MIAF

A puppetry trail in the Czech Republic

by Soncha Iacono (2018)

Sitting on the train tumbling through the beautiful Czech countryside scattered with snow, I feel in awe of the amazing experience I have had at the Museum Loutek Plzen, (Pilsen) in March 2018 on my very first overseas trip.

It was a completely immersive experience and a total inspiration peering into the intricate world of puppetry. I spent four hours in the museum, reading, sketching, watching and photographing the brilliant worlds of puppet pioneers, from the early 19th century through to the 20th century and modern day puppet theatres. The careers of Josef Skupa, Karel Novak, Gustav Nosek and Jiri Trnka, amongst others, are tracked through time in a wonderful presentation. The LDFO– Summer Camp Puppet Theatre, Skoda Puppet Theatre, DRAK Theatre and modern day Alfa Theatre were also of note.

My trip to the Czech Republic was inspired by the search for the story of puppetry and stop motion animation, in the very heart and homes of Jiri Trnka, Jan Svankmajer and Jiri Barta. The trail began in the center of Praha, catching underground trains, riding rattling, old tramcars and walking down cobblestone streets and alleyways.

First, I found myself on the way into the Praha 7 district, looking for the Prague Puppet Museum, which sadly, I found to be closed down. In its place, a small art gallery and a friendly lady greeted me, who then sent me a thread across the city to the Karel Zeman Museum

Arriving via the famous Charles Street Bridge with all its characteristic charm, led me straight into the quaint front entrance of the museum, nestled by a cobblestone arch. Here I found a spectacular interactive display of old school techniques in special effects and stop motion film and animation from the 1940’s to the 1980’s era, including photographs and documentary material from the life and work of the visionary filmmaker Karel Zeman.

Zeman was a true successor to pioneer special effects master Georges Melies and became a magician of the big screen, inspiring the legendary worlds of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. Zeman’s films combined live action and animation in harnessing the magical worlds of fairy tales and fantasy with elaborate finesse and ingenious technique.

The museum also contains original puppets and film sets, in particular the wonderful wooden puppet ‘Mr Pan Prokouk’, a comedic puppet popular with children and the amazing hand blown glass figurines made to drawing specifications by Zeman for his animated film ‘Inspiration’, (1948). This film is an extraordinary work of art.

The brilliant production techniques presented from the wonderful film ‘Vynalez Zkazy/ The Fabulous World of Jules Verne’, (1958), are also truly impressive. Set painters made special wooden rollers to paint both backdrops and costumes in black and white stripes to give the impression of Verne’s beautiful illustrated engravings. It works a treat and is truly amazing! The film circled the globe winning many awards and became one of the most significant films of the 20th Century.

“I’m on a journey to discover the beauty of the fairy tale and I want to stay on that path, trying to find better ways to capture it on film…Fairytales are the most beautiful things the world has created for the eyes of a child… … When I was a kid, we had a small toy theater and we’d put on shows… And somehow, ever since, I’ve taken puppets to my heart.” Karel Zeman.

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1.‘Vynalez Zkazy/ The Fabulous world of Jules Verne’, 1958: Museum Karla Zemana – Photo S. Iacono
2. Zeman painting puppets for ‘The Treasure of Bird Island’ 1952: Museum Karla Zemana

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3. ‘Inspiration’ glass figurines & film set, 1949: Museum Karla Zemana – Photo S. Iacono
4. Zeman with ‘MrPan Prokouk’ puppet, circa 1946-1959: Museum Karla Zemana

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5. ‘Mr Pan Prokouk’ puppet, circa 1946-1959: Museum Karla Zemana
6.’Mr Pan Prokouk’ & Horse puppets: Museum Karla Zemana – Photo by S. Iacono

The next part of the trail sent me in search of Jan Svankmajer’s Gambra Gallery, studio and home, where I walked down cobblestone alleys near the Prague Castle into a district called Novy Svet – here cannon balls from the Prussian Wars still remain dented in the houses! As I approach, I peer up to see two amazing clay heads atop the poster bannisters of a wooden balcony. A window is slightly open and I daringly peek in, spotting a marionette puppet poking its head up out of a plastic bag! The home of Svankmajer! I felt so happy to have found his home, emotion welled up and tears even watered my eyes. I dared again and knocked on the door. No answer. Sadly, Gambra Gallery had also closed.

I am in awe of the years Svankmajer spent alongside his wife Eva Svankmajerova, creating masterpieces in stop-motion and collage animation for the world to see and be inspired by. At age 83 years today, it is truly remarkable that he is still making films. His recent work Insects- Hmyz (2018) is a retelling of the 1922 absurdist literary adaptation ‘The Insect Play’ by Karel and Josef Capek and is inspired by Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Svankmajer’s brilliant repertoire also includes some of my favorite stop motion films Alice (1988), Faust (1994), Little Otik (2000) and Lunacy (2005).

