The first English-language overview of Czech Surrealist artist Toyen (Marie Čermínová, 1902-1980) corrects a longstanding lacuna in English literature on Surrealism. Surrealism studies has been expanding its range over decades. Central and Eastern Europe have been poorly served however, particularly because of lack of access to records during the Communist era and the relative dearth of Surrealist scholars able to speak the relevant languages.
As Karla Huebner, associate professor of art history at Wright State University, explains in her monograph Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic, neglect of Toyen’s art is in part her own making. Toyen was not keen to commit her artistic ideas or biographical information to paper, leaving many admirers in her lifetime unclear about the artist’s intentions. André Breton was an admirer of her art and she was involved in post-War Surrealism in Paris – she fled to Paris after the Iron Curtain fell – but she is seen as, if not second rank, certainly second generation. Huebner correctly discerns that post-War Surrealism was (and is) considered a spent force. Even in official histories of the movement, comparatively little attention is paid to the Paris group after 1945. Other reasons are discussed later.
Toyen was born Marie Čermínová, in Prague in 1902, to Catholic parents from Bohemia. Huebner sets out what little she can glean of Toyen’s early life, which (apart from official records) amounts is almost nothing. Between 1919 and 1922, Čermínová attended the Artistic-Industrial School, which was the applied art school in Prague. Her teacher was Emanuel Dítĕ the Younger was an academic painter, but Heubner points out that some notable Czech modernists started their careers under him, so his teaching must not have been deadening. In later years, the artist did not discuss her background with anyone, though it seems she was not estranged, simply keen to protect her privacy (or control public perceptions of her).
Čermínová dressed ambiguously, not presenting as a man but in working clothes more common for men than women. She also wore conventionally feminine clothes. She cut her hair short. Rather than intending to pass as the opposite sex, Čermínová’s diverse styles of dressing suggest variable intentions and moods, an understanding of appropriacy and a studied disregard for convention. “Descriptions of the artist as androgynous or of mutable gender identity emphasize four general characteristics: 1) cross-dressing, especially in rough and working-class manner; 2) walking with an unusual, apparently unladylike, gait; 3) use of the masculine gender in Czech (though not, apparently, in French); and 4) attraction to women.”
Čermínová was a successful and prolific designer of book jackets and illustrations, starting in 1923. That was the same year she joined the Devĕtsil Modernist movement, which Huebner describes as an avant-garde movement with cosmopolitan attitudes, which saw itself as internationalist – partly to step outside the Czech nationalist revival (Nationalist Awakening), that had begun around 1900. The Devĕtsil members had their roots in the Decadent Movement of the 1890s. It was upon her joining the movement that she was given the name “Toyen”, which she would use for the rest of her life, personally and professionally (if not legally).
From 1922 until his death in 1942, Toyen was the partner of Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942). Štyrský started as a latter-day follower of the Decadents. He had an interest in potent provocative literature, dreams and occultism – a good grounding for a future Surrealist. He was a painter with a pronounced preoccupation with death, decay, ruin, as well as the erotic. He worked as a painter, although it is for his montages – especially with pornographic elements – that he is best known for today. The couple apparently collaborated on different levels, consulting each other about choices and sometimes working on pieces together. They frequently exhibited together, with prices comparable. Štyrský and Toyen were considered a social and artistic pairing, Toyen not as a junior partner or follower. Magazine spreads show that their art was given equal prominence. There seems to have been no condescension towards women in the Devĕtsil group, though (again) apparently few participated.
Huebner describes how the Prague proto-Surrealists were a vital force in the mid-1920s, just as the Paris group was graduating from Dadaism to Surrealism. (This was despite the fact that the Prague group was not officially founded until 1934.) There was apparently rivalry between the groups for intellectual leadership of the movement. In 1925 Toyen and Štyrský moved to Paris. The book contains much discussion of the pair’s personal and artistic fascination with sex, so much more easily accessible and public in Paris than elsewhere. Sex was a major theme of the pair’s art. Toyen’s paintings and sketches include revue bars, prostitution, lesbianism, orgies and other sexual imagery, made in a naïve style.
