This week I decided to go way back to the beginning of the Eastern European animation movement.
Jan Lenica’s checkered career has encompassed excursions into music, architecture, poster-making, costume design, children’s book illustration, and all aspects of filmmaking. It is, however, for his animation that he is best known, particularly his collage and “cutout” films, which have their roots in the art of Max Ernst and John Heartfield. The films have influenced the work of Jan Švankmajer and Terry Gilliam.
In the 1950s, his films with Walerian Borowczyk led an aesthetic revolution in Poland that sent reverberations all over the Eastern European animation scene. Before Lenica entered the scene, Polish animation consisted mainly of American-influenced character animation, over which the shadow of Walt Disney lugubriously hung, sometimes with vaguely political overtones on the fringe. Lenica and Borowczyk moved the avant-garde into the mainstream. They attempted to forge a new experimental cinema that would coalesce contemporary artistic practices such as abstraction, collage, and satirical surrealism without jettisoning commitment to the Marxist concepts of artistic integration of form and content and art for the masses. Often their films deal with alienation in a modern world, and the challenge of the detritus of history, figured in their use of old newspaper and postcards and the ironic confrontation with the “Great Masters” of painting which consume the protagonist of Once upon a Time . . . . In The House, a wide range of techniques illustrate a strange mechanical rite. The rough simplicity of their materials in these films conveys simultaneously the menace of an absurd disordered universe, and an affecting artlessness of execution.
It’s interesting how alienation can be so universal that even under strict Leninist governments it is a common theme, and not so much a political statement that needs condemning. I love this early stuff. By today’s standards it can seem quite primitive, rarely do I see artists taking such chances in their work these days. At the time this was groundbreaking.