“The Garden” – an exhibition of work by legendary illustrator/animator Jiří Trnka - opens at Galerie Smečky

This week saw the opening of a new exhibition of some of the best work by one of former Czechoslovakia’s most famous illustrators, painters as well as the father of Czech animated film, Jiří Trnka, who died in 1969. Trnka is beloved for his creative use of highly detailed and mobile marionettes, and remains a veritable favourite among children for his illustrations – not least in Jan Karafiát’s famous Broučci (Fireflies) and also Trnka’s own much loved children’s classic, The Garden – about five boys, five elephants, a curmudgeon of a tomcat and their adventures beyond a rusty door in a garden wall.

The exhibition, featuring puppets, two-dimensional work and also several sculptures is entitled The Garden after the book, and is on at Galerie Smečky, just off of Prague’s Wenceslas Square. I caught up with Jana Orlíková, curator and long-time specialist on the artist, who told me more about Jiří Trnka and his place in Czech history.

“Jiří Trnka is linked to the 1940s, to people like Zábranský and others - a strong group of people under the Nazi occupation who focused on children’s illustration and who wanted to raise and teach a new generation of young people. The 1940s were the beginning of a golden age of Czech children’s illustration – a successful wave which continued into the 1960s.”

According to Mrs Orlíková, Trnka’s style was characterised by beauty in drawing along with a strong sense of colour and poetry. His illustrations of Hans Christen Anderson’s stories, for example, were highly acclaimed.

“He always inclined to the poetic and Hans Christen Anderson was ideal for that purpose. His illustrations were recognised in Denmark as the best anywhere in the world of Anderson’s work.”

In former Czechoslovakia and in the Czech Republic today, Trnka was adored for his illustrations of the wide and doe-eyed fireflies, Broučci, living on the edge of the meadow in the forest – motifs also found in other illustrations by the artist, including Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Nick Bottom (with his donkey’s head) laying on the grass. Jana Orlíková again:

A Midsummer Night’s DreamA Midsummer Night’s Dream “The characters with the large eyes were very typical for Trnka, but equally important was his use of colour pastels. The large eyes were ‘timeless’, but the pastels fit more specifically into the period, something mirrored by his contemporaries around the world in the 1940s.”

Trnka, of course, was not only an illustrator – he was very versatile and able: his first love, since childhood, was puppetry, and he achieved his greatest fame as an animator, founding the first Czech animation studio. After achieving success with film shorts, including recognition at Cannes, he was given a free hand in creating the country’s first animated feature.

“He was remarkably versatile and talented in so many areas: drawing and painting and sculpture. He was skilled and when it came to making his own puppets they were extremely fluid in their movements. He thought everything through to completion and became this country’s answer to Walt Disney. When you see the photos, it’s hard to believe that he managed it all: he was a mountain of a man, sitting over his marionettes, even sewing their little outfits or building their armour and other details.”

By the 1950s, Trnka’s fame had grown far beyond his country’s borders and his work featured, for example, at the World Expo in Brussels in 1959. As his reputation grew, he was able to enjoy some privileges rare under Communism (travelling for example to foreign premieres), says Jana Orlíková. But they also came with a price.

“He became well-known even abroad, even much later, when I prepared an exhibition of his work in Paris, people recognised his work from their own childhoods. He wasn’t persecuted under the regime given he was officially recognised and he was well-paid – the state of course also took a healthy cut. But those of us who lived under the former regime remember the difficulties of achieving anything in the art world: it was such a delicate balancing act, that I think it did eventually take a toll - shortening his years considerably.”

Trnka died at the age of just 57, in 1969. His legacy since has only grown. The latest exhibition at Galerie Smečky also features more rare sculptures made from found-objects: slabs of wood laying around the studio he fashioned into small artworks. All of the work in The Garden was loaned either from the National Gallery, private collections, or the Trnka family. Jana Orlíková again:

'Broučci''Broučci' “It wasn’t an easy show to put together, but it is one that captures the different aspects of Trnka’s career. The gallery space is excellent and it was a pleasure to put together and I was able to acquire on loan all the objects I wanted except for one or two. I think his work comes across very well here.”

As for why the exhibition is called The Garden – the answer there is easy: Zahrada is Trnka’s best-known children’s book, which he not only illustrated but also wrote himself. There are few Czechs who can’t remember the antics of the five boys in the tale or the tomcat’s ride on a bicycle in the garden of the title, landing him soaked to the bone in a rain-filled barrel. Jana Orlíková admits, for her The Garden is a personal favourite, and no Trnka show would be complete without at least one or two illustrations from the magical book.

“I love ‘The Garden’. He wrote on the occasion of his 50th birthday and the book’s setting existed even in real life: during the war the Trnka family lived in Košíře, in Prague, an unusual area called Turbovna. I think it still exists, although it’s now a complete ruin. The home had a garden like the one described in the book and Trnka’s children – especially his oldest son Jiří – once told me that the book had captured it perfectly.”