Crafting Animation: Hermína Týrlová’s Fuzzy Modernism

by: , November 24, 2021

© Screenshort from A Marble (Kulička, 1963) dir. Hermína Týrlová

Often called the mother of Czech animation, Hermína Týrlová (1900-1993) created a body of work that exemplifies the importance of women’s craftwork on multiple levels: the meticulous and repetitive craft of animation, everyday domestic objects as necessary to art, and the championing of the domestic, the fluffy, the soft, the gentle, and the ordinary against traditions of control. Týrlová worked as a director, screenwriter, animator, and children’s illustrator in a career that spanned from the 1920s to the 1980s, using an array of animated techniques, including drawings, cutouts, puppet and object stop motion. But while she received numerous awards for her films, both in the ČSSR and internationally, she is not well-remembered today outside of her native country. This is likely due to a combination of the common habit of excluding women from film history, and the labelling of her work as being solely for children, and thus insignificant when compared to the work of Czech contemporaries Karel Zeman and Jiří Trnka. Such dismissal of women’s work is of course endemic to many fields, as the domestic sphere—especially one that focuses on children—has been considered less relevant, important, and meaningful than more political or nationalistic topics. Much feminist criticism has been written challenging those assumptions, and establishing the centrality of domestic and personal spheres to the development of all other social realms. Yet the bias remains. 

Hermína Týrlová was born in Březové Hory (about forty miles from Prague), in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now Czechia, where her father worked as a miner. He was also a wood carver, and her love of puppetry and the animation of objects most likely began with him. Both her parents died when she was young, and after spending time at an orphanage she eventually made her way to Prague. By 1915, she was appearing in productions at the Urania Theater in Prague, where in the 1920s she met Karel Dodal. The two began a relationship that was both romantic and professional, and she learned the craft of animation while helping him make advertisements at Elekta Journal, a production company that eventually hired her to replace him when he left to form a new company. They married in 1928 but were separated by 1932, and he continued his career in animation with his second wife, Irena. For a time, Týrlová worked with Karel at his new company, IRE Film Studio, where she animated advertisements. (Strusková 2013: 42-55) In 1941, she moved to Zlín, where she worked for the rest of her life at the various iterations of Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, a subsidiary of Krátky Film in Prague, as the center of a puppet animation studio. Over the course of her career, she won numerous awards, enjoyed great popularity, and was a State Award Laureate. 

Despite her popularity with audiences and critics, though, her films have been consistently diminished and ignored by film historians. While they acknowledge that she is a ‘brilliant animator’ (Pos 1994: 33), they cast aspersions on her abilities, attributing her with lesser status than her contemporaries. As Jan Pos writes in Czech Animated Film 1934-1994: ‘she in vain tried to meet the demands of an imaginative but instructional story with classical puppetry. The more epic and literary the story, and the more classical and realistic the puppets, the more difficulties Týrlová [had]’. (1994: 28) Animation: A World History also praises her films as ‘fragile, fantastic poetry’, while making similar dismissive claims, citing Jaroslav Boček’s 1964 book Film a doba (Film and Time), written well before the end, or even height, of her career as a source for this argument: ‘Týrlová attempted to tell an epic story and handle a puppet of the dramatic type … [b]ut the epic was foreign to her inspiration and she did not have a natural, general bent for dramatic situations’. (Bendazzi 2017: 59 & 60)

The back-handed complements continue, discounting her impressive formal achievements in favour of the emotional impact of the films: ‘[t]his is perhaps why we cannot talk here about method, composition, or arrangement of shots, but only about understanding and the charm of directness’. (Pos 1994: 33) And while ‘her ability to identify with a child’s soul’ is duly noted, her work is also ‘not considered sufficiently educational’. (Pos 1994: 33, 28) These claims seem almost absurd, but they have been repeated over the years without any real accompanying examination of the work in question. Goldilocks (Zlatovláska, 1955), for example, is an extremely well-told and beautifully enacted tale about a servant whose kind heart and generosity win him love and respect and enable the overthrow of a cruel king, all with the aid of his adorable dog. It has a traditional fairy tale structure that is both educational and dramatic, and the classical puppets are just as impressive as those in similar work within the tradition of Eastern European and German puppetry. 

This dismissal has been passed on within studies of Czech animation. Her skill is acknowledged briefly, with the caveat that she made children’s films—as if these then merit no further discussion. Disney and Pixar, of course, do not suffer this treatment, but they are large male-run studios with massive marketing budgets and a virtual monopoly on audiences. However, even if one only measures her work against the reception of her Czech colleagues—who also made children’s films—it becomes clear how it has been slighted. One example helps to clarify this double standard. A Christmas Dream (Vánční sen, 1945) is a short animated film credited to Karel Zeman—his first, in fact. According to published sources and studio stories, though, it was originally Týrlová’s film, which she shot. Her work, however, was destroyed in a fire, and when she was subsequently hospitalised with an illness, Zeman took over and reshot the film. If one reads their work as auteurs, it is certainly clear that A Christmas Dream shares much more in common with Týrlová’s postwar films than it does with anything else Zeman made: a child dreams about a toy that becomes animated—a standard feature in Týrlová’s oeuvre. But rather than being labeled a ‘children’s film’, it receives credit as a ‘classic of its genre’. (Liehm 1977: 108) This prejudice is unfortunately perpetuated at each critical turn, with ‘great’ animation being distinctly contrasted with ‘children’s films.’ There are a few notable exceptions, however, all written by women.

