A Little Sketch by René Iché

There’s already a post at Pigtails on French artist René Iché, who was primarily known for his sculptural work. But I had to share this lovely little sketch, which appears to be unfinished. I myself have lots of these sorts of unfinished sketches lying around in my studio, just quick studies that aren’t intended to amount to anything and were mainly done just to get my creative juices flowing. I suspect this was something similar, a nice quick look into the artist’s process.

René Iché – Étude d’une fillette nue [1931]

Maiden Voyages: June 2018

As usual, a few interesting things pile up each month in my in-box. I am taking another research trip to the UK this year and so I would like to advise readers that I will not be available to respond to emails and comments to posts until I return on the 18th. I know I have been acting mysteriously about these trips, but this time I plan to come back with specifics about what this means for the long term of Pigtails. I know Pip and Christian will do their usual good job of keeping the home fires burning.

A Turn of Phrase: I got an unusual email this month from a reader who simply sent a link with little explanatory information. It was a video of 11-year-old pianist Alexandra Dovgan (Александра Довгань) during a 2018 competition. It has been a long time since I just sat and listened to music. The title of the email was simply “Beauty” and a follow up message revealed that the reader did not know much English and could not say much. He said it was Pigtails’ motto “A Girl is Innocence…” that was the impetus for his submission and “Beauty” had a special double meaning for him. Perhaps it is unfair to single out this girl for attention, but I think music aficionados who view this video will agree that Dovgan is a talented and disciplined performer.

Nudity in Commercials: An associate sent me a links to a couple of advertisements in Portuguese and another was kind enough to translate what was being said. Both are remarkable in their seemingly mundane use of nudity. The logic is that they promote products for healthy living and showing healthy bodies drives home the point. The first is a 1987 ad for a probiotic yogurt. The little girl is explaining that Mommy has been taking care of her since she was a baby and now they eat this yogurt together. A second commercial  from 1979 is for a corn-based margarine (Mila Margarina) that keeps you “healthy and strong”; there are a number of similar ads on YouTube for this product as well. I was told that Brazilians generally have a healthy body image and women and girls of all ages can be seen in thongs at the beach. Nowadays little girls are required to wear their tops at public beaches, but it’s still common at private swimming pools for them to be topless.

On Becoming a Model: One of our readers sent a number of links to articles about the world of child modeling and sometimes discussing the issue of nudity. This month’s installment is some advice about how to encourage children interested in performing without pushing them into something they are not interested in.

Eternal Stigmatization: This is a little off-topic for Pigtails but this story has an interesting twist. We have covered news items dealing with issues of decency and legality when exhibiting pictures of children. The artist in question is painter Bruce Habowski who had three of his works removed from a University of Southern Maine exhibit. the paintings were removed by order of the USM president over the curator’s objections after receiving a complaint/tip from a member of the public. In this case the removal was based solely on the artist’s record, not the content of his work; in fact, his work does not depict people at all but was part of an exhibit about Maine’s industrial landscape.

Michèle Baron

Two years ago, I presented two artists selling their work through Carré d’artistes, Alexandre Lamotte and Delphine Blais, of whom I had bought some paintings. In fact, at that time I had bought works from from two more artists, so—better late than never—today I shortly present one of them.

Born in 1952 in Tunisia, Michèle Baron moved to France at age 8. She attendend drawing, painting and sculpture classes at the School of Fine Arts in Lyon and then trained as a stylist at the Duperre School of Applied Arts in Paris; she also learned carpet making in Morocco for two years. She has worked as a graphic designer in textile design, silk painting and hand painting, then for 20 years in children’s publishing. Her colourful paintings often show women and girls, with their bodies in motion, full of life and energy.

