Josef Svoboda

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Born 1920 in Cáslav. Died 2002 in Prague. Training at the Central School of Housing Industry in Prague. Shortly after World War II took scenography courses at the Prague Conservatory and studied architecture at the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague; participated in the founding of the Grand Opera of the May 5 Theater. He became the theater´s chief stage designer; as well as collaborating with the Theatre of Satire and the Studio of the National Theatre. In 1948, he joined the staff of the National Theatre; initially as stage designer and, as of 1951, as the head of its artistic and technical operations. Until, he remained loyal to the National Theatre; in 1992, managing director of the independent Lantern Magic Theater, where he had also served as artistic director since 1973. At Brussels, in 1958, he won three medals for his work displayed in the Czechoslovak pavilion, and his several kinetic and film projects were among the most popular attractions at Expo 67, Montreal.

In the May 5 Theatre with the director Alfréd Radok he began a series of experimentations, the result of which was the founding of the Laterna magika, the creation of the «polyekran» (multiple screens), and other audiovisual forms. During the second half of the 20th century, hardly any prominent director could be found worldwide with whom Svoboda would not have collaborated. These particular artists include A. Delcampe, J. Dexter, C.H. Drese, A. Everding, G. Friedrich, G. Strehler, L. Olivier, R. Petit, J.-C. Riber, and others. Yet he was honoured more abroad than in his home country.

Other works: Diacran (1958), Polyecran (Expo 1967 Montreal), Polyvision with Jaroslav Frič (1967).

Laterna Magika and Polyecran[edit]

Of the two primary projection systems or forms devised by Svoboda, Laterna Magika and Polyekran, the latter is relatively simpler, and although its evolution is difficult to disentangle from that of Laterna Magika, it was Polyekran that contributed to the final form of Laterna Magika, rather than the other way round, according to both Svoboda and Alfred Radok, Svoboda's creative partner. For these reasons, Polyekran (literally, "multi-screen") will be described first.

Polyekran, one of Svoboda's contributions to the Brussels World's Fair of 1958, is fundamentally a pure projection form; it is not combined with live acting or scenic elements. Its origin was related to Svoboda's response to the development of various wide-screen techniques of the 1950's; in contrast to such techniques, all of which attempted to eliminate the impression of a screen and to give the spectator the sensation of being part of the picture, Polyekran deliberately emphasizes the presence of the screen, or, rather, screens. Its principle is a simultaneous and synchronous projection of slides and film on several screens during which the images on the individual screens are in dramatic interplay with each other in the creation of a total, organic composition. Svoboda adds:

Polyekran offers the possibility of free composition, a free shaping and creation on several screens. Images of real objects and people are projected, but the relationships among them are not realistic, but rather supra-realistic, perhaps surrealistic. Essentially, it's the principle of abstract and pure collage, which is an old and basic technique of theatre. "Op art" is perhaps simply a more recent name for it. In any case, the contrast of varied things on stage is basic to theatre; the objects thereby acquire new relationships and significance, a new and different reality.

Technically, the elements of the Brussels production consisted of seven screens of different size and shape suspended at different angles from horizontal steel wires in front of a black velvet backdrop. Eight automatic slide projectors and seven film projectors, synchronously controlled by electronic tape, threw images upon these screens. The visual collage was accompanied by stereophonic sound (also carried on the electronic tape), the total ten-minute performance being thematically unified by its depiction of the context of the annual Prague Spring Music Festival.

In describing the relation between Polyekran and Laterna Magika, Svoboda says:

In comparison with Polyekran, which is totally a film spectacle and technically a concern of film, Laterna Magika is theatre with living actors, singers, dancers, musicians. . . . On the one hand we used familiar scenographic techniques such as slides and film projection. New expressive possibilities were added by panoramic film and projection with multi-exposure on several screens at once. A second feature is the use of mobile screens that are joined to the performance of a live actor.
(Svoboda, quoted in "O svetelnem divadle," Informacni Zpravy Scenograficke Laboratore (Sept. 1958), P. 5.)

Commenting on the essential non-autonomy of each medium, film and living actor, in Laterna Magika, Svoboda added, "The play of the actors cannot exist without the film, and vice-versa-they become one thing, a synthesis and fusion of actors and projection. Moreover, the same actors appear on stage and screen, and interact with each other. The film has a dramatic function."

Laterna Magika becomes, in effect, a new, hybrid medium, the potential force and expressiveness of which are perhaps suggested best in some remarks by Marshall McLuhan made without reference to Laterna Magika, when he spoke of "true hybrid energy": "The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. . . . The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed on them by our senses."

Like Polyekran, Laterna Magika was devised for the Brussels Fair of 1958, where it enjoyed a spectacular success. It consisted of three film and two slide projectors, synchronously controlled, plus a device that enabled deflection of one projection beam to any desired spot, including a moving screen. In a stage space measuring approximately 50' x 24' x 20' were arranged eight mobile screens with special, highly directional reflecting surfaces; they could rise, fall, move to the side, fold up, rotate, appear and disappear in precise rhythm with the actors. The stage itself was provided with a moving belt and special scissor traps to accommodate the need for virtually instantaneous live action in response to the film. One of the screens, moreover, was equipped with a diaphragmatic framing curtain that could alter both the size and shape of the screen. And the total presentation was enhanced by multi-speaker stereophonic sound.