Týrlová’s films are not merely charming, nor are they only for children. And though her films do have an immediate and direct emotional impact, they also evidence exceptional craft. In fact, it is her craft that film histories fail to address, and it is a unique and essential element of her animation. Her approach, so different from those of Zeman or Trnka, features a self-conscious privileging of the formal materials of her work, rather than adapted narratives, and thus aligns her work firmly with modernism. Modernism widely features the rejection of realism, and a focus on formal experimentation and form itself, and Modernist narratives often embrace a stream-of-consciousness approach. Although she made lovely versions of fairy tales, Týrlová noted in a documentary by Hana Pinkavová that they were not her favourites. (quoted in Mertová 2017: 10) This is not because she was unable to make them, because she did. Perhaps she simply preferred her own invention and imagination, in distinction to more realistic and traditional puppetry and literary tales. This is certainly where her brilliance lies—in her exploratory and imaginative relationship to the materials of her craft, and in reverie and the ability to animate objects like handkerchiefs and bits of yarn believably and creatively. This avant-garde approach to storytelling aligns well with a child-like openness to the possibilities of the world, but it certainly does not limit it to an audience of children (even if they really are the best audiences). 

In an interview with Marie Benešová, Týrlová stated that she did not like the aggressive American style of animation—which often included slapstick, violence, and cutting humour. (quoted in Mertová 2017: 9) Rather, her preference was in animating objects and imagining their being in our world, and what their reality might be outside our consciousness of them. Not just ‘stories for children’, her films may more accurately be described as having a ‘child’s mind.’ Violence need not be at the center of a film for it to be serious, and the subversive nature of tenderness and the aesthetics of cuteness—often viewed as inferior, facile, and insignificant—have just as much relevance for adults as for children. The gentle, the kind, the sweet, the fluffy—these things also have something to say to us. Týrlová’s films feature literal and metaphorical threads woven together into a final product that embraces the real and surreal, and the homespun and avant-garde. Her work is skillfully crafted animation that has been misread as being only for children because of its material softness and crafty look (yarn and knitting, textiles and fabric), and the way this softness mediates isolation, loss, fear, and violence. This approach does make her work appealing for children, but it also exemplifies an alternate feminist approach to managing harsh realities, and the importance of a regenerative imagination.

Týrlová’s animation embraces fuzziness as an aesthetic, as the material of construction, and even as a state of mind. Fuzziness denotes something unclear, unfocused, ambiguous, and uncertain, as well as fluffy, blurry, soft, downy, and woolly. Key to its character is that it is indistinct, which can apply to aesthetic, sensory, and cognitive elements. Fuzziness as an aesthetic is not inherent to animation, the roots of which lie more in caricature, realism, and abstraction. This body of work, primarily stop motion animation, exhibits a ‘fuzzy modernism’ characterised by a ‘fuzziness’ that references the woolly and downy, as well as the nebulous and confused. Textures feature heavily as a marker of the real world, while the aesthetics have nothing to do with it: abstraction and modernism are more properly the focus for depicting the metamorphic potential of the world of objects (string, felt, paper, glass, fur, and of course, celluloid). These films animate the material realm in a way that resists reality and revises our understanding of the world, often by emphasising the handmade, cozy, and cute, alongside a stark or expressionist background.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to fully articulate a history of this animated aesthetic, one essential root for it can be found in the Soviet Thaw period of the 1950s, and it is a contemporaneous development in Eastern European and Soviet animation throughout the 1960s—a time of political and creative transformation on a global scale. It can be understood as a midcentury ‘vernacular modernism’, as defined by Miriam Hansen. Hansen sources this idea in modernity’s disruptions and modernism’s response: ‘new modes of organising vision and sensory perception, a new relationship with ‘things’, different forms of mimetic experience and expression, of affectivity, temporality, and reflexivity, a changing fabric of everyday life, sociability, and leisure’. (1999: 60) Vernacular modernism encompasses culture as well as aesthetics, embracing a reflexivity of the everyday, which focuses on the ambivalence of modernity rather than a critique. Such a stance was perhaps a necessity for animation under Soviet rule, and fuzzy modernism features ambiguity and lack of clarity as an opportunity, rather than a restraint, allowing for the creative exploration of moments of becoming and imagination that lead to metamorphosis. 