More information about her life and works can be found on her webpage at Carré d’artistes. I give here a photograph of a small 13cm × 13cm acrylic painting by her, whose French title translates as “The pail, the yellow oilskin and the watering can”:

Michèle Baron – Le seau, le ciré jaune et l’arrosoir (c2016)

Finally I show a picture of the artist at work, from the information leaflet about her made by Carré d’artistes:

(Unknown photographer) – Michèle Baron at work

Microscopic Theaters of Dichotomy: The Collage Art of Ashkan Honarvar

The title of this article, Microcosmic Theaters of Dichotomy, comes from the Statement page of Norwegian collage artist Ashkan Honarvar‘s website:

Ashkan Honarvar´s collages present the human body at the center of microcosmic theaters of dichotomy in which irrationality permeates logic, serenity belies violence, and luxury secretes exploitation. Tragically vulnerable to injury yet resilient in its ability to heal, the body itself is a living paradox: its vitality can be beautiful; its deformation, grotesque.

That’s as good a description as any for the often contradictory nature of Honarvar’s work, wherein one can find paradoxical juxtapositions as a matter of course: babies and flowers next to images of war casualties, deformed and diseased flesh elevated to both holy relics and confectionery delights, cheap pornography in the most luxurious surroundings. Perhaps this paradox arises in part from Honarvar’s own history and sense of identity. Born in Shiraz, Iran in 1980, as a child his family moved to Utrecht, Netherlands, and then later to Norway—what an incredible culture shock that must have been for young Honarvar, going from one of the most conservative parts of the world to one of its most liberal.

Of course, children show up frequently in his art, often nude. The symbolism cannot be overlooked here: purity and innocence violated by the artist’s despoiling black ink and unfeeling, implacable blade. This symbolism is used to great effect in the series Children, which his site describes thusly:

This project was created after studying child sexual abuse. By inscribing lines on and adding negative spaces to the actual photographs, Ashkan Honarvar has attempted to record not only the physical, but also the mental scars that stay with a victim for the rest of their lives. Each collage was based on a different case of sexual abuse.


Ashkan Honarvar – Children (1)

Ashkan Honarvar – Children (2)

Ashkan Honarvar – Children (3)

Ashkan Honarvar – Children (4)

Ashkan Honarvar – Children (5)

Ashkan Honarvar – Children (6)

Ashkan Honarvar – Children (7)

In the series Identity Lost, Honarvar uses medical images of both humans and animals to comment on the modern world, where individual identity is frequently subsumed by social utility.

Ashkan Honarvar – Identity Lost 6 (1)

Ashkan Honarvar – Identity Lost 6 (2)

Ashkan Honarvar – Identity Lost 6 (3)

The Reality series demonstrates the malleability of our perceptions with respect to movies, and ultimately our environment as a whole. We tend to see what we want to see, sometimes missing vital facts and ignoring things we’d rather not think about, such is how consumption of media may be impacting children negatively.

Ashkan Honarvar – Reality (1)

Ashkan Honarvar – Reality (2)

Ashkan Honarvar – Reality (3)

In The Crust, one of Honarvar’s longest and most complex series—which is broken up into both subseries and phases—he looks at humanity on a much larger scale, examining our place in the universe, what makes us human, and the origins of evil. He says of it:

My work deals with the human condition and the search for the roots of evil latent in every human being. I have been working on this subject for couple of years now. Projects like Faces, Ubakagi and Children focused on specific sub-sections of this subject such as war and identity, rapists from the Congo and child abusers. One of my main goals with The Crust was to view the topic of evil on a grander scale. To dig deeper into the origins of the projects mentioned above. However different these projects may look on the surface, their core is the same. They all revolve around us, humans. To understand evil we must understand ourselves.

Of particular interest to our readers is The Crust 1, Phase 1, the very beginning of the series. It asks, how is the innocence of children first corrupted? Where are the origins of evil in us as a species?