Next, I found my way to the end of Svankmajer’s street and into an old log cabin café, ‘House at the Crayfish’, preserved as one of the first log cabins to ever be built in the area. Peering at all the interesting paraphernalia, of weathered clocks, rusty scissors, old keys and bottles, I am sure Svankmajer conjured many an inspirational sketch here, sipping coffee, mulled wine, or a traditional Czech hot orange juice called Punc near the open fireplace. This was as close as I could get to the world of Svankmajer.

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7. & 8. Svankmajer’s Gambra home studio & balcony, Novy Svet, Prague, 2018

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9. House at the Crayfish, Novy Svet – Photos S. Iacono

Finally, my search for Czech puppets led me to take a train ride out of Prague for two hours to the town called Pilsen. Here I find the wonderful Museum Loutek Plzen. The puppet museum is a Renaissance style house and sits opposite the grand Cathedral of Bartholomew and an impressive town square filled with market stalls, spruiking hot crepes, coffee and gingerbread candy, along with the tinkering sounds of a delightful horse carousel. I am at finally at home.

Pilsen has a long history of puppetry, especially of travelling folk puppeteers, who were skilled in bringing both children and adults together. The museum opened in 2009 and holds three floors of an interactive exhibition, ranging from traditional, nomadic folk puppetry to modern day theatre productions. It displays a unique collection in conjunction with the Museum of West Bohemia in Pilsen, as the center of puppetry in the Czech Republic. It also contains a life size model of Pilsen’s oldest puppet theatre: the 19th century Skoda Theatre with its original marionettes.

The puppeteer that first takes my attention is MrKAREL NOVAK (1862-1940), a travelling folk puppeteer, who performed plays, fairytales, political satire and comedies in Pilsen with his family. The Novak Family TheatreCollection of rare puppets, up to 150 years old are displayed, including the wonderful Faust Devils. The ‘Death Puppet’, carved by Mikolas Sychrovsky and the ‘Dr Faust- Dancing Devil’ puppet, circa 1840 carved by Alessi, were terrific marionettes. Another puppet that caught my eye was ‘The Long Eared Devil’ carved by Karel Novak, 1926: vivid in color, expression and form.

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10. 11. & 12. Dr Faust Dancing Devil & Death Puppets – circa 1840’s – Museum Loutek Plzen – Photos A. Hawley 2018

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13. Dr Faust & Dancing Devil’s puppet collection- Museum Loutek Plzen – Photo A. Hawley 2018

Another influential puppeteer presented was ProfessorJOSEF SKUPA (1892- 1957) and the Summer Camp Puppet Theatre (LDFO) –(1914- 1935). Skupa was a set designer, illustrator, teacher, writer, director, technician and actor who dedicated four decades to puppet theatre: particularly cabaret style puppet shows for both adults and children. He had performed with Karel Novak and his legendary family of folk puppeteers. Skupa assisted in making Czech puppet theatre world famous, especially through the Spejbl and Hurvinek characters, recorded on gramophone in the 1920’s and which can still be heard today. Skupa was most noted for his unique vocal expression, sometimes voicing five or six characters in one play, from baritone to tenor and falsetto tones.

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14. Josef Skupa with Spejbl & Hurvinek, 1929
15. The first Hurvinek carved by Gustav Nosek, 1927
16. Gustav Nosek, 1931

My first impression of Skupa’s work was the design of the Hurvinek puppet, circa 1940’s, a marvelous wooden puppet carved by GUSTAV NOSEK, (1887-1974). Skupa designed ‘Spejbl’ as a Dada inspired clown with a round face, big eyes, nose and ears, dressed in tailcoat and clogs. Hurvinek was a smaller version of the ‘Spejbl’ puppet, initially made unbeknownst to Skupa, but eventually paired with Spejbl as a father and son duo in 1930. The characters Manicka, a little girl and Zeryk, a dog also joined the production, designed by Skupa and Jiri TrnkaSpejbl was voiced by Skupa in the 1920’s and was initially partnered with the ‘Revolutionary Kasparek’ puppet, (similar to the English ‘Punch’). Spejbl was originally carved by both Gustav’s Grandfather, Frantisek NOSEK and his Uncle, Karel NOSEK.

Skupa married tradition and modern puppet theatre, with a flair for cabaret. These shows became a hit in Pilsen and symbolized the end of an empire in 1918, with the declaration of the sovereign state of Czechoslovakia. In 1920 he married JIRINA SCHWARZOVA (1895-1970) who from 1928, operated Hurvinek’s strings for more than 30 years.Skupa was elected President of the Fourth Congress of International Puppetry Union– UNIMA in Ljubljana, 1933 and in 1948 became the first puppeteer to be awarded the title of National Artist.

