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Czech puppets on display in Columbus

Columbus Museum of Art explores rich history of Czech puppetry

We’ve been reminded lately that puppets aren’t just for kids.

In recent years, Dayton’s Zoot Theatre Company has been staging productions geared to adults, including the harrowing drama —“And a Child Shall Lead”— the true story of children coming of age in Terezin, a Nazi camp.

We’ve just been entertained by raunchy puppets in “Avenue Q” and we’re gearing up to see life-size galloping and breathing horse puppets when “War Horse” comes to town as the kick-off for the Victoria Theatre Association’s new Broadway season in October.

If all these have piqued your curiosity about the ancient art, you can learn more about its fascinating history through an exhibit on view at the Columbus Museum of Art. The Czech Republic has a rich tradition of puppetry, a history that’s explored in “Strings Attached: The Living Tradition of Czech Puppets” on view through Aug. 25.

It’s worth the drive and will appeal to folks of all ages. In the lobby of the museum, a little puppet stage has been set up where kids can create their own puppet shows.

There are approximately 150 puppets on display ranging from hand and stick puppets to rod puppets, string puppets and mannequins.

The exhibit, created by curator Nina Malikova from the Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague, was produced in cooperation with guest curator Joe Brandesky, an Ohio State Theatre professor. The museum’s adjunct curator Carole Genshaft worked on it too.

The exhibit was three years in the making. After organizers learned it would be impossible to borrow puppets from the National Museum in Prague, Malikova began gathering puppets from private collections and puppet museums.

How it Evolved

“Puppetry was around even in ancient civilizations,” says Genshaft, pointing to a puppet on display that dates back to 300 CE. She says a puppet is defined as any inanimate object that can be animated.

You’ll meet characters from Czechoslovakia’s traditional folklore, literature and popular culture. You’ll see puppets, puppet stages and sets. There are videos of live puppet shows from the Czech Republic and cell phone commentary by Genshaft will help explain some of the popular traditions.

There are puppets from familiar stories as well: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince.

Genshaft says it’s important to note that for the Czech people, puppetry often served a serious purpose — helping to maintain their ethnic and national identity during many years when others tried to subjugate them.

“Puppetry was able to be under the radar,” she explains.”The Czech Republic is the size of South Carolina and is in the heart of Europe so it’s very European in feeling and the puppets reflect influences from other countries.

From early times

The first puppets in the nation’s history date back to the 1850s when itinerant puppeteers would go from village to village to perform for both adult and children. Often the skills were passed from generation to generation.

“Remember there was no television or film, so it was a big event when a puppet show came to town,” says Genshaft.

Almost all of the puppets in this exhibit are hand-carved, many with elaborate and colorful handmade costumes. Some are sinister and grotesque — like those based on the legend in which Faust sells his soul to the devil. But you’ll also meet characters aristocrats and princes and characters like Kasper, a comic figure who will remind you of Punch, of Punch and Judy fame.

Many families have their own puppet theaters for family entertainment. In the middle of one of the Columbus galleries, you’ll see one of these that dates from 1913 .

The “trick puppets” are interesting — before or after a puppet show, the traveling puppeteers often used trick puppets to entertain audiences. These puppets might, for example, have two heads or do somersaults on a bar.

“It’s kinda like a stand-up comic who warms up the audience,” says Genshaft.

Puppets were so important in the society in the 1930s to 1960s that you’ll learn about a puppet who was actually arrested by the Nazis for making fun of them!

Near the end of the exhibit, you’ll see demonstrations which point out the ways in which Czech artist Jan Svamkmajer — who uses clay objects in stop-animation — has influenced filmmakers like Tim Burton and the Brothers Quay.

Genshaft says these puppets belong in an art museum because they are objects that allow an artist to express and project individuality and creativity.

“It is mind-boggling to see the different takes on puppetry,” she concludes. “Think about the Macy’s parade — it’s all about huge puppets with the strings on the bottom!”

To see children at the CMA creating their own puppet show, visit

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