Ashkan Honarvar – The Crust 1 – Phase 1 (1)

Ashkan Honarvar – The Crust 1 – Phase 1 (2)

Ashkan Honarvar – The Crust 1 – Phase 1 (3)

Ashkan Honarvar – The Crust 1 – Phase 1 (4)

Ashkan Honarvar – The Crust 1 – Phase 1 (5)

Ashkan Honarvar – The Crust 1 – Phase 1 (6)

Ashkan Honarvar – The Crust 1 – Phase 1 (7)

Ashkan Honarvar – The Crust 1 – Phase 1 (8)

Ashkan Honarvar – The Crust 1 – Phase 1 (9)

Ashkan Honarvar – The Crust 1 – Phase 1 (10)

Ashkan Honarvar – The Crust 1 – Phase 1 (11)

Ashkan Honarvar – The Crust 1 – Phase 1 (12)

These final few images I have no commentary on, save to say that they repeat some of the same themes present throughout Honarvar’s work.

Ashkan Honarvar – King of Worms – Parasite

Ashkan Honarvar – Paradise Lost 5 (1)

Ashkan Honarvar – Paradise Lost 5 (2)

Ashkan Honarvar – Paradise Lost 5 (3)

Ashkan Honarvar – Paradise Lost 5 (4)

One final point I’d like to make: despite the nudity, sexual content and violence therein, the message behind Ashkan Honarvar’s art is surprisingly conservative. After all, he didn’t create the original content that he uses to make his collages; he only repurposes it to demonstrate his ideas. As is often the case with nude child art, a mere surface reading of it completely misses the point.

Random Images: Swedish Tourism Office

Yet another contribution from one of our readers. Even today, an advertisement featuring fun at the beach would show scantily-clad, happy, beautiful people. The image is not only a throwback from a different time, but demonstrates the Swedes’ reputation for a relaxed attitude about the human body. Often overlooked is the fact that there is a perfectly pragmatic reason for leaving young children unclothed: it saves money. The clothing industry makes a fortune convincing people to buy appealing but appropriately modest swimwear for their toddlers and children just to replace them the next year.

Swedish Tourism Office Ad (c1990)

Five Portraits by Odilon Redon

One of the strangest representatives of symbolism was Odilon Redon (1840–1916), a French painter, print-maker, draughtsman and pastellist. He cultivated a form of esoterism, seeing his works as a kind of window opening on a hidden spiritual world.

During the first half of his career he worked almost exclusively in charcoal and lithography, producing what he called his Noirs, dark images showing nightmarish apparitions, like huge eyes floating in the sky or big human-faced spiders. After the birth of his first son Ari in 1889, he felt a kind of snap, and progressively from 1890 to 1900 his work evolved towards bright colours. Also the sale of the family domain of Peyrelebade in 1897 represented a break with the past. His later works showed a profusion of colours forming arabesques, cloud-like structures or imaginary flowers.

I show here 5 portraits of girls by Redon. I start with the daughter of one of his most famous clients, Robert de Domecy, who commissioned Redon in 1899 to create 17 decorative panels for the dining room of the Château de Domecy-sur-le-Vault. This drawing used mostly charcoal. I have found two different renderings of the colours, first on The Athenaeum, then on WikiArt:

Odilon Redon – Portrait of Mademoiselle Jeanne Roberte de Domecy (1905) (a)

Odilon Redon – Portrait of Mademoiselle Jeanne Roberte de Domecy (1905) (b)

The next four portraits were made with pastel. Here is an anonymous little girl (the image comes from The Athenaeum):

Odilon Redon – Nude Little Girl (ca. 1906)

The last three portraits (images taken from WikiArt) are named. For this one, I have not found the relation between Redon and the sitter:

Odilon Redon – Portrait of Geneviève de Gonet as a Child (1907)

Finally, Redon painted the two daughters of his patron Gustave Fayet:

Odilon Redon – Portrait of Simone Fayet (1907)

Odilon Redon – Portrait of Yseult Fayet (1908)

This last portrait exemplifies the profusion of colours in Redon’s later works, with the sitter appearing surrounded by an imaginary vegetation, while the iridescent sky shows spots and streaks of various hues.

For French-speaking readers, I advise the excellent study “Odilon Redon et le vitrail symboliste” by Nolwenn Chauvel, published in four parts by Les Éditions du Faune (part one, two, three and four).