Jan Grossman, himself a theatre director as well as a critic in Prague, was involved with the theoretical groundwork of Laterna Magika; his remarks on the new form elaborate some of its potentials:

Laterna Magika offered the dramatist, film scenarist, poet, and composer a new language: a language that is more intense, sharply contrasting, and rhythmic; one which can captivatingly project statistics as well as ballet, documents as well as lyric verse, and is therefore capable of absorbing and artistically working over the density and dynamics, the multiplicity and contrariety of the world in which we live."
(Grossman, "0 kombinace divadla a filmu," Laterna Magika, ed. J. Hrbas (Prague, 1968), p. 76.)

Alfred Radok, director of Laterna Magika, suggested its special quality in this way: "Above all, Laterna Magika has the capacity of seeing reality from several aspects. Of 'extracting' a situation or individual from the routine context of time and place and apprehending it in some other fashion, perhaps by con- fronting it with a chronologically distinct event." (Radok, quoted by Grossman, p. 77.)

That Laterna Magika was not without its special problems, however, became evident even while it was experiencing its greatest success. For example, the filmed portions had to be prepared far in advance of their integration with the live performers, which meant that many artistic decisions had to be made and became binding long before there was any way of knowing how they might work out months later. A more profound problem was that the film virtually enslaved the live performer, whose margin of variability in performance ap- proached zero because the film was a prefabricated element to which the per- former must inflexibly adapt. Svoboda put it this way: "It means that Laterna Magika is to a certain extent deprived of that which is beautiful about theatre: that each performance can have a completely different rhythm, that the quality of a performance can be better or worse, that a production can expand its limits." (Svoboda, "Problemy sceny Laterny Magiky," Laterna Magika, p. 103. Svoboda managed to overcome this problem to some extent in a few subsequent productions by employing live TV transmission onto screens during the course of the performance: e.g., Nonno's Intoleranza (Boston, 1965) and Orff's Prometheus (Munich, 1968).)

Again, on a more fundamental level, Laterna Magika never experienced the ultimate test of presenting a work that was written especially for it; that is, a work other than revue or cabaret entertainment. In its original version, as an entertaining propaganda piece for Czechoslovakia, it was a success. Its original creators had hopes of eventually using the form for Shakespeare or explorations of challenging contemporary realities, for example the Eichmann case, but managerial and administrative elements viewed Laterna Magika in terms of economics and politics, as a source of profit and an instrument of propaganda, with the result that its subsequent artistic career was aborted; its several sequels rarely rose above tourist level entertainment.

The Creation of the World (Diapolyekran)[edit]

One other noteworthy and recent variant of Svoboda's projection techniques is the Diapolyekran system, which had its first public exposure at the Montreal Expo 67 as a ten-minute feature entitled The Creation of the World. It, too, employs a multi-screen, multi-projection (only slides) technique reminis- cent of Polyekran in its pure film, non-actor features, but in a tighter, shallower, and more stable form. As the illustration suggests, the projection screens form a wall composed of cubes, one-hundred and twelve in all. Each cube has two automatic slide projectors mounted at its rear, capable of flashing five images per second, even though the actual rate was considerably slower; a total of thirty-thousand slides were used, and the whole operation was computerized. Moreover, each cube was capable of sliding forward or backward approximately twelve inches, thus providing a surface in kinetic relief for the projections. The basic technique is of course a collage or montage that allows for a great range of visual effects: the entire wall of cubes may unite to present one total, conventionally coherent picture, or else literally distintegrate that picture into fragments, or, indeed, present a surrealistic collage of disparate images. And all of this occurs in a dynamic, rhythmic flow ideally suited to projecting process as well as startling, abrupt confrontation. The original presentation was an eloquent, sensitive expression of wonder at the miracle and mystery of creation, evolution, and civilization.


  • Jarka M. Burian, "Josef Svoboda: Theatre Artist in an Age of Science" In: Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2 (May, 1970), pp. 123-145. Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press. [1]
  • Josef Svoboda, Kelly Morris and Erika Munk, "Laterna Magika" In: The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Autumn, 1966), pp. 141-149. Published by MIT Press [2]
  • Vit Havránek, "Zdenek Sykora and Josef Svoboda", in: Lanterna magika: New technologies in Czech art of the 20th century, Praha: KANT, 2002. [3]
  • Jan Grossmann, "Josef Svoboda", in: Lanterna magika: New technologies in Czech art of the 20th century, Praha: KANT, 2002. [4]
  • Svatopluk Malý, Vznik, rozvoj a ústup multivizuálních programů, Akademie múzických umění, Prague, 2010. (Czech) review

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