Toyen (1902–1980)

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Toyen (1902–1980)

Czech painter and printmaker, her nation's leading Surrealist, who is generally regarded as the most important 20th-century woman artist from the Czech lands. Name variations: Marie Cermínová; Marie Cerminova. Born Marie Cermínová in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on September 21, 1902; lived in France from 1948 until her death in Paris on November 9, 1980; lived with Jindrich Styrsky (a leading Czech modernist artist).

Born in Prague in 1902, Marie Cermínová—who at an early age rejected this name for the assumed one of Toyen, which lacks gender designation—studied at her hometown's School of Fine Arts with Emanuel Dite from 1919 through 1922. She had already broken with her family in 1918 to live an independent life in radical political and artistic circles. In 1922, she met the painter Jindrich Styrsky, with whom she would live and collaborate artistically until his death in 1942. In these years, Toyen was already a vocal feminist, and politically she believed in anarchism, which in later years made her sympathetic to what she then thought were the liberating ideals of revolutionary Marxism. Artistically, her works of this period were strongly influenced by Cubism, followed for a brief period by naïve art. In 1923, Toyen and Styrsky joined the avantgarde Devetsil group (its name is a composite of the words "nine" and "forces"), which numbered among its members not only artists but photographers, writers and architects as well. From 1925 through 1929, the couple lived in Paris, where they announced that they had discovered their own alternative to both abstractionism and the emerging school of Surrealism. Naming their new approach Artificialism, which the couple defined in 1926 as a philosophy of creation that "makes identical the painter and poet," they were able after their return to Prague in 1929 to interest a number of young Czech artists in this style. Soon after, however, both Toyen and Styrsky found their work becoming ever more Surrealistic in content and spirit.

In her 1932 illustrations for a Czech translation of the Marquis de Sade's novel Justine (which appeared in Styrsky's Edition 69), Toyen signaled the beginning of an interest in the erotic that would inform her work. As early as 1929, she had begun to experiment with erotic themes as well as a new, rich language of psychological association. As a result of this breakthrough, throughout the 1930s Toyen was inspired to create a number of powerful works that combined eroded surfaces suggesting dreams and visions along with numerous hints of latent eroticism. Toyen started a formal organization of Czech Surrealists in 1934, and helped put together its first exhibition the following year. Strongly influenced by the "poeticist" aspect of the original Devetsil agenda, Czech Surrealism remained linked with developments in the world of literature.

In 1935, Toyen's deep ties to France were further strengthened when André Breton and Paul Eluard visited Prague and presented several lectures. The visitors were impressed with the activities of Toyen, Styrsky and the Prague Surrealist group. Prague appealed to Breton because of its surrealistic present but also because of its essentially magical, atmospheric past. Consequently, this 1935 visit can be viewed as the beginning of Breton's campaign for an international Surrealist movement. Both Toyen and Styrsky were now well-regarded Surrealist artists, and they were able to participate in all of the major Surrealist exhibitions of the latter part of the 1930s, including the ones held in London in 1936 and in Paris in 1938.

During the Nazi occupation of the historic Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia, which began in March 1939, Toyen and Styrsky continued as underground artists. She was able to produce a striking series of book illustrations for the works of major authors, including Georg Büchner's Lenz, Queen Margaret of Angoulême 's L'Heptaméron, Guillaume Apollinaire's Alcools and selections of poems, Joseph Conrad's Chance, as well as Czech versions of books by Pearl S. Buck and Simonetta Buonaccini . In March 1942, Jindrich Styrsky died. His last major work, published illegally and at great risk the year before, was a small book of photographic sequences combined with verse which he and the poet Jindrich Heisler had created to voice their condemnation of the Hitler dictatorship that had swallowed up their small nation. After Styrsky's death, Toyen provided shelter in her apartment for Heisler who as both an antifascist and a Jew found himself in danger throughout the Nazi occupation.

By the end of World War II, Toyen's art had achieved full maturity. Her erotic works of Surrealism are gentler, more veiled and mysterious than those of Styrsky and other Czech male Surrealists. In her Prometheus (1934) and The Abandoned Corset (National Gallery, Prague, 1937), the sexual content of the piece is often suggested rather than explicit. The barbed wire that wraps a mummy-like form in Prometheus and the strident pink corset of The Abandoned Corset shock the viewer because of their alienation and specificity. As art critic Whitney Chadwick notes: "They seem to intrude into the natural world as signifiers of menacing forms that are both present and absent. The anxious tension between what is whole and complete and what is not, between the visible and the invisible, roots the surrealist dialectic in a subjectivity of profound precariousness."

By 1948, when a Communist coup locked Czechoslovakia behind Stalin's Iron Curtain, Toyen had left her homeland for Paris, where she renounced her Czech citizenship and became a political refugee. Back in Prague, in 1951 her former Devetsil artistic colleague Karel Teige, having been declared "an enemy of the people," ended his life with poison when the police came to arrest him. In Paris, Toyen remained committed to the ideals of Surrealism, continuing to produce works of high quality. Solo exhibitions of her art took place there in 1960 and 1962. In 1966, she and Styrsky received belated recognition from a (partially) de-Stalinized Czechoslovakia when both were honored by an exhibition in the city of Brno. In 1968, Toyen was the subject of a retrospective show in Aquila, Italy. Even more important was the posthumous 1982 exhibition at Paris' Centre Georges Pompidou. By far the most important retrospective was the one held in Prague in 2000, which was accompanied by the publication of a high-quality catalogue of Toyen's artistic oeuvre totaling 360 pages.

Among Toyen's most memorable creations, her set of lithographs produced under Nazi occupation in 1939–40 entitled Tir (The Shooting Gallery) is arguably one of her most evocative works. It was published in Paris in 1973 as a limited edition (livre-de-peintre). Here the artist found it possible to redirect the personal grief over her homeland's loss of its freedom into a nightmare excursion, transforming the wonderland of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass into a Surrealistic view of the world as a shooting gallery. Toyen died in Paris on November 9, 1980. She is now being honored as one of the most innovative and sensitive members of the Surrealist movement and acclaimed as one of the most influential women within that branch of modern art. In November 1992, the Czechoslovak postal administration honored Toyen by depicting her great work of 1937, The Abandoned Corset, on an 8 crown postage stamp, this being one of the last issues released before the dissolution of the Czechoslovak Republic.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia