Cathryn Vasseleu introduces Jan Svankmajer’s “Touching and Imagining” as a whimsical, darkly humorous, and innovative exploration of tales in tactility in art, now available in English translation for the first time. Vasseleu discusses the book’s background and the reasons why its translation has been eagerly anticipated.
Jan Švankmajer: A Czech Surrealist Filmmaker Exploring The Dark Side
Jan Švankmajer, a celebrated Czech Surrealist filmmaker, is known for exploring the darker aspects of life. In addition to utilizing puppets and live actors in his films, Švankmajer possesses a unique ability to animate seemingly mundane objects and substances, imbuing them with life. He extends the film experience beyond visual and auditory dimensions, incorporating tactile sensation to enhance communication through touch.
Throughout his career, Jan Švankmajer has engaged in various artistic pursuits beyond filmmaking, including scriptwriting, poetry, visual art, puppetry, and membership in the Group of Czech-Slovak Surrealists. In the mid-1970s, Švankmajer embarked on tactile experimentation, crafting objects alongside fellow group members.
This research spanned from 1974 to 1983, during which he temporarily halted film direction due to censorship imposed by the Communist government of Czechoslovakia. Instead, he delved into studying tactile phenomena and their connection to the imagination. Švankmajer documented his experiments in a book titled “Hmat an Imaginace” (Touch and Imagination), producing five tactile-covered copies in 1983.
These copies, featuring rabbit fur along the spine and a hand-shaped sandpaper cutout on the front, circulated as samizdat—clandestinely produced works distributed to evade censorship. Stanley Dalby has translated Švankmajer’s “Hmat a Imaginace” into English, now titled “Touching and Imagining.”
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Jan Švankmajer’s Unconventional Theoretical Exploration
Jan Švankmajer’s book defies easy classification because it lacks systematic structure, and Švankmajer himself suggests that it shouldn’t be seen as a strict script for his work. Instead, the Surrealist artist aligns his work with poetry and alchemy, viewing both as arts of metamorphosis.
Drawing from psychological experiments on fellow Surrealists and his own childhood experiences, “Touching and Imagining” serves as a philosophical treatise akin to an alchemist’s quest, not strictly defined in its trajectory but nonetheless purposefully directed.
Despite its unconventional nature, Švankmajer’s theoretical endeavor delves into the nature of tactile phenomena and imagination, yielding remarkable findings on the existence of a “tactile imagination” and “tactile memory.” Regardless of its labeling tales in tactility, his groundbreaking theoretical work significantly advances the understanding of the psychological dimensions of touch.
Švankmajer’s Unique Approach To Theoretical Work
Jan Švankmajer’s theoretical work stands out for its inclusion of playful, darkly humorous, occasionally erotic tactile objects, collages, games, poems, and scenarios—elements rarely found in the theoretical works of other artists.
These components aren’t merely illustrative examples or art objects but serve a crucial purpose as experiments. Švankmajer employs them to demonstrate the existence of tactile memory and tactile imagination, which he argues are essential for the practice of tactile art.
He initially showcased this concept through a game he created called ‘Restorer,’ designed to investigate the capacity of touch to stimulate associative thinking and serve as an imaginative stimulus rather than solely fulfilling identifying or utilitarian functions.
In Jan Švankmajer’s book, historical insights and archival references complement theoretical exploration and experimentation. Numerous avant-garde artists’ tales in tactility and filmmakers have delved into the concept of ‘Tactilism,’ as outlined in F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1921.
Prominently featured among them are figures such as Max Ernst, Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Meret Oppenheim, and Edith Clifford Williams. Švankmajer acknowledges the contributions of these artists and many others in a concise anthology of tactile art, including a dedicated subchapter to Surrealist proponents.
His comprehensive collection, which traces the evolution of modernist tactile art, also underscores the distinct roots of Czechoslovak Surrealism, originating from Karel Teige’s and Vitězslav Nezval’s Poetism, which while different, bears similarities to French Surrealism.
Origin Of The English Language Edition Of “Touching and Imagining”
The circumstances surrounding the creation of the English language edition of Hmat an Imaginace tales in tactility are less dramatic than its writing process. Notably, the involvement of two Australians is significant, highlighting the cosmopolitan nature of the themes addressed in “Touching and Imagining”.
Unable to read Czech, the author found translated fragments of “Hmat an Imagine” intriguing and approached translator Stanley Dalby to translate the entire book into English. Dalby initially hesitated due to the complexity of Jan Švankmajer’s prose but eventually agreed.
The translation project commenced with Švankmajer’s permission obtained during a meeting arranged by Michael Havas in Prague in January 2008. It was a daunting task for Dalby, involving not only translating a book written partly in Slovak and Czech but also navigating communication between Švankmajer and the editor and publisher, whose native languages were mutually incomprehensible.
Reinterpreting Švankmajer’s “Touching And Imagining” In A Contemporary Context
Jan Švankmajer’s original work, Hmat an Imaginace, clearly expressed Surrealist intentions that resonated with the history of artistic avant-gardes. However, as translators translate “Touching and Imagining” into English and republish it nearly three decades later, readers may subject it to different interpretations based on contemporary perceptions of Surrealism.
Nonetheless, the hope is that Švankmajer’s treatise on the interconnected communicative powers of touch and imagination will continue to inspire and prompt new forms of interpretation, potentially including tactile approaches.
In the top image, Jan Švankmajer is depicted participating in the Cunnilingus Game in 1980. The game’s objective is to maneuver a ball through an obstacle course using the tongue, aiming to reach the hairy hollow as quickly as possible.
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