Fuzzy modernism is an aesthetic approach that requires contrasts—the fuzzy world juxtaposed with the flat one, the fantastical with the real, the animated with the inanimate. Within this distinction, its modernist element manifests—there is no normalised space of coherence, rather dissimilarity is embraced and made part of the natural order. This freedom from realism yet necessitates the presence of matter—evidence of the external world—and crafting by hand. Thus, fuzzy modernism is not digital or virtual (at least, not in its entirety). Nothing could be more ordinary than the materials used to construct its visions: a bit of wool, or cloth, or moss, or fur. These quotidian elements become markers for the unknown. As artist Lee Ufan writes in ‘Art and the Body’, the repetitive actions of a body making art can deepen contact between the world and the artist, and ‘[a]s more externality is incorporated, transparency fades, the unknown appears, and the work becomes richer in content and allusion’. (2018: 551) The highly repetitive and lengthy nature of animation production provides the opportunity for the matter of the world to interact with human consciousness and deepen expression. The craft and technique of stop-motion animation becomes, therefore, ‘a whole poetry of action and … as the means for the achievement of metamorphoses’, as art historian Henri Focillon describes the transformation of matter into art in The Life of Forms in Art. (2018: 363) Or, in the words of Miriam Hansen, referring to the vernacular modernism of interwar films, ‘[i]t was not just what these films showed, what they brought into optical consciousness, as it were, but the way they opened up hitherto unperceived modes of sensory perception and experience, their ability to suggest a different organisation of the daily world’. (1999: 71) Fuzzy modernism reveals the poetry of everyday objects.

While almost all of the work that falls into this category is stop motion, an important starting point is Mstislav Pashchenko’s The Disobedient Kitten (Neposlushnyy kotyonok, 1953). Pashchenko’s film contrasts the rotoscoping that typified Soviet social realist animation with a fuzzy kitten, who is disobedient to realist structure, line, and content, in a film typified by aesthetic imprecision, abstraction, blurriness, and cuteness. The kitten, and other woodland children (rabbit, squirrel, and hedgehog), journey away from realism, and their fuzziness aligns them with a space for imagined possibilities of existence. This approach blossomed in the next two decades. For example, at SeMaFor studios in Poland, Tadeusz Wilkosz directed the abstract expressionist—and also soft and fuzzy—Mouse Tricks (Mysie figle, 1959), which featured artistic mice opposing the oppressive rule of a cat. He also designed popular fuzzy characters—the fluffy soulful bear Colargol, and the playful penguin Pik-Pok—who starred in a series of short films. Vladimir Degtyarev was another master of fuzzy modernism, with films such as How to Grow Up (Kak stat bolshim, 1967), produced at Soyuzmultfilm, which features a kitten who is tired of being little, and makes his way through a soft, bright, and abstract land to learn what it means to grow up. Heino Pars is also an excellent example of a fuzzy avant-garde, especially his Operaator Kõps series, and Jack and the Robot (Jaak ja robot, 1965) both produced at Tallinnfilm in Estonia. He reframes the natural world within an animated one, infusing it with whimsy and scientific fact. All this work embodies ‘fuzzy modernism’ as an aesthetic that embraces a fuzzy materiality and conceptual confusion and searching, as well as exhibiting a level of artistic abstraction that opposes realistic representation. 

Fuzziness is a central feature of Týrlová’s aesthetic, and this is apparent in many, even most, of her films. Like Pars, Wilkosz, and Degtyarev (but predating their work), she uses soft materials for her object animation, and creates a world that is fluffy, woolly, cozy, and also indistinct and unformed in various ways—including backgrounds that are abstract and incomplete. For example, in films like Wreath of Songs (Věneček písní, 1955), Goldilocks, and The Pig Shepherd (Pasáček vepřů, 1958), there is an aesthetic fuzziness in terms of both the look of the films and the materials used (felt and other soft fabrics). But these films tell more traditional stories or fairy tales than her other work, providing a clear narrative and recognisable characters. While they are as delightful and engaging as similar films of this kind, her most fascinating work animates objects that are without a name, or sometimes even a face, and the narrative structure of these films is often more stream-of-consciousness than teleological. The characters in these films don’t invite identification, and Týrlová moves firmly past realism, representing a world bound only by the fluffy logic of yarn: where colours, shapes, and textures persist in a frail empire of repurposed objects. Her focus on the materials of construction is unusual, and illuminating. This perspective is embodied in the everyday material she uses. Some of it is fabric: felt and yarn used to craft clothing and bedding. Others are homey objects like napkins, dolls, and marbles—all of it material that is found in the domestic space, and is used for cooking and eating, sewing, knitting and weaving, working and playing. The many soft materials bring to her animation an essential softness that is also fundamental to comfort, mending, and healing. And the objects themselves enact creation, animation, adventure, and catharsis. The materials are tactile, expressive, and familiar: textiles that represent home, used to tell tales gently, humbly, and creatively. 

