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Issue 02, Volume 01


PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS A CENSORED MAN



by Lucy Tribble

The National Museum in Prague exhibits only one animated film: Old Czech Legends, made in 1953 by a man named Jiri Trnka. To find it, I had to weave between many large woodcuts of Transylvanian-esque princes and poorly translated write-ups of pan-Slavic lore. But Trnka’s stop-motion animation was even more effective that way; surrounded by banal academia, the sight of a fairy lilting through darkening trees seemed sadly transient. This accidental discovery instantly intrigued me. The emotive, expressionistic lighting and the pervasive, pathos-filled score gave the film a peculiar, foreboding sense of magic. Trnka does not manipulate his puppets’ facial expressions to convey emotion, nor does he lip-sync the doll’s voices. Instead, the emotional content arises from the lighting and angularity of the shots themselves, leaving the puppets enigmatically serene. Despite these self-imposed limitations, Trnka is a master of manipulation. He expertly captures epic journeys, treacherous landscapes, saintly heroism, and spritely, vivified magic — all without digital effects.

Instead, with nothing but clay and puppetry, Old Czech Legends depicts a sunset of sweeping vultures, the tragedy of a slowly dying hero, choreographed sword-fights, and chases on horseback. But there was one thing preventing my full immersion in the film: I could not understand the narration of Trnka’s film because Old Czech Legends was the only exhibit in the museum that translators had not bothered to elucidate.

My plea, then, is for a translation.

Otherwise, I am afraid, Trnka’s genius might never gain the global recognition it deserves. Even Google provides sparse information about Trnka. One article, references to which are sprinkled around the Internet, proclaims he is the “Walt Disney of the East,” but that is about as much as you will find, and is, in itself, a mistranslation. Trnka is not another Disney. Beneath the surface of Trnka’s films there lurk personal tragedies and political tensions: under heavy censorship, Trnka was forced to subjugate his artistic temperament to government commissions.

In The Hand, his incredibly poignant last work, Trnka directly addresses this stifled creativity. The short film details the pitiable career of an artist forced to play marionette to an all-powerful hand. Rather than attend to the work that matters to him—building a pot for his plant—he is driven to produce statues of the hand for its own aggrandizement. Eventually, in a tragic moment of self-reflexivity (for Trnka was himself a puppeteer), he becomes nothing more than a caged puppet the hand manipulates. The artist finally loses his life in a last failed attempt to protect and perfect his potted plant. A perfect portrait of Trnka’s experience under totalitarian authority, this film disproved the government’s previous supposition that claymation was nothing but a harmless form of entertainment for children. The Hand was banned for twenty years, and has often been considered a precursor to the 1968 Prague Spring, in which artists attained a brief glimpse of the freedom of expression for which Trnka yearned, before they too were silenced.

Trnka’s films are about much more than magical escapism. That people consider Trnka another Disney shows his epic fairytales have been half-silenced, even after the ban on some of his works has been lifted. And Trnka will remain half-silenced as long as his dialogue remains inaccessible to audiences who do not speak Czech. One can tell, even from a mere glimpse of his puppetry, that his works are worth translating. If you are in any way able, please help bring Trnka’s puppetry to the rest of the world, so that an artist silenced by censorship may not be thwarted by language boundaries as well.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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