HERBERT PFOSTL | DATE 2/6/2015
Here is a fairytale dream of a book on the history of Czech puppetry in some 750 images— a rigorous, almost exhaustingly informative exploration of artists and styles in the Bohemian and Moravian workshops and theaters of the first half of the twentieth century. It is lavishly produced and marvelously illuminated by numerous archival images (including many very fine color photographs) of the individual puppets, puppeteers and proscenium settings.
ABOVE: Two bearded men, Mikoláš Sychrovský, Mirotice, after 1850, marionettes from the inventory of the traveling puppeteer František Pfleger.
The book unfolds before us as an operatic forest of stories about good and evil in near endless variations of signs and archetypes. With white stags and highway robbers, luckless girls and chimney-sweeps, Indians and iron knights, as well as many other light-figures and night-characters, The Puppet unburies a vanished world of staged miracles and The Uncanny. This is an epic history of performances created mainly to inhabit and present both childhood joys and childhood terrors.
ABOVE: Sea creatures, scene from the play Faust by the puppeteer Lagron, c. 1910.
Beginning with the Art Nouveau and Symbolist eras, it traces Czech puppetry through its Expressionist, Cubist and Art Deco incarnations, ending among the avant-garde experiments "and modernist currents in twentieth-century art." Observe the countless carvings of characters "charmed by hand" and think of Heinrich von Kleist’s On the Marionette Theater for tone, or of Walter Benjamin’s not always healthy obsession with old children’s books.
ABOVE: Czech painter Mikoláš Aleš' puppets for Antonín Münzberg’s company, Prague, 1913.
A particularly affecting element in this collection of characters can be found in the archival images of carvers and their puppets, puppeteers and their marionettes. Fragments from, and footnotes to, now forgotten biographies. Grand plans and failed businesses amid stage waves and skies. Hidden stories on the fetish character of all things, the shadowy theaters of history in general and the hallucinations of art in particular.
ABOVE: Czech historian, organizer and propagator of puppetry Jindřich Veselý at the puppet exhibition in Topičův Salon, Prague, 1921. A collection of the oldest puppets (left) and the puppets of Matěj Kopecký (right) are in the background.
The design of the book is rich and right, and one wishes for another treatment like it on other aspects of the subject: a multi-volume history of puppetry in all of Europe, for example, or—better still—in all the world.
HERBERT PFOSTL works at New York City's New Museum, where he curates the Store's selection. He is the co-editor of To Die No More with Kris Minta, and recently published Light Issued Against Ruin with The Brother In Elysium. His artwork and upcoming projects can be viewed at Paper Graveyard and Blind Pony Books.