Two films illustrate this fuzzy mise-en-scène, a modernist focus on formal elements, and healing. Two Balls of Wool (Dvě klúbička, 1962) is set on the table in front of Týrlová’s own cottage (itself within view of the animation studio), upon which sits her glasses, knitting, and a sewing basket. The film thus aligns itself with ‘women’s work’—a focus championed in various feminist waves, and by artists like Louise Bourgeois and Joyce Kozloff. While not ‘epic’, the film is lively and exquisite. The basket opens, and two balls of yarn (blue and pink) jump out and begin cavorting. A dapper pincushion and snapping scissors soon follow them, as well as needles, pins and thread—the entire contents of the basket, even the shy thimble, emerge. The yarn, rather than being used to make hair for characters, becomes individual creatures: they do each others’ hair, twist into shapes, play music on the needle, and dance. The song generates a snake from the measuring tape, which attacks the pink creature, with the blue one then riding to her rescue on the now horse-like pincushion, while the needles, scissors, and even bobbins, fight to capture the belligerent tape. The objects organise themselves into an orderly display for frolicking, including some abstract observation through the glasses. The spinning characters unravel the knitting in wild abandon, until the scissors regain control, and the scarf is reknitted. Everything returns to the basket in the end, with the film literally and metaphorically having woven together a whimsical reverie about what crafting components do when one is not watching. The surreal nature of the action is alleviated by its humble status: yarn plays games while Týrlová is at work, and forms the basis for her animated craft while doing so.

Jakub’s Last Shot (Jak si Jakub naposledy vystřelil, 1979) is even more meta and self-referential about the essential importance of the elements used to construct her animation. In this film, Jakub is a soldier who has served as a cannoneer in the army, and has ‘seen some things.’ The story does not go into detail, but it is easy to imagine what a career cannoneer would see, and how far from the world of the rest of the film that would be. Jakub comes to a town called Gloomyville in his wandering—a town portrayed in various shades of grey. He objects to the awful blandness of it all, and to the sad spectacle of a colourless wedding festival taking place. The town is clearly depressed. After a rainstorm, a colourful rainbow appears overhead, and Jakub shoots cannon balls at it until all the colours of the rainbow slowly drift down into the town as bits of fluff. Animals and people find ways to use it—ducks dip themselves into piles of colour, a cow gives herself blue spots, people paint their houses and themselves. They delight in this process, and also transform the material back into yarn and dye for their grey clothes. The film thus creates a process of transformation and materialisation through labor, which moves from the depiction of a phenomenon of light and particles, into particles of actual fluff, into the basic fibers of the domestic world. Týrlová makes the material itself the message—it is not so much a moral or lesson, but rather the affirmation that colour is important, and that a community can heal and enliven itself through making things together. In the end, Jakub changes the name of the town to Happyville—revealing that one can use imagination to transform and heal.

The film makes clear how ‘private’ feelings like depression can shape and dominate public life—something that Ann Cvetkovich has written about in her study Depression: A Public Feeling. The soldier’s actions, perhaps arising from his experiences with trauma, reconstruct the village as a place of openness and delight. It is in acknowledging the presence of depression that a way forward can be found. Cvetkovich notes how depression can be addressed by crafting because it is ‘a form of daily activity (whether individual or collective) that can soothe the mind and even raise the spirit’. (2006: 189) Its repetitive method of construction and use of comforting materials, she argues, also align it with meditation and spiritual practices. This seems to be Týrlová’s point as well: she features crafting with colours as a joint public activity that revives the spirits of the entire town, and she makes the source of this joy the colourful yarn she uses to craft her own poetic reveries. In another film, she uses knitting as a way to heal both ‘body’ and soul: Night Romance (Nočná romanca, 1949) is an almost noirish exploration of what happens in a store’s window display at night. Two dolls come alive and, moved by a mannequin’s shame about a hole in the middle of her stomach, they knit over it with yarn—creating a striped sweater that makes her ‘whole’, and gives her the confidence to share romance with another mannequin.

Judging from these films, it seems likely that Týrlová also used knitting as an antidote to melancholy. In the documentary I Call It Not Bumping One’s Head Against the Sky (Pinkavová 1978), she mentions that what drove her to work was ‘the loneliness, the forsakenness, and the will to succeed.’ One can see this at play in so many of her films—and in how loneliness is methodically processed in the crafting of animation, as well as its story. Týrlová outlines her meticulous craft in detail in the documentary, when discussing working on her first film Ferda The Ant (Ferda mravenec, 1944): 

I had an anthill built on four tables … I had to climb those steps 500 times up and down and adjust nine puppets … I remembered everything they were to do. And if someone asked me what I had for lunch, I wouldn’t know. But what each puppet was doing, that I remembered perfectly. 

She also relates: ‘I had to do everything, all the grass, all the little heads, paint them, spray them…It was a lot of work. And to animate it all.’ All while facing disparagement about her abilities as a young woman: ‘[t]he studio leadership did not have too much faith in me, and this was doubled by the fact that I was a woman’. (Boček quoted in Bendazzi 2017: 60) When animation is successful, of course, all the work seems effortless, simple, and direct: the very words used by film historians to describe her animation while dismissing the necessity for thinking more closely about it. ‘Meticulous, diligent preparation and experience bear fruit’ she explains in another documentary, Hermína Týrlová (Iván 1961)—and the fruit is delicious. 

