Josef Svoboda – Light and Shadows

Josef Svoboda (May 10, 1920 – April 8, 2002) was a Czech artist and scenic designer. His productions were revolutionary in the use of a combination of live actors and filmed scenes and for his introduction of contemporary materials and original special effects. Signature elements of his ever-changing environments were projections and later closed-circuit television monitors, which allowed a scene to be to multiplied in space and time. Another key feature were mirrors, sometimes enormous and used to reflect and distort the stage floor. The influence of set designer Adolphe Appia is visible in the strong presence of architectural elements such as majestic stairs and platforms.

Svoboda was born in Čáslav, Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic). He began his training as an architect at the Central School of Housing in Prague. At the end ofWorld War II, he became interested in theatre and design. He began to study scenography at the Prague Conservatory and architecture at the Academy of Applied Arts.

Svoboda became the principal designer at the Czech National Theatre in 1948 and held that position for more than 30 years. His multimedia installations Laterna Magikaand Polyekran, realized together with director Alfréd Radok on the occasion of the Expo 58 in Brussels, allowed him to be internationally known. These productions introduced the combination of live actors and filmed projections. Svoboda is also responsible for introducing modern technologies and materials such as plastics, hydraulics and lasers into his designs. In 1967, Svoboda created one of his best known special effects, a three-dimensional pillar of light. This was created by the use of an aerosol mixture which revealed low-voltage luminaries.

Josef Svoboda considered himself a scenographer rather than a designer; he chose to show a more holistic, architectural, non-naturalistic approach to design. His 700-plus designs include Insect Comedy (Czech National Theatre, 1946); Rusalka (Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 1958); Carmen (Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 1972); The Firebird (Royal Danish Theatre, Copenhagen, 1972); I Vespri Siliciani (Metropolitan Opera, 1974); Jumpers (Kennedy Center, 1974), many of them realized together with the opera director Václav Kašlík.

He left the Czech National Theatre in 1992. Year later, he became artistic director of the Laterna Magika Theatre.

Svoboda’s honors and awards include honorary doctorates from the Royal College of Arts in London, Denison and Western Michigan universities in the United States, and awards from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT). He was made Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in Paris in 1976, and received the French Legion of Honor in 1993.

Josef Svoboda died in Prague, where he was buried on April 15, 2002.

“When I sit alone in a theatre and gaze into the dark space of its empty stage, I’m frequently seized by fear that this time I won’t manage to penetrate it, and I always hope that this fear will never desert me. Without an unending search for the key to the secret of creativity, there is no creation. It’s necessary always to begin again. And that is beautiful.”
Josef Svoboda.

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