Erudite

Zlatko Bourek – creator of a very special magical world; almost impossible to compare with anyone from the world of puppetry; rudeness, grotesque, eroticism, sardonic humor and fresh, original forms took root in his performances, and figure theatre was born; a theatre of wonders, yet at the same time a commentary on our cruel reality.

 

Brown bread, a linen shirt, a house of wood, clean water – what these things represent today, that is figure theatre playing Molière. That was how Zlatko Bourek compared his version of Molière's Imaginary Invalid in 1998 at the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre (LGL); his comparison speaks of basic, simple, primal things that are an inspiration, a message, and a lesson. In those days, Bourek was interested in pre-Brechtian, pre-modern theatre, and in figure theatre by the German sculptor Ernst Barlach.(1) The German Figurentheater (figure theatre), in contrast to Puppentheater (puppet theatre), is regarded in expert circles as a distinct artistic genre of puppet theatre. It is all about new forms, about an open stage and open ways of performing, and also involves mixing in figures from other art forms and playing with objects (Objekttheater). The expression Figurentheater was first used in the 19th century; nowadays, the German art world uses both expressions to mean puppet theatre – Figurentheater and Puppentheater – even though figure theatre still, and once again, emanates a distinct air of artistic and experimental approach. With that said, Bourek viewed the German 'Figurentheater' and the American puppet group Bread and Puppet Theater(2) as reference forms of political and street theatre, and as models of a satirical, sardonic and bitter theatre approach that he himself had also maintained.

Puppet theatre and figure theatre demand simplicity, including simple farcical texts and corresponding simple and witty forms. Burlesque, buffoonery and caricature had always been the defining characteristics of puppet theatre. These fundamental findings and other more complex insights serve as Bourek's building blocks, or rather as his mortar, in his performances. He understood perfectly the how and why of drastic 'Faustian' performances, satirical puppet sketches, and politically engaged burlesques that lashed out at contemporary politics and at human nature in general. Such theatre is his playground; he knows and he understands what to do in order for his message to hit home with every member of his audience. He knew how to very effectively incorporate all of this into his performances and he loved scooping up elements from old theatre traditions – yet without intimate knowledge of the world's art history, ranging from visual arts, music, theatre and film all the way to philosophy and literature, his creativity would surely never have acquired the multi-layered meanings, keen insights, efficacy, and artistic value it holds now.

In the most noble sense of this Latin expression, Zlatko Bourek is truly an erudite. He is an extraordinarily learned man with a deep and wide-ranging knowledge which he is pleased to pass on to everyone who is craving for knowledge, whether young or old. The breadth of his interests and knowledge is also attested by his formal education: in addition to being an academic painter and sculptor, he is also a theatre director, set designer, costume designer, caricaturist, illustrator, and author of animated films – for all this and more, his invitation into the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts (HAZU) was simply inevitable; he became an associate in 2002 and was honored with full membership in 2010.

Bourek arrived in Ljubljana a long time ago, in the 1970s, following an invitation by the director, dramaturge and puppetry expert Edi Majaron. The first performance at Ljubljana Puppet Theatre for which Bourek designed the puppets and scenery was Frane Puntar's Seesaw in 1978. Although the style of his marionettes followed the spirit of the eventful seventies, his puppets already displayed – and how else could it be – Bourek's characteristic caricaturing, while his puppets of the hairy jumpers displayed the most esprit in character.

In 1982, Bourek staged Isidor Vladimirovich Shtok's Divine Comedy at LGL, a performance that, according to the opinion of many experts, represents one of the big hits of European puppet theatre.(3) Just another reason for Bourek to attempt his hand at it, as a 'total author'. Both the visual artistic design of the performance as a whole as well as directing were firmly in his hands. His train of thought, which analyzed the drama and reassembled it as a harmony of actor and puppet, left its mark in the satirical character of the puppets and actor's costumes as well as in the splendid 'handwriting' of the lively drawings (puppet blueprints), in the playful forms and in their spectacular effect on stage.

More than five years had to pass before Bourek once again collaborated with the LGL. On the wintery evening of 13th December 1987, LGL saw the premiere of Aristophanes's Lysistrata. Edi Majaron took the directing rudder, while the artistic design erupted from Bourek's imagination and flowed through his hands into fantastical figures with a heavy erotic charge; the entire core of the performance stemmed from Bourek's vast knowledge, artistic imagination, and experience. Grotesque, caricatured features, expressive stylization of characters and costumes that were soaked with eroticism, with the authentic Greek Eros and Thanatos – all this made Lysistrata very modern and, at the same time, very faithful to the spirit of antiquity.