Týrlová’s work is imbued with a phenomenology of the consciousness of things—the objects left on the table or dropped to the ground, reimagined in a world of their own. Her style is gentle and exploratory: what is an object like, anyway? Thus, she embodies ideas, material states, object perspectives over the course of eight minutes or so, and we experience not only ‘stories for children’, but, more accurately, movies that embrace a ‘child’s mind’ —a kind of Zen openness to possibility. This ability to ‘watch with a child’s eye’ and ‘see life where other people only see dead objects’ (Iván 1961) is clear in her films, but perhaps nowhere so obviously as in her acclaimed early film Lullaby (Ukolébavka, 1948), which follows a baby’s point of view as a toy first tries to entertain it, and then mimics it as they fall asleep. The film is so absolutely about nothing at all—changing channels on the radio, jumping around—but it provides a sense of fulfilment and peace. This ability to enter into reverie is one of Týrlová’s greatest gifts.

In his work The Poetics of Reverie, Gaston Bachelard distinguishes reverie from dream, assigning a greater significance and consciousness to the former, which is a daytime flight into imagination, a release, not the sifting through of the detritus of life that typifies dreams or nightmares. He makes this distinction a gendered and holistic one, in the sense of male (animus) and female (anima) elements (not biological sex) presenting two sides of the coin. He aligns reverie with the feminine, and describes it thus: reverie ‘liberates us from the burdens of life’ and is ‘the gift of an hour which knows the plenitude of the soul’. (1969: 73, 64)He calls reverie ‘a soft substance … which wishes to enjoy its harmonious being slowly, softly’. (1969: 69) He writes extensively about the relationship between reveries and childhood, noting that ‘the permanent child alone can return the fabulous world to us’ (1969: 118); in other words, to tell a fable, one must dream like a child, and then the enchantment will manifest life as it should be. One could scarcely find a better description of what many of Týrlová’s films do—this is perhaps what is meant by calling them ‘poetic.’ 

Her ability to inhabit a world with its own logic and imagination, often abandoned after childhood, and to see the inner life of objects is grounded in the idea that everything lives and moves. ‘Children see movement, which means life, in all their toys as well as their creations’ (Iván 1961), and it is this movement that Týrlová taught herself how to see, to imagine, and to create. This ability to see is sourced in reverie: ‘[a]t the very end of the day comes the moment of wandering and thoughts, a moment of shining dreams that tomorrow, the day after or in a month, but one day for sure, will turn into a work of art’. (Iván 1961) In this world, when the human becomes silent, they finally see. Týrlová ties this inspiration to her observation of her pets: ‘[t]he animal is silent. It looks’. (Pinkavová 1978) What the animal, the child, or Týrlová see is uniquely joined to movement, and this movement can only be understood through a combination of looking closely, and repetitive, precise crafting. As Bachelard puts it: ‘[m]atter, to which one speaks according to the rules when he is working it, swells under the hand of the workman … The hands dream. Between the hand and the things, a whole psychology unfolds’. (1969: 72) The psychology that Týrlová reveals is of the objects she moves, or rather enchants into revealing themselves. 

Her film Skittish Brothers (Rozpustilí bráškové, 1981) demonstrates how reverie and movement converge, and highlights the beauty and skill of weaving and the essential nature of everyday objects. The film features live action footage of a woman weaving a tapestry from yarn, and the ‘skittish brothers’—perhaps better translated as mischievous or playful—are animated from the balls of yarn she tosses aside. We see the back of her tapestry—the working parts mean nothing until the end of the film. The yarn creatures emerge from the bins as laughing, playful, fuzzy spirits who (like cats, or children) gaze at themselves in the mirror, cavort around the room, make things, and play with everything at their disposal. While it is in a realistic setting, the film enhances our understanding of modernism with its focus on opaque surfaces, especially one that looks like a double exposure of woman and her craft. These images also reinforce the experience of reverie—made up of bits and pieces of the real world. One creature is cute, and the others are weird-cute, little mummy octopuses; all, though, are also abstractions that heighten the lack of realism in representation. Perhaps the most magical element of movement in the film is the way that things drop, fall, and recover—so evocative of how humans toss objects—or the exhaust ‘fumes’ that undulate behind a car. In the end, we see the tapestry the right way around, and so understand its subject better.

The Knot in the Handkerchief (Uzel na kapesníku, 1958) is one of her most famous films, and the perfect example of reverie and the phenomenological study of an object. It features a handkerchief that comes to life and seeks adventure, in some ways mirroring the actions of the young boy of the house. Both navigate playing with the responsibility for work, here presented as equally necessary elements of life. It is difficult to truly convey the magical nature of object movement in Týrlová’s films, but one important element is their absolute liveliness, as are the unexpected ways they have of seeing their strange world, which ends up being one that is also utterly familiar to us. Her creatures are fully realised, funny, spontaneous, and earnest. Like any good actor, they convey feeling and reactions without words—a tilt of the knot/head is enough. The handkerchief walks a little like a rabbit and moves alertly through an abstracted version of reality—the background is mostly drawn and painted. It is on a journey of discovery and delight, like a child discovering itself and others, learning about the universe. The conflict in the film has to do with a leaky faucet, and water overflowing in the apartment. While the handkerchief is out playing, at home a towel drums out a beat to call her back, with a host of other handkerchiefs and laundry items taking part in the process—they offer a funny audience to the human action of the film, which ends with the leak being fixed. By the end, it seems clear how much of life is managed by the objects around us—serving as reminders, or collaborators, or the source of potential diversion and delight.

