Jan Švankmajer graduated from the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague (1950 – 1954) and from the Theater Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague with a specialization in directing and scenography for puppet theater (1954 – 1958). He founded the theater of masks ensemble at Semafor theater, while also working as director at the Laterna magika theater and stage designer at the Činoherní klub. He entered the field of film in the 1960s at the time of the celebrated new wave era. In 1964, he made his first short film entitled Poslední trik pana Schwarzewaldea a pana Edgara (Mr. Schwarzewalde and Mr. Edgar’s Last Trick); Přežít svuj život (Surviving Your Life) of 2010 concludes the series of his almost three dozen short and feature films.
He cooperated with his wife Eva (†2005), a surrealist painter, on many of his films. Their two children – Veronika and Václav, are also active in cinematography.
During the period of normalization, his creative activities were curtailed. In fact, he was forbidden to shoot any films from 1973 to 1979. He closely cooperates with producer Jaromír Kallista and in 1989 they founded the Athanor production company. All of his feature films were shot in the Athanor studios located in the town of Knovíz. From 1962 to 1964 he was a member of the creative group Máj. He has participated in the collective activities of the Surrealist Group in Czechoslovakia since 1970 and is the chairman of the board of editors of Analogon, a surrealist revue.
In addition to film, Jan is also active in the field of independent visual art; he works with printmaking and ceramics and has created distinctive objects, assemblages and collages. From 1974 he has experimented with touch in relation to the imagination. He presented the outcomes of his experiments in the book entitled Hmat a imaginace (Touch and Imagination) (Kozoroh, 1994).
He lives and works in Prague, Knovíz and Horní Staňkov.