Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Jan Svankmajer: artist and chef

by Joanna Lowry

19 Dec 2011

Czech artist Jan Svankmajer combines stop-motion animation and live action to create uncanny and often blackly humorous works. While his films can be interpreted on many levels, an examination of his oeuvre reveals an overriding preoccupation with food, so much so that Michael Nottingham has labeled Svankmajer, “a chef”,[i] and his work, “cinematic recipes”.[ii] Of this, Svankmajer has said, “I was a non-eating child. My mother always forced me to eat.”[iii] Svankmajer’s upbringing no doubt had a bearing on his work, but other factors — communism, surrealism and puppet theatre aesthetics — come into play, too.

Traditionally in art, food symbolised abundance and fertility. Svankmajer’s rendering of this subject however, suggests that eating is an abject universal pastime. In The Flat (1968) various victuals conspire against a protagonist who is trapped in an apartment, which, in spite of his hunger, prevents him from eating his meal. A loaf of bread is hollowed out by a mouse; meat devoured by a pack of dogs; and a soupspoon perforated with holes. A glass of beer transmogrifies so that when he lifts it to his mouth he gets nothing but a sip from a thimble-sized receptacle. The would-be diner is the victim, controlled by the food, as the Czech society was controlled by communism during the Stalinist regime. The food motif is particularly pertinent in that for many years Czech citizens had to make do with rationed goods.

In other works, food is ostensibly repugnant. Meat in Love (1989), for example, sees the anthropomorphisation of two raw cuts of steak. The steaks conduct a courtship before their lovemaking is interrupted and they are thrown on a grill and fried. In Flora (1989) a woman is made out of fruit, reminiscent of a Giuseppe Arcimboldo painting. Bound to a bed, her fruity flesh begins to decay before maggots set in. Food becomes an absurd symbol of isolation, grotesque violence, and ultimately death. The message that rings clear here is that all things are transient. Food, if not digested and turned into excrement, will decompose, and so too will those who rely on it for sustenance.

Svankmajer’s food obsession is perhaps the most realised in Food (1992). The film is divided into three vignettes, the first of which, Breakfast, depicts three men deciphering a complex set of instructions in an attempt to dispense what turns out to be a meager meal from a vending machine. Two diners at an upscale establishment are at the mercy of an inattentive waiter in Lunch. Famished, they begin to eat everything at arms length — the cutlery, plates, tablecloth, table and eventually each other. Cannibalism is explored further in Dinner, where a solitary diner at a restaurant begins to cut up and eat his own hand. The tripartite structure of Food suggests that Svankmajer is pointing to the dark underbelly of social ritual. But more than that, cannibalism represents the rupturing of the self in modernity. It makes humans synonymous with food, the implication being that we are no more than rotting rancid fruit.

Joanna Lowry is a freelance writer contributing to the Vine, Oyster and Australian Art Collector. Previously she was Arts Editor of FBi Radio's The Flog.


[i] Michael Nottingham, ‘Downing the Folk-Festive: Menacing Meals in the Films of Jan Svankmajer’, EnterText: An Interactive Interdisciplinary E-Journal for Cultural and Historical Studies and Creative Work, Vol. 4, no. 1, Winter 2004, pg 149.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] In an interview following a screening of Little Otik at theInstitute ofContemporary Arts inLondon in 2002.