While Týrlová made many films that explored the interface between real and animated worlds, she also made a number that fully enter into an imagined landscape, the realm of fuzzy modernism. This approach includes a few films that are not as explicitly fuzzy, but which are also modernist in appearance and style, exploring shapes and the nature of material objects. In A Marble (Kulička, 1963), a kitten, a dog, and other animals, are represented by barely-articulated circles and rods, all of which covet a glass marble, which shines with all the mystery and promise of childhood possessions. The film’s background is comprised of the reflection of figures that contrast with the shapes of the foreground the animals play in—a sea made up of small green slices, as if from an orange. There is a distortion to the image typical of Týrlová’s films, which signifies the realm of reverie and articulates a fuzziness that is blurry, unfocused, even misty. The marble glows as well, and its light illuminates the characters’ desire and avarice, finally deconstructing them into a messy pile of shapes—only the kitten stays out of the competitive fray, and in the end, the shiny marble rolls her way. Beaded Fairytale (Korálková pohádka, 1968) works in a similar way: the film takes place underwater, with a distorted aesthetic that turns the fantasy into rippling reverie. Shapes alter as the little fish play with shiny beads and balloons, but aggression occurs here as well, with two warring schools of fish turning pearls into bullets. An even larger fish eats up the smaller ones, while oysters hide the littlest fish as the war escalates and the water turns red. But the big fish finally explodes, sending everything spinning, and the oysters release the little fishes to play with their balloons in peace. 

The Choo-Choo Train (Vláček kolejáček, 1959), contrasts the modernist background and perspectives with the presence of fluff. Foreground and background contrast in style, and also focus, sometimes making the train almost a spectator to the film with an extreme close-up over-the-shoulder shot. The simplified lines and forms both embrace and ignore distance, and the film tells the story of a runaway train—one that deliberately escapes to explore the world it is otherwise denied as a lowly coal train. The smoke that comes from the train is fluff—soft, fuzzy, leisurely. Even the serious locomotives have personalities and faces, while the little train is squashy, funny and surprisingly ambitious. Soon after he takes off, he runs through a duvet, setting off an explosion of fluff that snows down on a little girl. A nightmarish journey through a tunnel also provides abstract and fleeting images that give way to a barren wasteland, hinting at a Dali-esque landscape filled with mangled machines rather than melting watches. The train becomes stuck in briars, like Sleeping Beauty, but the little girl who was covered in fluff hears him cry out and is able to save him. He thanks her with a fuzzy red heart formed from his exhaust, emphasising the transformative power of fluff. 

Týrlová’s films from the mid-1960s build on this transformative power, and feature avant-garde landscapes with homey objects: The Woolly Tale (Vlněná pohádka, 1964), Girl or Boy (Holčička nebo chlapeček, 1966), Snowman (Snehulák, 1966) and The Christmas Tree (Vánoční stromeček, 1968) all use wool as the basis for an incredibly fluid form of stop-motion animation that emphasises elasticity as essential to surviving and enjoying life. They form a series, with the same blue character at their core. He is fragile and earnest, like the films, and made of wispy yarn. The music in two of these films is by avant-garde composer Zdeněk Liška, who became quite famous for his innovative and iconic film scores. He is remembered for his work with Czech new wave directors Zeman and Jan Švankmajer, but of course he also worked with Týrlová. In The Woolly Tale, the delicate blue creature, wearing a jaunty necktie, pulls along a ball of white yarn, which is a source of creation and imagination. The sun, emitting electronically emphasised rays, turns a bit of the yarn into a sheep, who is eaten and rescued from a lion through the logic of yarn, as the blue creature pulls her out in a single strand. When the lion attacks again, the blue guy simply unravels him. The two walk across an abstract landscape with faint shapes in the distance, and provide for each other what each of them craves (food and water). In the end the sheep transforms into a cloud, while the blue guy travels out to sea on a boat. One can see loneliness and kindness at the core of this film—a basic tale told with brevity, simplicity, abstraction, and great beauty.

