It takes merely three seconds for us to discover a natural concordance, full of suggestive correspondences, between puppets and GIFs. It might be that the cyclical structure of the latter highlights the machine component of the former, that imitation of our own automatisms that we find so disturbing; their condition of border between what is alive and dead that is a key to the sinister fascination they exercise over us. It’s that uneasiness, not devoid of surprise and tenderness, and that Victor Navarro excellently defined on this same page already what repetition can but amplify.
And it makes all the sense in the world for the piece to highlight that connection to be served through an emblematic work of Czech culture. Confronted since the old days to unsolvable historical, national and social conflict, few have been as prolific in the art of transfiguring reality and of reflecting through a series of imposed reasons the phantasmagoria of the everyday as the Czech. None, in fact, have explored with more boldness the mystique of artifice and the enigmatic life of simulacra. It’s from Kafka’s odradek, whether mechanism or creature, from Meyrink’s Golem and the brothers Čapek’s robot, from their evident taste for automats and shadow theatre, from the vigorous puppeteer tradition from which Jiří Trnka emerged, the author of the scene captured on this week’s image.
In fact, this GIF would have its value too even if it limited itself to a mere homage. Formed in that creative melting pot that was the First Czech Republic, Trnka suffered, as so many of his compatriots, Nazi occupation and war, followed by the adaptation to a Stalinist regime with which he had to come to painful terms. But in the brief time between the two periods, he set the basis of his admirable posterior work, most of all with Špalíček.
Created in 1947, Špalíček, the first of his feature films, is the foundational landmark of what would be given the name of Czech style. That is, the most influential school of animation in Europe and the one which proposed a more solid divergent pattern to North-American hegemony in the field.
Špalíček is a series of six stories based on different festivities and rituals of the Slavic annual cycle, from Carnival to Christmas. And in it everything is so painstakingly drawn that even a brief extract is enough for us to grasp the film’s characteristic tone: a humorous and at the same time lyrical dream-like nature, that bohemian vein of fantastic and melancholic custom and manners also present in the stories of Oskar Wiener, Karel Čapek and Bohumil Hrabal, the articles of Egon Erwin Kisch, the paintings of Josef Lada or the illustrations of Adolf Born.
However, there’s a greater motif to rejoice with this Trnka GIF and its merit corresponds too to the person who selected it and cut it. And it’s its capacity of expressing in the most essential and concise way possible the wonderful appeal of tradition. Peasant girls carrying their branches, Slavic symbol of fertility, and turning around themselves time and time again due to the effect of the reproductive loop, show all the power, grace and hypnotic beauty of the cyclic return to myth and folklore. The constant rebirth offered, the shelter we can always find in roots, the promise of immortality that the sequence of receiving-preserving-transmitting always brings. And the resistance that the structure of memory, continuity and sense opposes to any dissolving power. In Trnka’s convulsed times, or in ours, no less submitted to an alienating and nihilistic empire.