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17. Josef Skupa & Jirina Skupova, Spejbl & Hurvinek, 1947
18. Hurvinek 
19. Josef Skupa with Spejbl & Hurvinek, 1948

Professor Skupa’s Pilsen Puppet Theatre (1930-1943) travelled abroad delivering 3,487 puppetry performances for both children and adults during this time, often commenting on the political and satirical. Skupa was arrested and jailed as a political prisoner in 1944 in Pilsen and Dresden, but escaped during an air raid. Once liberated, he worked in Pilsen radio and in 1945 opened the Spejbl and Hurvinek Theatre in Prague until his death in 1957. Milos Kirschner (1927-1996) took on the roles of Spejbl and Hurvinek during the early 1950’s, whose successor then became Martin Klasek (b. 1957).

The most remarkable and memorable puppets I saw however, were those of JIRI TRNKA (1912-1969). In particular, I absolutely loved Trnka’s ‘Self Portrait Puppet’, c.1930’s, with its elongated body, thinly carved arms and legs dangling with promise, an angular face, rounded melancholic eyes and fitted in a high necked, cross lapel costume with buttons. Its wooden face spoke to me, filled with gesture, expression and refined character.

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20. & 21. Jiri Trnka’sSelf Portrait Puppet’ 1930’s & ‘Macbeth’, ‘Samurai’ puppets 1930’s -Photos A. Hawley

Trnka was a puppet film screenwriter, Director, teacher, illustrator, painter and sculptor. He was very influenced by the seamstress skills of his mother and his grandmother, who handmade toys for him as a child. Born in Pilsen, he found his way into puppetry and theatre via Professor Josef Skupa, his art teacher at age eleven. Trnka laid the groundwork for Czech animation alongside stop motion masters Karel Zeman, Jan Svankmajer and Jiri Barta.

Trnka assisted the LDFO Theatre behind the scenes, making puppets, props and sets. He studied at the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague and then also became a teacher. Trnka headed the Summer Camp Theatre (LDFO) with the Kuncman Brothers until 1935. He then opened the Wooden Theatre, (the first professional Prague puppet theatre), showing only four productions until 1937. In 1945 Trnka co-founded the film studio Bratri v Triku, (Stunt Brothers), which led to the creation of 24 puppet films: 18 short and 6 feature length animated films. Some of my favorite Trnka films include ‘The Emperors Nightingale’ 1948, ‘The Hand’ 1965 and ‘Cybernetic Grandma’, 1962.

Trnka illustrated over 100 books, including a fairytale called ‘The Garden’, which he also wrote and then was latermade into a puppet film by Bretislav Pojar.  He won the Hans Christian Andersen and the Melies Awards, amongst other prizes. In 2012, the puppet museum restored Trnka’s diorama ‘The Beetles’ Wedding’, 1939 and put it on display. I would love to have seen that!

On the second floor of Museum Loutek Plzen I then make my way up to a little Theatrette where you can try your hand at puppeteering, choosing from a wonderful range of wooden, folk style marionettes and expressive glove style puppets. I beeline for my favorite fairy tale characters Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and am also treated to a lovely performance of a folk girl marionette by one of the friendly gallery attendants.

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22. ‘Red Riding Hood, The Grandmother and the Wolf Puppets’ – Museum Loutek Plzen – Photo S. Iacono

The third floor of the museum presents a vast array of modern day theatre companies. In the 1950’s six puppet companies were active in Pilsen, including the traditional Novak Family Theatre, butstill performing today, arethe Spalicek Theatre, established in 1923 and the Puppet Theatre Club Boude (In the Hut), established in 1928, which is amazing. In 1966 the Alfa Children’s Theatre started, which later became the Alfa Theatre in 1992. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the theatre developed a vast repertoire of shows with different Dramaturges, Directors, Puppet Designers, staging and live music, including both classic and modern fairytales and world drama. Artistic Director T. Dvorak, created shows for children and adults alike, combining different puppet techniques and acting styles. Of note is the ‘Three Musketeers’, 2006 a ‘glove puppet grotesque’, which has been performed in over 20 countries and won 27 awards.