A Journey Through the French Countryside: The Fox and the Child

Part film, part nature documentary, The Fox and the Child was directed by Luc Jacquet and is one of many nature films and documentaries that he has created. Prior to this movie he made March of the Penguins and Il Était Une Forêt was his follow up project. The movie is set in the Giron, located within the Ain department of France, an area chosen by the director as the story is a partial retelling of memories and experiences that happened during his childhood and the Giron was the area he grew up in. Jacquet hasn’t specifically mentioned what parts are completely true to his life, though it is interesting to note that he made the main character a girl. In an interview for Pathe UK he tells us that he decided to use a female actress, Bertille Noël-Bruneau, as she would be more curious and sensitive, therefore more accurately portraying the character he wanted for this story; it was thought that a boy would be more brash and brutish.

Luc Jacquet – The Fox and the Child (2007) (1)

There is little plot within the movie; it is a simple story about a child that becomes obsessed with a fox and sets about trying to tame it. Once the fox is more tame the film goes on to show the interactions they have. The lack of a plot is made up for by the amazing cinematography, which is the reason many describe the movie as a nature documentary. Much of the budget would have been spent in this department and if the director was attempting to make a high quality documentary then he has achieved this.

When creating the scenes with the fox both wild and tame foxes were used. Six tame foxes were used during the production of the movie and the wild foxes and other wildlife were mostly filmed in the Abruzzo National Park, located in Italy. A team of cinematographers were sent there, for several months, to collect footage and this process was documented for a separate production entitled On the Trail of the Fox. There were few special effects used in the filming of this movie and in some interviews the director said he used none. However, in an interview for Digitalspy.com he did hint at the fact that some tricks were used in the chase scene between the fox and the lynx. I also think that some effects were used in the scenes with the wolves. In that scene they either would have used very tame wolves or would have used split screen technology, which would have allowed the scene to be filmed separately with the individual characters then merged together.

What follows is a brief description of the film. Since the ending is described, those who wish to view the film first are advised not to continue. Also I would mention a link to the film, however the videos are quickly removed quickly for copyright violations, making such links pointless.

The story starts with the child travelling to her school. During her journey she observes a fox and though the encounter is brief it creates a strong desire in the child to see the animal again.

Luc Jacquet – The Fox and the Child (2007) (2)

Throughout Autumn she spends as much time as is possible in the local forests, observing its inhabitants, though her main aim is to find the fox. However this never occurs and as winter sets in she learns how to identify the tracks different animals leave in the snow. While on one of her tracking expeditions she is startled by the howling of wolves. As they sound close by, the girl panics and tries to run home. In the process of running home she falls and seriously injures her ankle, which renders her house-bound until the spring arrives.

During her recovery we observe the child reading books about foxes and other animals of the forest. We are also shown scenes of the fox hunting, finding a mate as well as escaping from a lynx.

Luc Jacquet – The Fox and the Child (2007) (3)

Springtime arrives and the girl recovers so she resumes her exploration in the woods; this sequence devotes a lot of time to the nature-based cinematography. The following scenes show her finding many fox’s dens, including one that is that is obviously inhabited.

Luc Jacquet – The Fox and the Child (2007) (4)

Sitting amongst some bushes she patiently waits for the fox to appear; however the fox is very wary of humans, more so now that it has cubs, so only appears after the girl has left. The fox is so upset that a human has discovered its home that it starts moving its young to another den and, coincidentally, the child sees the fox moving the last of it’s young. The girl, understanding that the fox is extremely frightened, decides to observe the fox from a distance and, after many days, she sees it again.

Luc Jacquet – The Fox and the Child (2007) (5)

The next scenes, which occur over several weeks, depict the girl trying to gradually tame the fox. She starts to put out pieces of bacon that lead to her tree. The fox initially flees as soon as it knows that there is a human nearby, but gradually starts coming closer. After many weeks the fox allows her to follow it from a distance—another sequence that allows for a lot of nature cinematography—and takes food from her hand.

Luc Jacquet – The Fox and the Child (2007) (6)

During the summer the girl lives through many adventures with the fox. The following scenes show both characters exploring a stream, as well as travelling through a cave system and almost getting lost inside. Fortunately, they only spend one night in the forest and are found by the child’s parents in the morning.