Snowman is another perfect example of a fluffy avant-garde, creating poetry with the soft flexibility of yarn, as creatures transform and adapt in a landscape of discovery. The film’s textures—furry, liquid, and flat space—create an uncertain world, and the electronic noises and tinkling sounds of the soundtrack add an eerie quality. The little blue guy finds a snowman outside in the windy world, and, after his house is covered with fluffy snow, they throw snowballs and play. The blue guy has no expression, only an eye seen in profile, but the snowman smiles and has starry eyes—his spirit is less reflective and more joyful. A little black dog plays too—with the snowman’s fluffy orange scarf—and accidentally knocks his head off. The blue guy puts him back together again as bits of fluff (some coming from the cave of a dragon) fly around. The snowman returns the favour after the blue guy falls into the ice and is frozen. Tearing a hole in the sky, the snowman releases the sun’s rays to warm him up, then heals this rift by throwing snowballs. But the sun cannot remain hidden forever, and as the landscape becomes greener, the sun’s rays begin to melt the snowman. He floats to a colder climate where penguins become his new friends. Though the plot is negligible, the aesthetic of the film, and the execution of its craft, provide a magical reverie about the spirit of winter.

While her films often manifest reverie as a space within but beyond the real world, Týrlová also makes films focusing on the abuse of power and the psychology behind it. For example. the idea of the revolt of the inanimate material world has political clarity in Revolt of the Toys (Vzpoura hraček, 1947), and is firmly rooted in the real world, where a Nazi tries to locate a toymaker who has made a satirical Hitler doll. He escapes, and the toys in the shop launch a war against the Nazi, cuckooing at him, hitting him over the head, pulling off his shoes and jacket, and finally mounting a full offensive with airplanes and cannons after he tries to set the store on fire. The doll brigade triumphs as he flees, and their prankster-ish qualities—aligning themselves with the forces of freedom, anti-repression, and antifascism—offer up a mocking portrait of ugly Nazi behaviour. That such an attack takes place amongst dolls is typical of Týrlová’s work, which locates itself at home and in the workplace. Her stories accord great importance to the domestic sphere as a place where political ideas and ways of behaving are first—and perhaps most decisively—formed. In Revenge Day (Den odplaty, 1960), another revolt takes place, but this is geared towards the boy who lives there. In this fascinating film, live action and animation are mediated by moving photography as well: the boy’s photograph comes alive when he is asleep, and moves through a distorted visual field to wreak havoc—a piece of paper flailing purposefully through the room, resembling exactly the flattened Judge Doom of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). The boy’s image fights with a hoodie, and presents an ominous ghostly vibe as he battles his homework and other objects. He ends up in the fish tank, but the beleaguered things of the room take pity on and save him, and in the morning, the real boy becomes a better person. The nightmarish quality of the film is distinct from much of her work, tending as it does towards reverie, but clearly indicates the connection of the unconscious to the world, as well as its political impact. 

The Blue Apron (Modrá zástěrka, 1965) goes a step further, and is perhaps her most surreal film. Like Trnka’s The Hand (Ruka, 1965), it embeds a political critique in symbolism, and suggests personal resistance to acts of suppression and destruction. Both films were made in the years leading up to the Prague Spring, at a time when cultural restrictions were slightly relaxed. The Blue Apron pits ordinary fabric against a hostile and barren absurdist world, and despite a series of attacks, the film’s protagonist, a dress, perseveres by patiently mending a world ripped apart by anger. With avant-garde music by Liška, the story follows a humble blue dress that hangs on a clothesline perched between classical edifices and representations of art, almost as if it represents Týrlová herself. It is cute, with its little button, in a way that clarifies how abstract and anti-realist cuteness is. It is also imaginative—it sees dandelion fluff floating around like umbrellas, and wants to join them. Freed from its constraints by a paper bird, it floats through a background drawn in crayon—a blending of colours against which the stark lines of electrical wires contrast the childish with the severe. It passes a large tower with a pulsating sphere and bulging eye. A vase belches an attack of dark smudges like factory smoke, which eventually form a dragon with red eyes that rends the skies. Again pitting childhood against the darkness of the world, a large pinwheel helps to disperse the sooty fluff, but it reforms and burns the bird out of the sky. The dress perseveres against the dragon by first transforming the sky with clouds of flowers, and then working its craft to mend the hole torn in the sky that opens to a chaotic world of random shapes and images. Shivering, the dress stitches the sky together, covering the final part with its own body. It blends into the sky, and the button becomes a star, thus restoring balance and light to the world. This film gives the clearest articulation of Týrlová’s consistent vision of the battle between kindness and violence, and is a fitting testimony to her faith in the healing nature of art and craft. 

Týrlová’s work reveals a unique understanding of the craft of animation that also brings the practice of crafting and domestic objects and actions to the forefront. She gives familiar objects a lively, gentle presence in an abstract, imaginary landscape that provides a reverie and reprieve from the world, while also referencing its struggles. Her films represent the importance of viewing the world as alive in every fiber, and how the poetry of movement can unthread the harshness of the world strand by strand with its ethereal beauty. Her films may or may not have served as examples for the resurgence of fluffy animation in recent years, but certainly they prefigure it, and should give it inspiration. Fuzzy modernism has evolved over the years, and versions of it can be found in films by stop motion animators like Tomoyasu Murata, Emma de Swaef, or Andrea Love. Some of the most mesmerising of these works are by Hiné Mizushima, whose incredible needlepoint animation for ‘Lake Monsters’, or fuzzy yet scientific rendition of ‘Why Does the Sun Shine?’—both songs by They Might Be Giants—are a testimony to the inventive artistry of craft, and the careful crafting of animation that is the legacy of Hermína Týrlová.