From 1967 the Alfa Theatre has assisted the presentation of the Skupa’s Pilsen Festival: a biennial presentation of professional puppet and alternative theatre. Between 1970-2012 the Alfa Theatre undertook more than 100 international tours and have put on over 200 productions between 1966- 2012. Divadlo DRAK (DRAK Theatre, 1958-2001) is also of note, especially their successful production of Jiri Bartek’s- ‘Enspigl,’(1974/ 2000) with Puppet Design by Frantisek Vitek.3

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23. 24. & 25. DRAK Theatre – Jiri Bartek- Enspigl – Puppet Design Frantisek Vitek (1974/ 2000) – Photos S. Iacono & A. Hawley

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26. DRAK Theatre – Jiri Bartek-‘ Enspigl’ – (1974/ 2000) – Puppet Design Frantisek Vitek. – Photo A. Hawley

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27. 28. & 29. Modern day puppet theatre displays Museum Loutek Plzen – Photos S. Iacono

Upon returning home to Australia I held my very first overseas experience close to my heart. It was everything I had dreamed of and worked towards for a number of years. To visit the home of many fantastic puppeteers and animation film makers I have admired was a true inspiration.

It was then with much dismay that two months post my return I was met with some terrible bad luck. A home burglary resulted in my camera device being stolen containing most of my overseas photos and consequent research into museum history. Most heartbreaking, were the loss of the bulk of my Museum Loutek Plzen photos. I was determined that the thief would not steal my memories or my story. Upon good advice from MIAF Director Malcolm Turner to draw those memories, I leave you with a sketch study and colored drawing of my favorite puppet, ‘Jiri Trnka’s Self Portrait’, 1930. The only sure thing left to do now, is to save up and go back to the Czech Republic, to the inspired place of stop motion animation and the remarkable home of puppetry in Pilsen and beyond.

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30. & 31. Drawings of Jiri Trnka ‘Self Portrait Puppet’, 1930 by Soncha Iacono, 2018

References:

  • MUSEUM LOUTEK PLZEN: www.muzeumloutek.cz
  • The Story of Puppetry in Pilsen’ Booklet published 2012- Pavel Vasicek & Marketa Formanova & the Archive of Museum of West Bohemia in Pilsen & associate archives.
  • Josef Skupa- Dnes a Denne Zazraky’ Booklet- published 2017- Pavel Vasicek & Tomas Pfejfer & Archives of Pilsen- (‘Archiv Mesta Plzne’) & Museum Loutek Plzen.
  • ‘Josef Skupa- Miracles Today and Every Day– Skupa’s Legacy’: Information sheet Museum Loutek Plzen: 2017
  • ‘Josef Skupa: The Birth of a Modern Artist’: Pavel Jirasek– ‘Theatralia’– published 2015.
    : Digital Library of the Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic. https://digilib.phil.muni.cz
    (Including Photograph Credits: ©Collections of Marie & Pavel Jirasek and ‘Loutkar’ Journal)
  • MUSEUM KARLA ZEMANA: www.MuseumKarlaZemana.cz
  • Filmovy Klub: Karla Zemana: ‘Filmovy Dobrodrum/ Film Adventurer: Karel Zeman’ & ‘Vynalez Zkazy’: Documentary footage 2015 & Interviews 2012: Punk Film & Prokouk Productions

Photograph Credits:

  • Colour Photos: 1, 3, 6, 8, 9, 22, 23, 24, 27, 28, 29:  © Soncha Iacono, 2018
  • Colour Photos: 7, 10, 11,12, 13, 20, 21, 25, 26, 30, 31: © Andrew Hawley, 2018

Historical Black & White Photos, (Sourced Online):

  • Photo: 14: ‘Josef Skupa, Hurvinek & Spejbl’
  • Photo: 15: ‘The first Hurvinek carved by Gustav Nosek, (for Skupa), 1927’
  • Photo: 16: ‘Gustav Nosek, 1931 Pilsen’
    : All sourced from Article ‘Theatralia’– © Pavel Jirasek, 2015 & (‘Loutkar’ Journals 16/ 14/ 27).
  • Photo 19: ‘Josef Skupa with Spejbl & Hurvinek, 1948’
    : Source: Article ‘Theatralia’- © Pavel Jirasek, 2015: (c) Collection Marie and Pavel Jirasek.
  • Photo 18: ‘Hurvinek’
    : Source: ‘Divadlo Spejbl & Hurvinek Theatre’ Archive (1945-1957):
    : Article: ‘Magazin Aktualne cz/ Kultura’: Zuzana Hronova, 2016.

Historical Black & White photos sourced from Museum Karla Zemana

www.MuseumKarlaZemana.cz
(Re-photographed close-ups by Soncha Iacono, 2018):

  • Photo 2: ‘Zeman Treasure of Bird Island’ (1952):
  • Photo 4: ‘Zeman & Mr Pan Prokouk puppet’ (circa 1946-1959):
  • Photo 5: ‘Mr Pan Prokouk puppet’ (circa 1946-1959):