Luc Jacquet – The Fox and the Child (2007) (7)

Luc Jacquet – The Fox and the Child (2007) (8)

In their next encounter the child finds the fox trapped on top of a tree trunk and surrounded by wolves. She manages to save the fox by screaming, throwing objects at the wolves and generally acting crazy.

Luc Jacquet – The Fox and the Child (2007) (9)

After this encounter the fox allows the child to visit its home and interact with the cubs.

Luc Jacquet – The Fox and the Child (2007) (10)

In appreciation the child decides to show the fox her home. She entices it up to her bedroom, closes the door and starts to show the fox around. Unfortunately, the fox does not like the enclosed space and panics. Running and jumping around the room in a desperate attempt to escape, it eventually jumps through a closed window and falls to the ground.

Grief stricken, the girl carries the fox back to it’s home and promises it that she won’t force it to do anything it doesn’t like if it gets well again.

Luc Jacquet – The Fox and the Child (2007) (11)

As she walks off she notices that the fox has survived; this will be the last time she sees it. From then on the fox keeps away from the child though she does still hear it calling.

Luc Jacquet – The Fox and the Child (2007) (12)

In researching this movie I noticed that some plot descriptions have slight differences to them which means the film has multiple versions. The description above is just one of the ways the movie plays out.

Random Images: An Iconic Ad?

Although we have a backlog of images and artists to share, it is really nice when a fan shares something I have not seen before. Also, I like showing my appreciation by posting those as soon as possible so that our readers don’t just think their contributions are going unnoticed. The next few random images come from one of our biggest supporters. He lives in Mexico and has come up with some items from Central and South America.

I had to agree with him that this felt like an iconic ad but no one else had submitted this image and attempts to find out more using the ‘Little Orphan Images’ page got no response. I am glad to finally be able to present it here and the contributor was gracious enough to translate the poetry into English.

Vinylia ad (1986)

This ad appeared in Mexico in the late 1980s advertising floor coverings.

Footsteps are soft,
Sky is quiet,
I leave my ice cream and feel so amazed.
I do not feel any heat or cold at all under my feet.
I breathe so deeply, ramble and think, “I am so happy!”
-Vinylia Ad (1986) translated by the contributor.

Maiden Voyages: May 2018

My First Artist Friend: I must regrettably inform everyone that Polixeni Papapetrou passed away on April 11th at the age of 57. She is survived be her immediate family: husband Robert Nelson and two college-aged children, Olympia and Solomon who posed for the artist frequently. She is also survived by what must be a multitude of friends and fans.

One of the things about the internet is that it is so anonymous and impersonal. Even legitimate email comments or inquiries go unanswered. I wrote her a short note of support in 2008 at a time when the media were staked outside her home during a resurgence of controversy about an image of Olympia in the nude. She actually took the time to reply thanking me and responded to some comments I made about other artists like Sally Mann, whom she admired. At the time, I did not realize she was an expert on Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and gave me a reading list. Years later, she even sent me a copy of her dissertation on Carroll.

The ironic part about the controversy was that she was being ridiculed for child nudes which were actually quite conservative and were only a momentary diversion by an adoring mother. In our missives to one another, the subject of nudity often came up and Poli always felt it necessary to remind me that she was not really interested in nudes per se. In fact, her motifs in her later work clearly centered around the idea of our persona, attire, masks and the outer surface of things. Admittedly, many people did not understand the images of children in animal masks, masks of old people, clowns, etc. But Poli was making a sincere exploration into the mystery behind the appearances of things.

Many artists inspired her: Diego Velázquez, Julia Margaret Cameron, Sally Mann, etc. Like any skilled composer, she would experiment with variations on the work of other artists and then use what she learned to effectively convey her own vision. But all the while, there was the gratitude she had for her models who helped make it all possible. Her last installation, ‘My heart—still full of her’, was a dedication to her models, especially Olympia. A lot of fuss was made about the images of Olympia in the series ‘Play’ and the images were removed from her website to wait out the hysteria. It always saddens me when media hype obscures whatever discussion might have organically emerged.

