Ester Krumbachová

An introduction to the life and work of Ester Krumbachová, ahead of the exhibition and film programme A Weakness for Raisins | Films & Archive of Ester Krumbachová.

Ester Krumbachová was a key figure in Czech New Wave cinema in the 1960s. Having started as a costume designer in theatre she quickly found herself working in film just as a generation of filmmakers emerged in Prague. Soon she was working not only in costume design, but contributing to the creation of sets and colour schemes for each scene. She married another star of the New Wave, the director Jan Nemec, and she contributed significantly to his best known film A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966). The film was considered highly subversive and was condemned by the communist authorities. Later the same year, Krumbachová collaborated as set designer and writer with Vera Chytilova on the classic film Daisies. In 1968 soviet tanks moved into Prague and gradually quelled the restlessly progressive population. In the two years before the period of ‘normalisation’ that was instituted by the authorities, she managed to complete work on several other films such as Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, The Witchhammer and Killing the Devil (the only film she directed herself). Chytilova was prevented from making another film until 1975, Nemec (who had documented the soviet invasion in 1967) chose exile and Krumbachová found herself persona non grata – expelled from the unions of art, film and theatre and unable to work. For the following twenty years Krumbachová’s life was essentially lived underground.

It is only in the last two years that she has returned to public consciousness since her papers, art work, photography and clothes were donated to create an archive which is being overseen by two Czech curators, Edith Jerabkova and Zuzana Blochova. The archive that is still forming begins to shed light not only on Krumbachová’s decade as muse and contributor to much of the Czech New Wave scene but also on that second half of her life, lived in relative obscurity and under an authoritarian regime.

It’s still difficult to know how she survived that experience and it’s clear that one of her greatest acts of resistance was to maintain a positive creative profile. That in itself obscures the reality for researchers today.

Occasionally she found work under a friend’s name but her most regular income came from amulets that she made in her flat. Working with Fimo-like modelling clay in her kitchen oven, she created raw designs that combined many materials in each unique necklace. The pieces not only demonstrate her profound interest in alchemy, the esoteric and the transmutation of materials but they relate back to her innovative concepts in costume and set design. Krumbachová was widely acknowledged as a creative force because of the ways in which she influenced the actors through her costume making. In an interview she talks about this approach:

‘Costume is not about clothing. Costume, both for the film and the theatre, is an event. Something from the story must happen in the costume. I myself have developed certain tricks. For example I would make one sleeve slightly shorter than the other. No one would really notice but there is a certain discord. Costume designers should understand that they are not dressing people in trousers or hats or shirts. They should see them as a way of modelling the character that is supposed to play in the film.’

And in a lecture for students she gives an example based on her work for the 1964 film Diamonds of the Night:

‘The costume is a carrier of thought. It is a difficult job full of tension. Sometimes the costume designer must cope with some of the live actor’s characteristics that do not suit the role, that are spoiling the intention. So the designers must play a game with the actor until he changes or, a little bit in a Machiavellian way, until he tricks him…I found out that one of the two main heros had an unbreakable gesture, i.e. to comfortably, widely gesticulate with his arms…I arrived at a single solution. I cut off all the buttons on his jacket so that he was unable to button up and because of the cold, if nothing else, he was forced to walk hunched over and keep both his arms across his chest.’

Her amulets maintained this philosophy. While some were sold, others were often given to particular friends, at times designed for people and their relationships. One amulet she sent to a Swedish friend, Elisabeth Wennberg, demonstrates how this more intimate transaction could unfold. In the early 1980s Ester visited Elisabeth and her husband, Bo Jonsson, a film distributor in Sweden. Elisabeth recalls:

I was at a very confusing stage in my life and Ester noticed, she saw… She said: You have a lot of energy and you move very quickly, a vulnerable soul. You are going to need protection and I will send you something that will shield you … After sometime I received a necklace. It contained objects that I realized had meant a lot to Ester; parts of a rosary, coral pieces from earrings, little magic knots … It was made with such gentle care and personal effort. To me it became very special and I have always kept it with me during trying moments –in my private life or during work. Sometimes the necklace will attract so much attention that I have to keep it hidden. It has accompanied me during my film excursions to South America, to Northern Siberia to West Africa and to Bhutan … and over time I have added small pieces of memories to it. This necklace has a magic essence – it speaks.’

The exact description Wennberg provides, besides her photo documentation of the amulet, can be linked back to Krumbachová’s archive where there are several ‘recipes’ for amulets among her papers. One in particular, describing the elements needed to construct an ‘amulet for endurance and victory’:

Amulet for endurance and victory

The crown of the amulet is the scarab. Egypt /

And on it’s right side there is a small coral with a meander / Crete /

Silver chain, a chain with lornon

Is used twice, first over the centre of the amulet, then at the end of the amulet

Red coral is from a part fractured rosary

A small pendant under the rosary/right from the crown scarab/originates in Egypt

Used textiles: a baptism shawl for a newborn about the year 1890/linen thread /New Zealand/

Cheap wool

Thread/found, donated/

Also used are:

Animal skins

string/hong-kong

Krumbachová’s amulets were well researched – the remnants of a scholarly German monograph, Amulett und Talisman, are scattered through her archive as well as other texts on alchemy and the circle of alchemical practitioners that the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, gathered in Prague in the late sixteenth century. Her reading helps to make the links between the mystical aesthetics of amulets and alchemical experiments - the emphasis on colour and the power of various stones for example - and her earlier use of colour in costumes, set design and jewelry in films. Likewise, as she used her costume designs to subtly influence the movement and performance of actors, her amulets were constructed using a shifting combination of textiles and shapes that seem designed to keep the wearer off kilter. If Krumbachová believed in magical influence, it was most likely through an individual’s encounter with materials that triggered heightened awareness of their surroundings, altering their perception of reality in a constructive way.