Bourek-Majaron's Lysistrata shocked the Yugoslavian puppetry audience and experts of that time. Its lasciviousness and expressive visuals that combined grotesque, humor, fantastic fiction, and bitter classical Greek satire have in a grotesquely debauched way heralded the collapse of Yugoslavia. Even the topic itself – the Peloponnesian wars and the women's commitment to ending that fratricidal war (Spartan and Athenian women have achieved an end to the war through a sexual strike) along with their resourcefulness in outwitting the haughty 'manhood' and seize the power which was reserved solely for males – involved ancient yet modern political, social and psychological issues: sex, power, authority, dominance, manipulation, women, eroticism, men, society, etc. Bourek managed to pass his comment on all of this and gave it shape in the playful form of seven male puppets, in the copious sexual attributes of seven actresses, and in the costume of one dog (an actor dressed as a dog). Actresses in colorful oriental dresses with expressive masks, excessive make-up and 'universal' curves (humongous boobs and butts strapped to their costumes) who manhandle ludicrously deformed, clumsily-moving male characters with a wide variety of obvious phalluses, their faces spasmodically and terrifyingly grimaced – all this imagery and its outstanding caricatures of human nature have secured Bourek's Lysistrata a place in history and written figure theatre ('Figurentheater') into the very heart of theatrical arts. With Lysistrata, Bourek reached and perhaps crossed the borders of the extreme, yet managed to keep his work of art consistent, and his performance speaks in superlatives about that certain je ne sais quoi which pushes man and his imagination to the 'heavens'. He achieved all of this with just a few strokes in a unique and universally understandable visual language. He wittily congealed the playfulness of the constellations of both genders, and the eroticism shined through in all its antique cathartic glory.

Let's Play With Puppets from 1988 is a performance by the LGL where Bourek incorporated various different puppet types (marionettes, hand and shadow puppets, Sicilian puppets) that were joined by pantomime (Andrés Valdés), ballet, choral singing and an unusual concept of scenery. The animators were now in plain sight, now hidden, with the happenings always suggestively directed toward the focal point. The performance was directed by Ljubomir Draškić.

In 1992, Bourek was invited to a collaboration by Jelena Sitar and Igor Cvetko. He prepared the artistic design for their musical-scenic project. Sitar and Cvetko took on a very interesting project – The Burning House, Haydn's puppet opera, which was performed in collaboration with Puppet Theatre Zapik and the Cankarjev dom in Ljubljana. In terms of organization and production, this was a very tough nut to crack.(4) Cvetko led the preparations for the musical part and coordinated the opera singers and the small orchestra while Sitar, who was also the directress of the performance, dealt with the puppets and actors. Bourek designed the drafts for the puppets and sets that were then manufactured by the Sarajevo master Ivica Bilek. The costumes and hairstyles were supervised by Diana Bourek while Zlatko Bourek himself cast and painted the puppet heads. As always he perfectly captured the nature of each individual character and united them in a humorous collective. This resulted in a colorful and expressive puppet performance that perfectly harmonized with Haydn's humorous music.

Bourek collaborated with the LGL again in 1998. The performance that once again challenged him as an absolute, integral author was Molière's Imaginary Invalid. Bourek also wrote the adapted script and took over dramaturgy, directing, artistic design, puppet design, trained the actors and animators, and had the following to say about it: '/.../ in order to study the text in the old fashion of figure theatre, we will also be taking an 'acting class' in addition to studying the performance itself /.../ perhaps this will be the first step towards a puppetry academy in Ljubljana /.../' Bourek staged Molière's Imaginary Invalid at LGL as a figure theatre performance, and at the Croatian Drama HNK with just actors. 'Compared to puppet theatre, figure theatre is rougher, sardonic, sarcastic, and mean in its expression – it is more direct,' explained Bourek. 'The distinctive feature of figure theatre (and of puppets) lies mainly in just one deceptively little detail. Actors enter and leave the scene ... while the figures in our theatre ascend from the floor and descend again in any place on the stage they like, following some obscure rule of their own that fundamentally distinguishes them from the real world. Movement in figure theatre does not just imitate a living human; it is about carrying the object, where the actor must obey the rules of carrying that object correctly. Actors who enjoy moving and animating a piece of 'something' and enjoy seeing 'that thing' also 'talk' are like joyful children – but they break a darn good sweat doing so.”(5) The Imaginary Invalid was a successful satire with grotesque figures (puppets), surreal elements and of course the humour of Bourek and Molière. Daily newspapers called the Imaginary Invalid a caricature of human weaknesses and a vivacious burlesque. The brilliant visuals and the manufacturing method of the masks and figures was a revolution in Slovene puppetry, both from the artistic, expressive and typical viewpoints as well as due to the implementation of modern artificial materials in the puppets. Unfortunately these puppets were stored in a very improper manner and the materials they were made of fell prey to 'certain chemical processes'.

