Jan Švankmajer, Alchemist Of Prague

Jan Švankmajer
Bilingual edition in Czech and English
304 pages
Published by CPress

In brief: if you’re interested in either Surrealism or magick, this is a huge treat; if you’re interested in both at once, it’s an absolutely essential must-read.

Founded in 1934, the Prague Surrealist group has remained active ever since, making it the most enduring group in the world. It has been as revered in the contemporary Surrealist movement as it has been opaque to non-Czech speakers. This bilingual English-Czech publication is a precious opportunity to engage (almost*) first-hand with the thinking of Švankmajer, one of the Prague group’s leading lights.

Actually the group has so many lights that it’s something of a travesty to single any one of them out as “leading”. But Švankmajer is undoubtedly the best known in the English-speaking world, thanks to his marvellous feature films.

His latest, 2018’s Insects, is also his last: now in his 80s, Švankmajer has announced that he will make no more feature films. This big, beautiful hardback compendium therefore arrives as a kind of retrospective, compiled in collaboration with Švankmajer himself.

The book’s compiler neatly sums up the book’s overarching rationale in his introduction:

In a recent interview, Jan Švankmajer touched on the question of the character and continuity of his creative activity:

“I have been making a single film for my whole life […]. It would certainly be worth trying to […] combine [my films] into one long whole-day film and to watch the continuity of plot, environment, characters, actors, props, music, and commotion. It might then be possible to show my life in a light more realistic than the one that I have actually lived.”

This idea does not sound bad at all, I thought.

Taking this idea as his cue, the book splices together film stills, collages, photographs, quotations from essays and interviews, snippets from Švankmajer’s favourite authors (including Sade and Poe), etc. etc. The result is a captivating portrait of Švankmajer, his world and his creations.

The contents are organised in five main sections, each lavishly illustrated:

  1. “Gaudia”, bringing together images and ideas about childhood
  2. “Horribilia”, focusing on the animation of inanimate matter
  3. “Mystica”, on the dialectic between freedom and necessity
  4. “Funeralia”, on ritual and fetishes
  5. “Mirabilia”, on nature and objective chance

There is also a small collection of scripts for one-act plays, followed by a final afterword.

It’s all thoroughly engrossing, but obviously the most significant sections for occultist readers are “Horribilia” and “Funeralia”. Everything in these sections demonstrates that when Švankmajer talks about his work in terms of alchemy and magick, he is not speaking metaphorically.

He brings the dead to life, he invokes demons, he performs rituals and constructs fetishes, because he is not an artist but an alchemist and magus. A denizen not of museums or galleries, but of what he calls the Kunstkamera:

The magic world is neither subject to historicism nor value hierarchization – […] it avoids the word art, let alone such terms as success or commerce. Only the power of imagination decides there. […] Visitors to a museum should leave it with a broadened awareness of the world, that is, more educated than when they entered it. Visitors to a Kunstkamera should leave it transformed, reborn, because they have undergone a ritual of initiation.

Well, I could go on quoting passages from the book all day long, but you get the picture. Or rather, you don’t, because to quote chunks of text alone would be to neglect the images that are the book’s crowning glory. Many of them have been difficult or impossible to find in previous English-language publications, some have never been published before at all, and all are stunning. It’s hard to pick out favourites, but I have to say that the collage illustrations for Japanese ghost stories have kept me happy for hours all by themselves.

I was also particularly interested to read Švankmajer’s reflections on his travels in Papua New Guinea and his encounters with so-called primitive art. Surrealists’ usage of colonialist notions of the “primitive” (or in Švankmajer’s preferred terminology “natural peoples”, a euphemism that to my mind is hardly an improvement) is a bugbear of mine. I’ve written about it elsewhere, so I won’t bang that drum here; suffice it to say that the “Funeralia” section on ritual and fetishes sheds a great deal of light on Švankmajer’s specific ideas about it (albeit without making me change my mind). Conceptions of the “primitive”, “ancient”, “shamanic” etc. are as problematic in magick as they are in Surrealism, and it’s a topic I’ll probably return to in another blog post sometime.

The inclusion of eleven one-act plays at the back of the book is a very shiny cherry on top of an already generously iced cake. I for one had never heard of these little scripts before, and they’re terrific: biting, oneiric, often hilarious The fact that one of them was the product of a Surrealist game – the rules for which are included – only adds to the appeal. That’s one game I hope to play very soon, enlisting my own golems and homunculi as the players.

Do I have to spell it out? GET THIS BOOK.

You can order it from Kosmas. It’s a Czech bookseller, but don’t let that scare you off: even if you don’t read Czech – which I certainly don’t – it’s easy to order from the website, with just a little help from Google Translate.

Kosmas book cover reproduced under fair use
Insects trailer from International Film Festival Rotterdam’s YouTube channel
Fragments from
Faust from Jan Švankmajer’s YouTube channel

* I say “almost” because the English-language sections are poorly proofread, to such an extent that I sometimes wondered whether the translations had been checked by native English speakers. But I’m a tiresome pedant about that sort of thing, and it may not bug you as much as it did me. (Bug! Eh? See what I did there?)

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