The more we try to make sense of our world, the more we crave the weird and the wonderful. Metamorphosis - Fantasy Visions in Starewitch, Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers, a new exhibition at Madrid's La Casa Encendida from 2nd October to the end of the year, draws us into the dark imaginations of two individual and one twin set of artists, all of whom work or worked on the fringes of film, animation and art. As its curator, Carolina López Caballero, explains below, the show developed in continual dialogue with its protagonists and 'puppet masters', the artists, Jan Švankmajer (1934) and Timothy and Stephen Quay (1947), and Irina Starewitch, the daughter of stop-motion animation pioneer Ladislas Starewitch (1882-1965). The effect is a deliberately disorientating yet revelatory experience – the kind of show that you go into, but never really come out of.
Who are these artists?
CL: Most of us will recognise something of their work, they are massively influential. Yet they remain obscure, marginal, so protective of their visions that they might spend a decade fighting to find funding.
Ladislas Starewitch was Polish. He held onto his Polish passport despite moving around and eventually settling in France in the 1920s. He spoke six languages, and you find as many Russian and Polish elements as French ones in his films. He became hugely famous but he never went mainstream.
Jan Švankmajer is from Prague. He's 100% Czech and his art is inextricably linked with its capital, the 'magical city' of André Breton. He still lives there.
Timothy and Stephen Quay are American. They studied graphic design at the Philadelphia College of Art, where they came across some amazing posters by Polish artists and became absolutely fascinated by them, by the designs, but also by the worlds they discovered within them, of theatre and art. This was, of course, the pre-Google age. They moved to London and enrolled at the Royal College of Arts. Almost immediately upon their arrival they took a trip to Poland. So while all these artists are from different places they meet in the same place.
Why bring them together in one show?
While often associated with the ‘creative animation’ world, these are all 'artists' in the less categorical sense: they make films, they work with their hands, and they draw on a myriad of literary, cultural and scientific references. I wanted to engage the wider public by exploring these references and also making links between the artists. Also, I think, nowadays we are increasingly drawn to the irrational, the poetic, the magical! And these artists are fascinated by those times when art and science merge, that vein that runs through history, from the Renaissance through the 18th century spirit of discovery, into the 19th century Romantic fascination with feeling and the darkness of human nature, all the way to 20th century symbolism and surrealism. Their desire is to transform, to 'metamorphosise' all these references into something coherent, complete, aesthetic.
What are the big themes of the exhibition?
The Cabinet of Curiosities
After I went to Prague to suggest the show to him, Švankmajor wrote me this wonderful letter saying that he envisaged it like a huge cabinet of curiosities. He said, 'at museums you learn things, but with a cabinet of curiosities you experience them'. Museums tend to impose a 'rational' order on exhibits by putting the same sort of things together, we wanted to juxtapose different kinds of objects: a Goya print with a shell; a painting with an African mask, inviting imaginative narratives between them. Švankmajer created his own cabinet of curiosities for the show. He brought 150 objects over from Prague that represent some 10% of his own private collection!
Forests and Fairy Tales
We start and end with a forest and a fairy tale. At the beginning, the 'simple' fairy tale narrative is introduced by Starewitch and from there the discourse gets increasingly sophisticated, moving into what you might call the ‘anti-fairy tale’, the anti-narrative until the Quay Brothers' installation, which is what they call 'a forest within a forest'. Almost all of Švankmajer's literary references are Czech: Kafka, but also Edgar Allen Poe and (Goethe's) Faust. The Quay Brothers draw on Polish writer, Bruno Schultz, and Robert Walser's novel Jakob von Gunten inspired their film, Institut Benjamenta (1995). There is a line of dialogue at the end that goes, '...am I living in a fairy tale?' which brings us back to the beginning of our show.
Science and Imagination
All the artists touch on science. Starewitch was an Entomologist yet brought dead insects alive. Švankmajer loved the 'moment' of alchemy, the 'spark' of transformation. The Quays are fascinated by anatomy and museums of medicine, and also disease - defying the push for perfection. They've made three 'documentaries' on the theme, two of which are on display. Then, rather than bring anatomical pieces all the way from the Mütter Museum (College of Physicians) in Philadelphia, we decided to find pieces that we thought the Quays would like from here. We worked with the Catalan Museum of the History of Medicine where we found that beautiful 'Venus' with the necklace, which they loved!
Art and the Unknown
The Quays were really into the 'Monsù Desiderio' painting (Les Enfers, 1622) they had a postcard of it and I asked them if they'd like the original and they said, 'Wow, yes!' So we got it from Besançon (Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie). When Jan saw it he started gesticulating like mad, we got the translator and he said 'Thank you! Thank you!' it turned out to be one of his favourite paintings and he'd never actually seen it in real life before! We also incorporate Spanish works previously unknown to the artists: the Goya's, yes, but also the photographs of Joaquim Pla Janini and Josep Massana.
What kind of experience is this for a visitor?
These artists are used to working on and in their own uncontaminated world; their vision is intimate, unique, a 'world on a table top', as the Quays put it. We try to recreate this while offering a visitor enough clues to orientate her or himself. So the show is linear in that we introduce each artist in turn but labyrinthine in that its structure is invisible. We filmed interviews of the artists in their studios to draw the visitor into their world, and while we include captions on exhibits with further information, we keep them small and out of the way. We also wanted go beyond La Casa Encendida itself, so we got in touch with other museums in Madrid, the collections of which fall within the universe of these artists. We're working with Museo Lázaro Galdiano, which also has an amazing collection, the Museo del Romanticismo (Museum of Romanticism) and the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (Museum of Natural Sciences) – all of them are really excited to be involved.
Metamorphosis - Fantasy Visions in Starewitch, Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers
La Casa Encendida, Madrid - 2nd October 2014 until 11th January 2015
Read more by Alx Phillips: www.lookingfordrama.com