There is a irony in an artist constructing amulets for personal protection while under a decades-long government ban. Given Krumbachová’s personality it might be useful to consider her practice at this time as a kind of resistance. This is reflected in the other activites she undertook on a regular basis.

Food and cookery were always an important part of her daily life – as well as one of the reasons cited by the authorities for her punishment: Daisies (1966) was condemned for wasting the people’s food at a time when there were food shortages and rationing in Czechoslovakia and the movie directed by Krumbachová, Killing the Devil (1970), revolves around a protagonist who feeds the devil until her final realisation that she can trap him in a sack because of his weakness for raisins. Her friends remember her distinctive home cooking, often traditional Jewish Slovakian dishes, and there’s evidence in the archive of her designing food sculptures for larger meals. One of her unrealised desires was to publish a cookery book and again some drafts of that project are preserved in her archive.

In 1994, however, she did publish The First Book of Ester, a collection of ‘intentionally unsent letters or letters forgotten unintentionally’ punctuated by a series of dark fairy tales.

‘These letters were written in quite bad times, but I think that there is a great desire to talk to someone in them.

Such long letters are written mainly when you aren’t in your own skin… This isn’t a joke – you write and write and write, really, even as you want to scream and explain to the other person why you are screaming.

I’ll be better soon, she says to herself while writing, soon I won’t have to bother people. But sometimes that won’t even happen TOMORROW. A person gets up, reads the letter she wrote all night, and grabs her head thinking who the hell could even stand to read such anxious chatter all the way through. The humor has disappeared behind the stove, the inspiration to share and the intimate laughter is gone. It’s just morning. And another day ahead of you, friend.

One way or the other – some letters you immediately rip up into small pieces and toss and others, that you’re still thinking could be sent in a week or so once they mature, stay sitting in the drawer and you bury them under socks and pour out your ashtray over them – but somehow you don’t have the strength to destroy them, you only want to not see them.

And then – at a different, particular, moment – you find them by chance when you’re looking for socks and say to yourself: this is really quite a funny letter, why didn’t you send it? It’s too late now, sending a letter several years old to an addressee who has died in the meantime. Or who – all flushed and alive – would wonder why you’re sending him a letter with such a delay, because in that case another letter would have to be written explaining why THAT letter wasn’t sent.’

While this sounds like it might be a rhetorical set up, Krumbachová’s archive proves otherwise. It is full of unsent letters, many torn into small fragments and stored in plastic bags. It seems likely that she made a selection from this collection for the book but much work remains to be done on them and on her communication/non-communication with the intended recipients of the letters.

Similarly, Krumbachová’s dark fairy tales would reward concentrated study. Her stories retain the structures and hierarchies of fairy magic, kings, queens, and mutable swans but set those elements adrift in a contemporary world of corrupt leaders, psychiatrists, overeating and unreliable travel agents. And, while they at first seem like an anomaly in her general practice, it becomes clear with hindsight that there was a strand of fairy tale running through Killing the Devil and other stories surface casually in lectures on costume in film.

Most of the tales have their roots in the stories of the two greatest Czech folklorists, Karol Jaromir Erben and Bozena Nemcova. Both were collectors of much older folk tales and their literary versions made a significant contribution to the Czech National Revival in the mid-ninteteenth century. Krumbachová’s tales acknowledge the shrewdness, cruelty and humour that underpin the original folk tales even as they became beloved emblems of Czech culture. Her versions, however, link the darker tendencies of the fairy world with the venality and corruption of life in Prague under the repression of the ‘normalisation’ period that followed the 1968 uprising in the city. In ‘The Gingerbread House’, Hansel and Gretel land on their feet socially after escaping from the forest. They are adopted by a husband and wife who are ‘pretty good scoundrels’. These new parents ‘always had their fingers in a variety of wars from which they earned quite a lot of money.’ Krumbachová sums up this hybrid fairy world in a compressed summary of the children’s future lives:

‘Later Gretel married the personal secretary of her aristocratic father and after his death she married his cousin who was the boss of her former husband. And Hansel married the daughter of the chief of his father’s counter intelligence unit and after her death he married the granddaughter of his deceased wife, who was an agent of the uncle of the personal secretary of the father, which was an extremely advantageous liaison, because ever since then wars were ongoing in that region and unless everybody died, the wars are still being fought there even to the present day.’

This dark vision of the world can be cynical, almost bitter, at times (yet magic persists) and Krumbachová exercises a realpolitick view of human nature and personal relationships. Throughout her enforced inactivity her artistic practice continued, albeit in the margins: the making of amulets, the writing of letters not sent and the writing of fairy tales. These forms barely register in the public realm, they are ephemeral and close to invisibility. At the same time there is defiance in Krumbachová’s refusal to stop creating and her choice of forms and ways of making is in itself a corrective to the sanctioned world of art. The façade she built during that time was of a woman who remained flamboyant and engaged with the world around her. She refused to be destroyed by the system that suppressed her though privately it must have taken a severe toll on her. Now her archive is beginning to emerge and take shape it’s possible to see the artist who found ways to continue despite this hardship. Not only does the archive illuminate her early vital contributions to Czech cinema but it demonstrates just how she sustained a new life after the silence of 1970.

Notes

Lizelotte Hanzmann and Lenz Kriss-Rettenbeck, Amulett und Talisman, Verlag Georg D.W. Callway, 1977.


Francis McKee is an Irish writer and curator working in Glasgow. He is Director since 2006 of the CCA, Glasgow, and a lecturer and research fellow at Glasgow School of Art.