Poli was always quite generous and frank in her letters and notes to me. Communicating back and forth made me realize how shallow and dimensionless most people are and that is the first time I got the feeling that “artists are my people”. She was also surprisingly frank about her illness and would offer updates about the latest tests or when the cancer had progressed. The ironic thing was that she took such good care of herself and observed a vegetarian diet; she was simply dealt a bad hand and did her best to get the most out of what time she had left. She was always mentioning books—both fiction and non-fiction—and films she would watch with her kids. And although she hated the bother of traveling around for exhibitions, she did love visiting Europe with her family.

In 2012, when Poli’s disease took a turn for the worse, I wanted to make sure she knew what regard I had for her and that is when I made the post ‘Artists are People Too’ so she would be able to see it in her lifetime. Her husband Robert was instrumental in answering questions whenever Poli was incommunicado. I had asked her if she would prefer I make no reference to the cancer, but she said people would learn of it anyway and she did not want to appear to be hiding anything. Nonetheless, in public exhibitions she did not want viewers focusing on her condition. When she became too weak to walk and stand, she had to be wheeled around. She would always make sure she was seated in a regular chair when the public came to see her; she looked perfectly healthy otherwise and so no one really suspected. When she first told me about her latest exhibition, she sent a photo of herself in a wheelchair next to one of her “notorious” images. I commented how strange it was to see her like that and it was heartwarming to realize that she was able to let he hair down with me. But I did still get the feeling that she was keeping me at arm’s length: never wanting to speak on the phone or inviting me to visit. In retrospect, maybe the slight detachment allowed her to he get things off her chest that she would not want to burden close friends with.

To my own surprise, Poli made sure I was sent media kits of most of her exhibits and I even got a couple of interesting Christmas cards. They were photographic, of course and Olympia and Solomon got to design the composition for two of them. I felt really honored to be included like that and I have a special shelf where I display all my Poli materials.

It was a real privilege to be in on the artistic process. I would often be treated to test images for a series that had not yet taken shape and a little explanation of her thought process. One image that finally appeared in ‘My heart’ I had seen several times. The photograph was produced in the style of Julia Margaret Cameron, but when Poli first took it several years ago, she was not sure how she would use it. Later, she sent another version.

Polixeni Papapetrou – My Ghost from ‘My heart—still full of her’, 2018

I’m making some new pictures from the archive including self portraits, silk screened on linen using gold foil. It’s very difficult to capture the look in a pic as it has to be seen physically. Polixeni Papapetrou in a personal note, 2016.

The final title, My Ghost, is quite apropos as I suspect this one has been haunting her for a while.

There are still a few loose ends and so I can assure readers that the Poli story is not over. Toward the end, although I wanted to stay in touch about her latest exploits, I did not want to put any further demands on her already waning strength. But in her last couple of messages I was told that a publisher was interested in making a book dedicated exclusively to Poli’s work and life. I will be following up on that and informing readers when I learn more.

Things really should have stopped after our first initial pleasantries but whenever one of us saw something interesting and relevant, we would pass it on followed with some discussion. Now when I see something and think, “Oh, I should share this with Poli”, I will be struck by the cruel reality that there will be no more sharing. Good Bye, Poli! -Ron

Fear Has Big Eyes: Jan Švankmajer

What little I know about stop-motion animation is that it takes great patience and discipline. As a result, the results are usually quite imaginative; otherwise, why bother? In the course of reviewing Illustrating Alice (2013) by Artists’ Choice Editions, I found an interview of Czech animator Jan Švankmajer in which he shares how the works of Lewis Carroll have influenced him.