Toyen’s erotic illustrations are playful and vary in detail, ranging from the primitive to the sophisticated over-layering found in Surrealist photomontages. The lines can be sensitive and elegant. The imagery includes the ribaldry of pornography, the sophistication of Beardsley and the juxtapositions of Surrealism. The sheer amount of work indicates Toyen’s serious artistic investment in this field. Toyen and Štyrský published illustrated erotic books and her illustrations in Štyrský’s Erotická Revue (1930–33). Štyrský was sympathetic to Bataille’s dissident Documents group, which focused on the power of sex, the concept of the informe and the concentration on sadism. This book should establish Toyen as a major artist of the erotic.
The pair’s work earliest art in Paris was semi-abstract paintings, influenced by Cubism and Purism; it was described as “artificialist”. It is tepid fare. The ambivalence of Breton and the Surrealist poets towards art meant that painting in early Surrealist period was ancillary. Breton started writing in 1925 of “Le surréalisme et la peinture”, distinguishing and dividing the two entities with the conjunctive “and”. Toyen and Štyrský spent the late 1920s resisting Surrealism, all the time becoming more familiar with it, swimming in the waters of the movement that dominated inter-war Paris. Huebner says that once Toyen committed to Surrealism, she did it wholeheartedly and became the central figure of Czech Surrealism – its unofficial leader. By this time, she was back in Prague. She and Štyrský had returned from Paris in 1928.
This book acts as a survey of Czech Surrealism. It explains the significance of major actors, important events and the tensions between Surrealism and Communism. The paucity of personal papers means that Toyen disappears a little in some sections. She comes back into focus during the Occupation and World War II, during which she stayed in Prague, sheltering a half-Jewish artist Jindřich Heisler (1914-1953) from Nazi arrest and transportation to concentration camps. In 1942, Štyrský died of pneumonia, exacerbated by alcoholism. It was in 1944 that Toyen produced Hide Yourself, War!, nine ink illustrations featuring animal skeletons in devastated landscapes. They are by far Toyen’s best art. The powerful bleakness, graphic crispness and wonderfully modulated shading give these apparitions tremendous impact.
Occupation of Prague by Soviet forces following the war and the artistically deadening influence of Czech Communists meant that Toyen, despite being politically left, realised her art had no future in her home country. In 1947, Toyen and Heisler (her new partner) moved to Paris. She would reside in France until her death.
It is a little ironic (given the author’s identification of the critical neglect Surrealists after 1945) that relatively little space is given to Toyen’s post-War production. This does turn out to be justified. The author describes how Toyen’s art became more diffuse, mystical in mood, suffused by darkness. This was congruent with Surrealism as a whole, as Breton directed followers to embrace the occult and mysticism. Single hybridised humanoid forms float in stygian voids. Collaged elements (such as mouths and hands cut from magazine pages) are incorporated into painted personages. It is hard not to think of this era as a decline. Toyen’s art was at its best with a sharp graphic bite and limpid clarity. We do find some flickers of success in her post-1945 line drawings but even these are less concisely arranged than her early Surrealism. Toyen’s painting (always weak) becomes forgettable. There is the implicit suggestion of laziness – covering backgrounds and settings with darkness, failing to resolve compositions, not fully articulating motifs. Viewing these pedestrian efforts, is it any wonder Toyen is considered a third-rate painter, when she is considered at all?
There are unanswered questions. Huebner does not discuss how the paintings were made. Did Toyen make preparatory drawings or were the paintings designed on the canvas? Hide Yourself, War! presumably had sources for the skeletons – were they taken from textbooks or drawn from museum specimens? Did Toyen keep sketchbooks? Did she write letters mentioning her technique or including thumbnail sketches? Also, Toyen’s income goes undiscussed. Did she make a living income from fine art or was she obliged to do book-design work? We do not know anything about her living arrangements or daily routines. Did she travel? This is no criticism of the author. It may be that such information is entirely lost. Huebner has rightly discerned that the main priority is to outline Toyen’s art and summarise methods of critiquing it.