REFERENCES

Bachelard, Gaston (1969), The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos, trans. Daniel Russell, Boston: Beacon Press.

Bendazzi, Giannalberto (2017), Animation: A World History. Volume I and II, New York: Routledge.

Benešova, Marie (1982), Hermína Týrlová, Prague: The Czechoslovak Film Institute.

Cvetkovich, Ann (2006), Depression: A Public Feeling, Durham: Duke University Press. 

Focillon, Henri (2018), ‘”Forms in the Realms of Matter”,from The Life of Forms in Art’ in Glenn Adamson (ed.), The Craft Reader, New York: Berg, pp. 360-5.

Hansen, Miriam (1999), ‘The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism’, Modernism/modernity, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 59-77.

Iván, Jan (1961), director, Hermína Týrlová, documentary. ČSSR: Filmové Studio Gottwaldov.

Janíkova, Jana & Lukáš Gregor (2016), Ateliér Hermíny Týrlové, Zlín: Univerzita Tomáše Bati ve Zlíne.

Liehm, Mira & Antonín Liehm, et al (1977), The Most Important Art: Eastern European Film after 1945, Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Mertová, Michaela (2017), Hermína Týrlová, Prague: Czech National Film Archive. (DVD brochure)

Pinkavová, Hana (1978), director, Já tomu říkám nedrcat se o nebesa (I Call It Not Bumping One’s Head Against the Sky), documentary. ČSSR: Filmovým Studiem Gottwaldov. 

Pos, Jan (1994), Czech Animated Film 1934-1994, Prague: Ministry of Culture of Czech Republic. 

Strusková, Eva (2013), The Dodals: Pioneers of Czech Animated Film, trans. Lucie Vidmar, Prague: The National Film Archive.

Ufan, Lee (2018), ‘The Art of the Encounter’, in Glenn Adamson (ed.), The Craft Reader, New York: Berg, pp. 548-551.

 

Films

Beaded Fairytale (Korálková pohádka), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSSR: Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, 1968.

The Blue Apron (Modrá zástěrka), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSSR: Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, 1965.

The Choo-Choo Train (Vláček kolejáček), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSR: Krátký Film Praha Studio Gottwaldov, 1959.

A Christmas Dream (Vánční sen), film, directed by Karel Zeman. ČSR: Bat’ovy pomocné závody (Bapoz), 1945.

The Christmas Tree (Vánoční stromeček), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSSR: Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, 1968.

The Disobedient Kitten (Neposlushnyy kotyonok), film, directed by Mstislav Pashchenko. USSR: Soyuzmultfilm, 1953.

Ferda The Ant (Ferda mravenec), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSR: Filmové Ateliéry Bat’a, 1944.

Girl or Boy (Holčička nebo chlapeček), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSSR: Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, 1966.

Goldilocks (Zlatovláska), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSR: Studio Loutkových Filmů Gottwaldov, 1955.

The Hand (Ruka), film, directed by Jiří Trnka. ČSSR: Krátký Film Praha, 1965.

How to Grow Up (Kak stat bolshim), film, directed by Vladimir Degtyarev. USSR: Soyuzmultfilm, 1967.

Jack and the Robot (Jaak ja robot), film, directed by Heino Pars. USSR (Estonian SSR): Tallinnfilm, 1965.

Jakub’s Last Shot (Jak si Jakub naposledy vystřelil), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSSR: Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, 1979.

The Knot in the Handkerchief (Uzel na kapesníku), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSR: Studio Loutkových Filmů Gottwaldov, 1958.

Lullaby (Ukolébavka), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSR: Krátký Film Zlín, 1948.

A Marble (Kulička), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSSR: Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, 1963.

Mouse Tricks (Mysie figle), film, directed by Tadeusz Wilkosz. PR Poland: Se-Ma-For Studio, 1959.

Night Romance (Nočná romanca), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSR: Krátký Film Gottwaldov, 1949.

The Pig Shepherd (Pasáček vepřů), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSR: Studio Loutkových Filmů Gottwaldov, 1958.

Revenge Day (Den odplaty), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSSR: Studio Loutkových Filmů Gottwaldov, 1960.

Revolt of the Toys (Vzpoura hraček), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSR: Krátký Film Zlín, 1947.

Skittish Brothers (Rozpustilí bráškové), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSSR: Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, 1981.

Snowman (Snehulák), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSSR: Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, 1966.

Two Balls of Wool (Dvě klúbička), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSSR: Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, 1962.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit, film, directed by Robert Zemeckis. USA: Touchstone Pictures, 1988.

The Woolly Tale (Vlněná pohádka), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSSR: Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, 1964.

Wreath of Songs (Věneček písní), film, directed by Hermína Týrlová. ČSR: Studio Kresleného a Loutkového Filmu Skupina Gottwaldov, 1955.

 

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