Švankmajer was born in Prague in 1934 and studied at the Institute of Industrial Arts and the Marionette Faculty of the Prague Academy of Fine Arts in the 1950s. He began experimenting with filmmaking after becoming involved with the mixed-media productions of Prague’s Lanterna Magika Theatre and produced his first short film in 1964. Always in the back of his mind was the idea of making a feature-length film based on Alice in Wonderland. He has persevered despite persistent efforts by Czech authorities to ban or undermine his work. He has been a member of the Prague Surrealist Group since 1969.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (1)

Lewis Carroll’s Alice is rooted firmly in my mental morphology. To me, she’s not someone who stands apart from me. And since I have worked throughout my entire life in the fashion of a dialogue conducted with my childhood, I have also been in dialogue with Lewis Carroll. -Jan Švankmajer, Illustrating Alice, 2011.

The animator’s first venture into Carroll’s material was in 1971 with the short film Žvahlav aneb šatičky slaměného Huberta based on Carroll’s poem, “Jabberwocky”. According to Švankmajer, this video collage was an expression of the history of his childhood up to the moment when he first rebelled against his father. After each scene, a black tomcat representing the animal subconscious, disrupts the carefully arranged setup and, in the end, is locked up in a “cage of domestication”. The the only spoken words are an introductory recitation, by a young girl, of Carroll’s poem which appeared in Alice Through the Looking-Glass. The voice in the Czech version was done by his own daughter, Veronika, who was nine at the time. In Czechoslovakia, the film was banned because the censors said it contained political allegories. He proceeded to make the English version which travelled the world as an American film through Weston Wood Studios. After 1989, the proprietor of that company generously transferred the rights to the film to Švankmajer and thus, after a delay of 16 years, it was finally shown in Prague.

Jan Švankmajer – ‘Jabberwocky’ (1971) (1)

Jan Švankmajer – ‘Jabberwocky’ (1971) (2)

His most autobiographical film was also inspired to a degree by Alice. Do pivnice (Down into the Cellar, 1983)¹ tells of a little girl (Monika Belo-Cabanová) sent to the cellar to fetch some potatoes and what befalls her down there. Like other filmmakers such as Carlos Saura, Švankmajer decided to portray himself in the feminine person perhaps giving the viewer a stronger sense of the child’s vulnerability. In its fantastical sense, it is much like Alice but, compared to the later film of that name, gives a relatively straightforward linear account of a child seized with terror in a giant grown-up world.

Jan Švankmajer – Do pivnice (1983) (1)

Jan Švankmajer – Do pivnice (1983) (2)

Jan Švankmajer – Do pivnice (1983) (3)

In Czech there’s a saying, “Strach má velké oči” (Fear has big eyes). The saying is meant to convey the idea that our fears tend to overwhelm our willingness to take risks. In reality, the dangers are often much less than we imagine and Švankmajer’s life exemplifies this point perfectly. It is a testament to his tenacity that he followed through with his projects. He says his excursions into the underworld played a major role in developing his imagination. Do pivnice also ran up against the censors and was locked away for a number of years. The film had to be produced in a studio in Slovakia and the studio there demanded changes that the artist was unwilling to make. The concern was that it might cast a negative light on Slovakian life when viewed by an international audience. They also objected to the fact that there was no clear distinction between scenes taken from reality and those taken from the child’s imagination. Only after those first two films did Švankmajer dare to attempt a “complete” Alice.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (2)

Alice thought to herself, “Now you will see a film made for children, perhaps—but I nearly forgot—you must close your eyes otherwise you won’t see anything!” -Jan Švankmajer, Alice, 1988.

This is a strange introduction for Něco z Alenky (1988), a film about to offer the viewer a visual spectacle. But once one understands the filmmaker’s intent, it is clear that he is setting the stage for a kind of lucid dream peppered with nonsense.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (3)

The filmmaker understood that he was embarking on well-trodden territory with countless film adaptations having come before.

… in my belief film-makers will never stop coming back to her [Alice], since the book’s oneiric imagination cannot fail to inspire and cries out for ever new interpretations. Yes, it is written as a dream-record and, just like the dreams of any of us, it is in code … with Carroll there are two forms of his Alice: one, the ‘manifest’ form that doesn’t change, and the other, the ‘latent’ form that mutates according to the age at which we happen to be reading it. -Jan Švankmajer, Illustrating Alice, 2011.

