"It would be hard to meet a Czech whose childhood was not touched (perhaps unconsciously) by the art of Jiří Trnka, a painter, puppeteer, illustrator and above all, the founding father of Czech animated film." So begins Ruth Fraňková's 2007 profile for Radio Praha, for which she spoke with several of the innovator's admirers and colleagues. "His poetic drawings brought immortality to books that would otherwise be long forgotten. And his animated films bestowed dozens of puppets and drawings with life."
Trnka was born in Pilsen 100 years ago today and died in 1969 at the age of only 57; to here Fraňková tell it, he more or less worked himself to death. In 2010, Paul Gallagher posted a few clips at Dangerous Minds, adding that, having drawn since he was a child, Trnka "wanted to bring his pictures to life. So, he started making puppets and opened a wooden puppet theatre on Prague's Wenceslas Square. It was here in 1945, that Trnka and his colleagues started making stop-animation films based on the ideas and stories developed in the theatre…. In 1947, Trnka made The Czech Year (Špalíček), which told six separate folk tales of Czech life. It was a defining moment for Trnka as he won several international awards three years running across Europe. Trnka's next film was the Song of the Prairie, and then, in 1949, he made The Emperor's Nightingale a beautiful, poetic and unforgettable film, adapted from Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, and voiced by Hollywood star Boris Karloff."
Among his best known films are The Merry Circus (Veselý Cirkus, 1951), Old Czech Legends (Staré pověsti české, 1953), The Good Soldier Svejk (Dobrý voják Švejk, 1955) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (Sen noci svatojánské, 1959), a hit at Cannes. "Then in 1965, he made his last film The Hand (Ruka), with which he moved away from traditional Czech tales to a political critique of his country under Russian domination." Gallagher points us to Edgar Dutka's piece on Trnka that appeared in Animation World Network in 2000:
When The Hand was released it was officially declared as Trnka's criticism of the Cult of Personality (Stalin), but for all people, it was an alarming allegory of human existence in a totalitarian society. The film had the strong up-to-date story about the Artist and the omnipresent Hand, which only allowed the Artist to make sculptures of the Hand and nothing else. The Artist was sent to a prison for his disobedience and pressed to hew a huge sculpture of the Hand. When the omnipresent Hand caused the Artist's death, the same Hand organizes the artist's State funeral with all artists honoured. Trnka, for the first time, openly expressed his opinion about his own inhuman totalitarian society. The Hand was one of the first films that helped to open the short Prague's Spring.
Marking the centenary, as the Prague Daily Monitor reports, an exhibition of his "illustrations, drawings and animated cartoons, as well as installations at the Expo 58 and Expo 67 world exhibitions," is currently on view in Munich and "will gradually tour other towns including Moscow, Sophia, Tokyo, Madrid, Vienna, Bucharest and The Hague."
At 50 Watts, you can scroll through some of Trnka's magnificent illustrations for children's books.