Celebration of the Centenary of the Czech Puppet Master

Jiři Trnka (1912–1969) ranks among the most prominent personalities in twentieth century Czech art. While his contribution in the areas of animated film and illustration is acknowledged and fully valued in the world context, his works extend into a range of related branches. His accomplishments in these additional fields have remained unjustly neglected, in spite of the fact that the work he produced therein attained incontestable heights. They form an indivisible whole with his film and illustration work, having arisen simultaneously over the course of Trnka’s creative life, mingling together and enriching each other’s visual language. The specificity of Trnka’s creative expression, which was rarely in harmony with the artistic context of his day and thus proved more complex to interpret, resulted in ambivalent evaluation of certain of his positions and phases. His credo, “No definition in art is ever true”, justified his often unconventional expression, which assimilated the most varied of influences from a wide spectrum of artistic approaches and a chronological swath that traversed his creative output.

Trnka starts being interested in puppeteering as early as secondary school, when his drawing teacher, the puppeteer and man of the theater Josef Skupa, discovers his talent. He later attends the Prague School of Decorative Arts (where he became a professor in 1967) and applies himself to graphics, newspaper, magazine and book illustration. In the 30s and 40s, he is in turn the creator of his own Wooden Theatre, awarded set designer for the National Theatre and Provisional Theatre, artistic director of the animated studio “Bratři v triku”.

So in June 1945, Jiři Trnka arrives at the Prague animated film studio as artistic director. That same year, he completes his first film, Zasadil dědek řepu (Grandpa Planted a Beet). He realizes an additional three short films the following year – Zviřatka a petrovšti (The Animals and the Brigands), Darek (The Gift), and Perak a SS (The Spring-Man and the SS) − each innovative in theme selection and design. The films are awarded at international festivals, making Trnka a recognized personality in world animation. Until that time, animated film production had been dominated by the American producer Walt Disney. Trnka proved that it is possible to assert an individual author’s signature and search for new expressive possibilities.

In a year of world success in cartoon films, Trnka’s attention returns to the possibility of puppet animation. Yet even here, the artist follows his own path. His previous experience in puppet theater and film, as well as art work and illustration, pays dividends. His first film, Betlem (Bethlehem, 1947), captures the atmosphere of a Czech folk Christmas. Further episodes about village customs and habits from spring to winter follow. The public and international critics’ acceptance of Trnka’s puppet films surpasses the success of his cartoon films and shows that his choice of puppet technology was the right one.

A characteristic quality of Jiři Trnka’s film work is that of the search for inspiration in world and national literature. The artist approached literary artwork with sensitivity, so as not to distort the message of the work or its artistic aim. He always managed to create an original work of art. For example, in his adaptation of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s eponymous humoristic novel, Roman s basou (Romance With a DoubleBass, 1949), the author makes use of an abundance of design and directing ideas, and with their help succeeds in translating the ironic tone and atmosphere of the story and spiritual frame of mind of the protagonists.