Czech puppets make an entrance in Ohio, with no strings attached

Photo: Courtesy of the Columbus Museum of Art

Visitors to the Czech capital may not know their names and roles, but puppets and marionettes are an indelible presence on the streets of old Prague. Some have even claimed that puppetry is one of the few original national traditions that the Czech Republic can present to the world.

Photo: Courtesy of the Columbus Museum of Art
To honor this centuries-old craft, the Columbus Museum of Art came together with a local university professor Joseph Brandesky and a well-known Czech puppetry expert Nina Malíková to create the exhibit “Strings attached: The Living Tradition of Czech Puppets”, which presents over 140 puppets created by Czech masters in the past century and a half. I spoke to the exhibit’s co-curator Carole Genshaft on a line from Columbus, Ohio, and asked who came up with the idea of the exhibition.

“The idea was created by our visiting curator Joseph Brandesky. Joe is a theatre professor at the Ohio State University here in Columbus. And he has a very long and strong connection with Czech and Russian theater and he has done a number of exhibitions and is currently working with Petr Matásek. He also knew Nina Malíková, who is the curator from Prague. So they came together and decided that this was a wonderful show that could happen and hadn’t been done before. At least not to this extent, in terms of the size, the depth and the number of puppets. Nina is pretty sure that this is the largest exhibit of Czech that has ever been put together, at least outside of the Czech Republic.”

In addition to the actual puppets that are part of the exhibit, what else can help visitors understand the cultural and historical background of Czech puppetry?

Photo: Courtesy of the Columbus Museum of Art
“We have wonderful text panels that explain each of the periods, which I think is really helpful. We have three videos in the space. Our filmmaker from the museum, Jeff Simms, went to the Czech Republic twice in the last couple of years and attended one of the largest puppet festivals. So he filmed material from the festival, interviews with designers. And then we have another video, which is about 45 minutes of performances of puppet shows. And the last video is of contemporary connections to traditional puppetry, a lot of stop-motion animation – the Quay brothers, Tim Burton, Jan Švankmajer, Jiří Trnka. So, the idea here is to show the living tradition. We start with puppets from around 1850 and end with very contemporary puppets as well as these videos, which I think link the past to the present.”

Do you have a favorite puppet from the ones that are on display at the exhibition?

“That’s a really hard question to answer. I think what’s so wonderful about the exhibition is that there are so many different styles of puppets presented – from the very traditional baroque puppets all the way to very contemporary minimalist, surreal puppets, like those done by Švankmajer, Matásek, or Petr Nikl. I guess the one that makes me smile every time I walk by it is Petr Matásek’s devil from Faust, it is really eye-catching.

“And I think that’s another nice part of this exhibit – puppetry has the ability to speak to people beyond the language barrier. I think the creativity and the inspiration, and just the wonderful presence of the puppets make it very approachable for our visitors. We already had a number of artists come, who were just enthralled, and were inspired by the puppets.”

Carole Genshaft,  Nina Malíková,  photo: Courtesy of the Columbus Museum of Art
The Columbus Museum of Art also presents a lot of more traditional art. Currently there is an exhibition of Rothko’s work on at the museum. How does this exhibit fit in that context? Do you also look at puppets as pieces of art?

“We certainly do. I think [the two exhibitions] are a wonderful combination. The puppets reflect the artistic styles that are in the air at that particular moment. So, we have puppets that reflect the Bauhaus, and those that reflect cubism, expressionism or surrealism. In the Rothko exhibit we are look at the decade between 1960 and 1970, so there are also parallels there with the more abstract puppets from that period. There is no direct link [stated in the exhibits themselves] but we certainly view the puppets as art. They are beautifully carved; they are all wonderful examples of puppetry as an art.

“I think our visitors really like the diversity. The puppets are in the east galleries of our museum, and Rothko is opposite; the locations are kind of symmetrical. So, if you look one way down the hall you see Rothko, and if you look the other, you see the puppets. And most visitors are excited to see both.”

That’s great company for the puppets…Will you be hosting any puppet performances during the run of the exhibit.

Photo: Courtesy of the Columbus Museum of Art
“There will be a couple of events. Beth Katleman, who wrote one of the text for the catalogue for the exhibit, will be here on March 28th. She has done a lot of work with a contemporary theatre here in Columbus, called Catco. And they produced Avenue Q and they will be putting it on again in a couple of weeks. I think she actually made the puppets for the show, so she will come and do a demonstration.

“And then on April 7th, our guest curator Joe Brandesky and Petr Matásek are coming. They and their students have been working for the last semester on a new production called Apotheosis and there is a wonderful puppet mannequin that they’ve created, so they will do some scenes from that here at the museum.

“We have also been working with the Columbus puppet guild. They will also come and do some puppet performances. And we also have a hands-on puppet theatre that wasn’t finished for the opening on Friday, but should be up this week. It isn’t part of the exhibition; it’s located in the lobby. It’s string puppets that the visitors will be able to manipulate themselves.”

How did the opening go on Friday?

Photo: Courtesy of the Columbus Museum of Art
“It was great. We had an all-day opening for our members. There were hundreds of people here and I think they were really wowed. And I think the word of mouth is going to make this exhibition a big hit. There were over 1300 people at the museum yesterday as well. And you’d be surprised how many people found a connection with the exhibit. A lot of people were saying that they have been to the Czech Republic or that they are planning to go, so they were very excited about this.

“We have 140 docents that give tours, help visitors or answer their questions. So they’ve all been given an extensive background to the exhibit, delineating the fact that the Czech people have been under the influences of so many foreign empires throughout their history and how important puppetry became and still is to them.”