A grown-up travelling to Prague might well consider bringing back a puppet for their child. What they might be less ready to admit is that they would like one for themselves. ‘But adults like the puppets, too,’ says Kateřina Ambrusová, marketing manager for Prague-based puppet manufacturer and retailer Pohádka. ‘For some they offer a strong memory of their own childhood. And the quality of handmade puppets is so high that they’re as much valued gifts for adults as they are for children.’
Indeed, while puppetry has a part in the folk arts of many European countries, it is perhaps the Czech Republic that has embraced it the most deeply in terms of the skills involved, the wit of the characterisation and its place in the nation’s social fabric. Indeed, puppetry has been part of Czech culture for centuries, with puppeteers travelling from village to village to entertain the locals, passing their skills, scripts and marionettes down through the generations until puppetry became recognised as an art form crucial to the evolving state’s sense of self.
The carvers, who typically worked in lime wood, would often be the same ones who made church statues, which perhaps explains the baroque features of early puppets. It was the carver’s job to ensure their puppets’ expressions were as neutral as possible, it being the puppeteer’s job to bring emotion to his highly strung charge. The best puppet makers and puppeteers of the past 200 years created dynasties and became nationally known names: Jiří Trnka, Antonín Sucharda, Mikuláš Sychrovský and, perhaps most famously, Jan Kopecký, who started out in around 1779 and whose descendants are still involved in puppet theatre today. Czech puppeteers remain world leaders to this day.
‘Indeed, what was different about Czech puppet theatre, then and now, is that it has always had a more social aspect; it wasn’t just to play out biblical themes or national history, but to provide an emotional experience and to expand intellectual horizons,’ explains Daniela Kaňoková of puppet maker and dealer Loutky Michael. Furthermore, ‘in some cases puppet theatre was a way of making fun of politics, too,’ adds Ambrusová; overlooked by censors, be they church authorities or Soviet, puppetry was a way of showing dissent.
So deeply ingrained was puppetry in the national psyche that table-top theatres would be set up at home, with people buying blank puppet designs they could finish off themselves. From the mid 20th century, puppet theatre grew increasingly professional, and would lead to the establishment of a puppet film industry as well.
Pieces with character
Not that this has diminished interest in its more traditional forms. According to Kaňoková, among the most popular choices of puppets remain witches and ballerinas, as well as classic characters such as Punch and Pinocchio, although there is something of a trend for individuals to have a puppet made in their own likeness.
‘The competition from the TV and the internet means that makers do try to keep pace with the times and artists are always trying new ways of making puppets and new characters for them – sometimes puppets of famous people,’ says Pohádka’s Ambrusová. ‘But many people still look for the old, established characters. And they still want the handmade wooden ones. We say that you don’t have to choose the puppet, the puppet will choose you.’
Some of the puppets are serious investment pieces, many of them antique, historic or museum standard, regarded as highly collectible in the Czech Republic. These, however, are a rarity. Most remain in private collections with owners reluctant to sell.
‘For adults the puppets are most often regarded as art, with puppets speaking to them as things of beauty, especially with the hand-carved models. Today there are several different styles of carving, each of which gives a distinct personality to the puppets,’ says Kaňoková. But, she adds, there is perhaps more delight still in seeing children interact with them. ‘When kids come into the store many will pull the puppets’ strings, move their hands but often end up starting to talk with them. There is a relationship there. So, inevitably, with the combination of the puppets’ artistry, and what they bring out in people, sometimes we’re sorry to sell them ourselves.’