Behind the Scenes: Awesome Czech puppets on display at the Columbus Museum of Art

From the March 28, 2013 edition

In 2011, after one of its paintings was confiscated in an Austrian court case, the Czech Republic ordered all its state-owned artworks on loan abroad be returned to the landlocked Central European country. The Czech National Gallery, it later announced, would no longer loan its art to foreign countries.

It was, to say the least, not good news for the team at the Columbus Museum of Art that had been planning an exhibition of the Czech gallery’s puppets. So, one of the show’s curators, Nina Malikova from Prague’s Arts and Theatre Institute, began pulling some metaphorical strings, finding puppets to display at the CMA from private Czech artists’ collections and from smaller art, puppet and theater museums.

The results — more than 140 puppets and sets — are on display in “Strings Attached: The Living Tradition of Czech Puppets” currently on view at the CMA.

Think these puppets are for kids? Well, yes, technically most were made to entertain children outright and adults ambiguously, but there’s some super weird and badass stuff here.

It’s important to consider the oft-subjugated past of the Czech Republic when walking through the exhibit, said curator Carole Genshaft. Puppetry was a way to send messages of personal perseverance to the Czech people and a way of preserving traditional folklore and culture even while being suppressed.

There are plenty of examples of puppet punkery from the 19th century to today in “Strings,” but one of the best real-life stories is related to a pair of marionette characters, a dopey father and sharp son named Spejbl and Hurvínek. The characters are popular even today (Genshaft compared their popularity to that of Charlie Brown in the States) but puppets based on them and their creator, artist Josef Skupa, were arrested by Nazis after the soldiers realized Spejbl and Hurvínek shows were underhandedly mocking the Germans.

Fans of the grotesque will have plenty to gawk at in the three-room show, too. The devils that abound are stuff of jaunty nightmare. Czech puppet shows and stories “always represented this yin and yang between light and dark,” Genshaft said.

And, of course, the artistic implications are beautiful — surrealism, Bauhaus and Cubism are everywhere. Plus, the works on view by stop animation legend Jan Švankmajer (a hero to the likes of Tim Burton and the Quay Brothers) are alone worth a visit.

Photo by Meghan Ralston