In 1999, Bourek joined a group of experts who were designing and carrying out the pedagogical programme of LGL – he worked as a mentor to first-year students of puppet play at LGL's studio for theatre and puppets, and contributed his visual design to From One To Zero, a performance authored by Milan Dekleva. Under Bourek's professorship and directorial guidance, everyone got a chance to show his skills as actor-animator. Many 'numbered muppets' were made, wittily stylized and sardonically expressive.

The third public production by students in 2001 under the mentorship of director Matjaž Loboda brought Ivanka of the Cave, a 'native play' from the 19th century that was artfully modernized by Andrej Rozman Roza. Bourek contributed the scenery and the puppets that were once again made in collaboration with Ivica Bilek. The most fitting choice for this story were buffoonish, clumsy, coarse, and humorous Sicilian puppets.

Puppet theatre, 'figure' theatre and theatre of masks needs simple contents that are close to plebeian street theatre, with an emphasis on critical realism and stemming from the love for other people; not with the desire to hurt or ridicule someone, but simply to bare their shortcomings in a witty manner. The skill of Harlequinesque theatre and the principle of figure theatre are in a way the hallmarks of most of Bourek's performances, as he delighted in drawing inspiration from theatrical tradition. Some experts see the origins of Bourek's theatre, in a stylistical and semantical sense, in hand puppet theatre. Bourek often connected the actor's body to the puppet and used various masks or painted/masked the actor's face. He also masked various parts of the human body and even animated them. He perceived eroticism to be an important communication channel that supplies his creative process and his creations with optimism, happiness, laughter, and delight.

Bourek's early erotic drawings, which were published under the title Eros aresu ures (Antibarbarus 2011) together with essays by the poet Tonko Maroević, represent one of his most recent projects (apart from exhibitions).(6) His drawings from the time when he served in the military have stood the test of time and serve as a testament to Bourek's inexhaustible creative vitality.

 

Notes

Slavko Pezdir, From the Landscape Where Man is the Highest Peak, a talk with Zlatko Bourek, Delo newspaper, 4th May 1998.

Theatre of masks, or rather of 'living puppets', was established in New York in 1963 by Peter Schumann, born in 1934 in Silesia (Germany). It is a form of political theatre that was used extensively during the 1960s in the form of processions with masks and performances to express, amidst others, the general societal protest against the Vietnam War.

In 1961, two Russian artists – Isidor Vladimirovich Shtok and puppetry artist Sergey Obraztsov – godfathered the debut performance of the Divine Comedy at the State Central Puppet Theatre in Moscow.

Source: Programme book for the Divine Comedy, LGL, 1982/83 season.

4 The debut performance of the opera took place in 1776 at the Esterhazy Palace in Eisenstadt. It was performed with marionettes and with the prescribed musical corpus. The performance in Ljubljana featured less music and was performed with a variation of modern hand puppets.

Source: Jelena Sitar, The Burning House II, Lutka magazine, issue 53, 1996, pages 141/142.

5 Programme book for the Imaginary Invalid, Grand stage at LGL, 1997/98 season, page 2.

 In the early winter of 2009, the Pilon Gallery in Ajdovščina featured an exhibition of Bourek's paintings and 45 folder drawings from the year 1956 when Bourek was completing his military service in the XIII. proletarian brigade Rade Končar.

Vesna Teržan

Art historian, art critic and curator

Vesna Teržan - Art historian, art critic and curator