Thursday, October 18, 2012

Jiří Trnka - The Father of Czech Animated Film

This year is the 100th anniversary of his birth 
On February 24th, 1912, Jiří Trnka is born, the son of a dressmaker and a plumber, a middle class family in Bohemia. What his parents didn’t know was the fact that he was about to be a famous painter, puppeteer, illustrator and most importantly, the founding father of Czech animated film. He was a sort of renaissance man, just as Jan Svankmajer, with work that transcended one medium, from painting and puppet making to sculptor and costume designer. He was also a great inspiration for Svankmajer and Brothers Quay, but also
Ladislas Starevich or Jiří Barta.

Often considered to be the Disney of the East, this title has been seen as offensive by critics, as Trnka has nothing in common with Walt Disney, except for the fact that they both did animations. However, Trnka’s audience was formed of adults and his messages were more serious and sometimes even political, in a world where expression was often censored.

As a child, Trnka helped his mother and grandmother with sewing, but was also a self-taught wood carver and loved drawing. At 11, he was already working at the theatre and later he enrolled in the popular School of Applied Arts in Prague. After he graduated, he did various illustrations for newspapers and directed a few theatrical plays, but also had success as a painter. Some of the assistant animators that worked with him recall his extraordinary dexterity as he was able to paint with both hands at the same time, but also made puppets from scratch as a child.

After graduating from Prague School of Arts and Crafts, Trnka created a puppet theater in 1936 which was shut down during the WW2. However, after the war, he founded a real animation studio where he began his activity by making some short animations such as: Zasadil dědek řepu (Grandfather planted a beet, 1945) or Zvířátka a Petrovští (Animals and Bandits, 1946), both awarded at the Cannes Film Festival, but also many others including an anti-Nazi film. But Trnka didn’t felt like traditional animation was his call, he believed that it required too many intermediaries and he wanted to freely express his creativity. So he started to experiment with puppet animation films and as a result some of his first films were very well received. The first feature film was called Špalíček ("The Czech years", 1947), and consisted of six short films that put on stage legends and customs of his country. The film received many awards, including international awards such as the Venice Film Festival. The next film he made was Cisaruv Slavik ("The Emperor's Nightingale", 1949),based on the story written by Hans Christian Andersen which also included two real live actors in the first part. This is considered to be one of his most beautiful films, took two years to be made, and also won international awards.

He illustrated 130 books during his lifetime, and his puppets were very much like his illustrated art, unique figures with beautiful features. Although Trnka’s work was mostly around stories and legends, his last short film called The Hand (Ruka, 1965),was something completely different. It told the story of a happy potter artist who loved creating pots for his flowers until The Hand comes and requests hand statues. He is initially persuaded with money or fame, but ultimately when The Hand sees that the artist will not comply, it uses force. He ultimately dies from a heart attack and its funeral is celebrated by The Hand. In that era The Hand was nothing else but the state trying to censor an artist’s work. The same happened with Trnka and his art which was often limited by the state and even banned. Ironically, he was praised as a national artist when he died by the same state that had abused him and his art.

Trnka didn't like dialogue in his animation and often used the music of his friend, the Czech composer Vaclav Trojan as a way to help its characters express. It seems that sometimes he even changed some scenes so that they would fit the music of his friend.

There isn’t much information regarding Jiří Trnka life as he wasn't an outgoing artist and neither one that was obsessed with himself. He did art for his own pleasure and loved being immersed in the worlds he created, and perhaps that’s why he didn't care much about the outside world or writing an autobiography. His daughter remembers that when he worked only children were allowed in his studio and he always wanted to hear their criticism on his scenes. He loved what he was doing and he was a workaholic, sometimes working for a few days straight just to get a scene right.

The artist died in 1969, at a young age of 57 after a few years of isolation when he stopped making animations and returned to painting and illustrations. His early death was caused by the artist’s hectic lifestyle and also because he was a heavy smoker.

During his life he received international recognition and won numerous awards, despite the fact that he was working within a country that had a communist regime.

The last Trnka short film, The Hand:

You can buy his work here:

The Puppet Film Of Jiri Tranka / Story Of The Bass Cello / The Song Of The Prairie / The Merry Circus / A Drop Too Much / The Hand / Starring: Helena Patockova, Jaromir Sobotoa, Detsky pevecky sbor Jana Kuhna, Boris Karloff / Directors: Jirí Trnka, Milos Makovec

Further reading and sources:

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