Most adaptations of Alice try to force it into the genre of a fairy-tale, but Švankmajer believes that doing so deprives it of the free flow of dream. There is no real moral message to a dream and it refuses to conform to socially acceptable criteria. In that respect, the animator has tried to stay true to the experience without presuming to interpret Carroll’s musings.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (4)

Dream may be regarded as the domain of the fantastic and yet it is grounded in mundane reality. Švankmajer takes those things with which Alice would be most intimately familiar—the things found in her own little room—then expands them into the vast landscapes of her imagination. In the film, we are taken into the world of imagination through a desk drawer. One of the amusing running gags of the film is that every time Alice pulls the handle, it comes off in her hand and she then has to pry her way in.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (5)

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (6)

The artist realized that one must constantly resist the urge to tell a chronologically ordered tale and, indeed, there is no feeling of continuity between discrete scenes.

All the objects, props, dolls, toys, costumes and Alice herself (Kristýna Kohoutová)—the only live actor—are practical elements and not specially crafted for the film. Švankmajer says this is important because, “After all, nothing in our dreams ever astonishes us, since anything that makes up our dreams seems utterly natural.”

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (7)

An interesting convention in the film was to use a doll as a stand-in for Alice whenever she was in her “small” form.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (8)

Another running gag is whenever a character is “injured”, there is a short pause in the action while sawdust is replaced and tears in the fabric sewn up. Because dreams are inherently autobiographical, the only voice heard throughout the film is Alice’s (Camilla Power), even when “doing” the voices of the other characters.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (9)

No Czech state studio showed any interest in the film and so all financing and resources came from out of the country. This was a major hindrance since after World War II, the film industry was nationalized and the Czechoslovakian government held a monopoly. The help of institutions such as Artcentrum were enlisted to give the project legitimacy and to avoid running afoul of the law. Another parallel with Saura was the use of restored, discarded cameras in the filming and editing process.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (10)

The point of my film had been apparently modest: to bring some attention back to dream, which modern civilisation had ceased to lay much store by, which society had tossed on the scrapheap of our psyche. After all, the last serious scholarly work on dreams, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, was almost a hundred years old! … Until we begin once more to tell fairy-tales and ghost-stories at bedtime; and to recount our dreams on waking up, there is now nothing to be hoped for from modern Atlantic civilisation. -Jan Švankmajer, Illustrating Alice, 2011.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (11)

In 2006, Švankmajer was asked by a Japanese publishing house to illustrate both of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. An excerpt from that Foreword elucidates the artist’s core philosophy:

Lewis Carroll’s Alice is one of the basic books of this civilisation, one of those we should take with us to a desert island, just in order to survive. It has taught dozens of generations of ‘atectonic’ children. I am no exception. And it’s not just a book for children. On the contrary, it is evidence that no specific ‘art for children’ actually exists, and that that notion is just commercial flimflam. We may only argue over whether this or that book (picture, film) is appropriate for children. Carroll’s Alice can be read at any age.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (12)

The artist concludes that Alice continues to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration (as does his own childhood). Those creations that did not come from these sources have never left him fully satisfied and he feels that he must sit down in peace and quiet, pick up a pencil and start once again.

And so whenever in the course of our lifetime we pick the book up, it is, each time, a different book, a book with different contents, and yet it remains the Alice of our childhood. This is a miracle to be observed with only a tiny fraction of all the books ever written. -Jan Švankmajer, Illustrating Alice, 2011.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (13)

In 1990, a BBC documentary was aired called The Animator of Prague. It describes some of Švankmajer’s influences—such as Bohemian ruler Rudolf II—and how Surrealist art is much more developed in Central Europe than in the West.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (14)

*All quotes taken from Illustrating Alice were copyrighted and translated by David Short.

¹ In the interview, Švankmajer says the title of the film is Do sklepa which means roughly the same thing with a slightly different connotation. Interestingly, this error reflects his point that our perceptions of memories, stories and phrases change with time and we may find ourselves translating our ideas into our current context.