Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

The Imagination of Touch: Surrealist Tactility in the Films of Jan Svankmajer

Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

The Imagination of Touch: Surrealist Tactility in the Films of Jan Svankmajer

Article excerpt

The imagination of touch: surrealist tactility in the films of Jan Svankmajer

Kristoffer Noheden*

Department of Media Studies, Section for Cinema Studies, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden


This article is a theoretical examination of tactility in the Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer's film Down to the Cellar (1983). Svankmajer's deployment of tactile images in a surrealist context shows the need for a discussion of the imagination's role in the embodied film experience. Departing from Laura Marks's The Skin of the Film , this article seeks to explore the surrealist embodied imagination through surrealist poetics of analogy, as defined by André Breton, and the link between these and Walter Benjamin's writings on mimesis. Finally, the film is viewed from the perspective of Gaston Bachelard's ideas of "the imagination of matter," where matter is seen as a highly potent stimulant for the imagination. Bachelard's notion of the imagination's multisensory properties further lends credence to Svankmajer's aims to liberate the imagination of the spectator through images that invoke touch.


Kristoffer Noheden is a PhD candidate in cinema studies at the Department of Media Studies, Stockholm University. In his dissertation, he examines surrealism's attempts to create a new, re-enchanting myth with a focus on its expressions in surrealist cinema. He is the co-editor, with Daniel Brodén, of the anthology I gränslandet: Nya perspektiv på film och modernism (Gidlunds, 2013). He is also the translator into Swedish of books by William S. Burroughs, Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst, and others, and co-runs the surrealist-oriented publishing house Sphinx.

Keywords:Czech film; mimesis; Walter Benjamin; poetics; analogy; materiality; André Breton; Gaston Bachelard

Published: 4 September 2013

*Correspondence to: Kristoffer Noheden, Stockholms universitet, Enheten för filmvetenskap, Box 27062, SE-102 51 Stockholm, Sweden. Email:

© 2013 K. Noheden. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) Licence (, permitting all non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 5, 2013

In Jan Svankmajer's 1983 short film Down to the Cellar (Do pivnice ), a little girl encounters teasingly fleeing potatoes, a man resting on a bed of coal, and a woman mixing coal dust and eggs into a black dough. The Czech filmmaker and artist skilfully evokes the tactile properties of these phenomena as they are played out in the half-illuminated darkness of a cellar in an apartment house. The film fuses reality and the imagination in a way that recalls both dream logic and a child's flights of fancy, but it does so with a concrete materiality that not only enhances the film's tactile properties but also invites the viewer's own active imagination into the equation. This makes Down to the Cellar a telling example of Svankmajer's use of tactility, which works as a manifestation of a highly material form of the surrealist imagination. For the director is not just a renowned animator but also arguably one of the most important filmmakers to emerge from the surrealist movement.1 This not least takes expression through his desire to resuscitate the human capacity for analogical thinking, where likeness relations connect diverse phenomena that the identity principle of scientific thinking keeps apart, and so, from the viewpoint of surrealism, has the potential to poetise and re-enchant a world in the grip of habit and utility.

Film theorists like Vivian Sobchack and Laura Marks have established that the film experience is not merely visual and cerebral but also multisensory and embodied, appealing to both touch and taste. …

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