Where the Macabre & the Fantastic Meet

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Robert Barker/Cornell University
Quay Brothers: They Think They’re Alone, decor for the film Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, 1984

With his great theme of Americans and their avid encounters with European experience, Henry James might have found the Quay brothers to be updated versions of some of his own characters. Something like a romance with European life and culture, anyway, seems to be at the center of the art of Timothy and Stephen Quay. They are identical twins who were born in 1947, outside Philadelphia, and have lived and worked side by side in London for decades. They are best known for their stop-motion animated films, made with puppets, and to take in these films is to become immersed in a kind of Expressionist fairy tale. More precisely, one feels that, in some of their most engaging and affecting movies, they speak to us from a deep imaginative rapport with the spirit, and tensions, of Central Europe and of German-speaking Europe in the years before and after World War I.

Not that the Quays, who have been fairly well known in Europe for some time but have had primarily an underground reputation here—and are currently the subject of an overdue retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art—set out to make historically accurate costume dramas. Nor, in their large and dizzyingly diverse body of work, do they limit themselves to one particular time and milieu. Over the past thirty years, they have used their puppet art in making short films based on their own highly particular concerns (such as the Czech artist and animator Jan Švankmajer) and on fiction by (or on aspects of the lives of) Kafka, the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, and the Swiss writer Robert Walser. The brothers have also made short and feature-length movies with actors—including In Absentia, a demanding and wrenching work about a woman who was confined to a Heidelberg mental hospital in the early twentieth century.

Then, too, the Quays have employed roughly the same kind of animation that they use for Kafka or Schulz for music videos (funded by MTV) and for TV commercials (for Nikon, Doritos, Honeywell, Badoit, and others), which have run on British TV. They have used their stop-motion art for documentaries (often commissioned by the BBC) on such subjects as Stravinsky, Bartók, Janáček, and Michel De Ghelderode, a Belgian who wrote plays for puppets. Primarily for English companies, they have done stage sets for theater, opera, and ballet productions. At the Modern’s show, in addition to seeing many of the Quays’ movies (and footage of events they have worked on), one encounters many of the sets they have created for these movies. They are minia‌ ture dioramas, packed with amazingly intricate details, and are clearly meant to be taken as self-contained artworks in themselves. We can also see some of the puppets that have been moved about on these sets.

Amorphous as the Quay universe may sound in such an account, there is an …

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