at the toe to reveal a quartz-like stone where the feet should be.

Two paintings of faces resemble the bizarre works by Giusepe Arcimboldo (1527 — 1593). While the Italian artist composed human faces of fruit, vegetables and flowers, however, Svankmajer forms his with images of intertwined human bodies.

The human body is central to Svankmajer’s work. In his animated films, he uses clay figures in stop-motion, live action and, of course, puppets — an obsession that goes back to his childhood. The life-size puppets from “Faust” are given their own stage at the show, betraying their huge scale not necessarily apparent in the film itself. Nearby, a fully-functioning “masturbation machine” from another of his animation films “Conspirators of Pleasure” (1996) has been installed, its twisted logic making perfect sense here.

Toward the end of the exhibition Svankmajer, inspired by the ghost stories of Edogawa Rampo and Lafcadio Hearn, has taken cuttings of figures from reproductions of colorful Japanese prints and inserted them into copies of old black-and-white engravings, the creepy monsters and ghouls upsetting the civility of old European society. (Jeff Hammond)

Laforet, Harajuku, is open daily 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (last day, till 6 pm.); admission ¥900. For more information, visit (Japanese only).

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