Pick up any large book on Surrealist art and you will find Toyen’s art, but rarely represented by more than a drawing or two or maybe a painting. Little text is given to her. (Less is given to Štyrský.) So, for what reasons (apart from neglect of the post-War period of Surrealism) are Toyen’s art not more reproduced or discussed?
Refreshingly, for an author writing on a female Surrealist, Huebner admits that gender is not the primary reason for the neglect of her subject. “The scholar in pursuit of Toyen encounters some of the usual problems in studying a female artist – the relative paucity of critical sources, the need to research her via male associates – yet not entirely for the usual reasons. Indeed, Toyen’s two artistic partners, Štyrský and Heisler, have received no more attention than she. It is less that her gender has obscured knowledge of her work than that historical circumstances – primarily arising from the Cold War – have obscured her from view.” This point is outlined in the second paragraph of this review.
The frankness of Toyen’s erotic art may have put off some publishers and art historians. The subject of sex is not unknown to the movement (Hans Bellmer made it his central concern), but mainstream publishers can be wary of unambiguously explicit art in titles intended for libraries and schools. The erect phallus (which one does not find in the art of other female Surrealists) is definitely on the indecent side of the line that separates mainstream publishing from specialist publishing. The compiler of any monograph on Toyen cannot avoid including her erotic pictures.
Huebner identifies a key difference between Toyen and other female Surrealists. There is lack of personalisation and a lack of personae in her art. There are no self-portraits, no alter egos and no glamorous avatars in Toyen’s dreamscapes. “Toyen’s avoidance of [the face of the artist] does not negate the possibility of self-referential imagery in her work, but indicates that she did not care to represent herself in an obvious way or as the kind of wild and beautiful woman found in the work of Carrington, Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, and even Valentine Hugo.” This is definitely to Toyen’s disadvantage in terms of popular reception. There is no accessible entry point and no character upon which the female viewer can project herself. Toyen was an attractive woman but unlike the other women Surrealists, she did not model nude for herself or anyone else. Toyen’s aversion to (even disguised/transposed) literary and pictorial autobiography makes her art less attractive to audiences and academics.
As already described, a strike against Toyen is the fact that she was not a natural painter, being better suited to collage and illustration. Her skill was for graphics – line, composition, reduction – rather than colour, texture and brushwork. This puts her at an immediate disadvantage compared to the major Surrealist artists, who (with the exceptions of sculptor Giacometti and photographer Man Ray) were all painters. Next to the paintings of rich patterns and colours of Leonor Fini, the fairy-tale characters of Leonora Carrington and the haunting plains of Kay Sage, Toyen’s paintings feel a little thin, a touch flat, even drab. The best of Toyen’s art is her illustrations. However unfairly, line drawings and illustrations are judged minor art forms and treated accordingly.
I disagree with José Pierre’s assessment of Toyen, quoted by Huebner, as “the least acknowledged of the great surrealist painters”.Toyen is not a great painter; she is barely a competent painter. She is a very accomplished draughtsman – at times reaching true greatness. However, due to the minor status of drawing and the other limitations outlined above, Toyen will never be counted as a Surrealist of the highest level by the public. Huebner has very well evaluated and presented the case for Toyen and readers benefit from knowing Toyen and her unique contribution to Surrealism. Magnetic Woman is a major achievement, very enjoyable and greatly informative. The author’s diligence and the clarity of her writing are of the highest standard. The author is well informed about Surrealism and current discussions in gender theory.
For those claiming Toyen as a “transgender” artist, there is disappointing news. Huebner nowhere cites Toyen describing herself as anything other than a woman. Despite using both male and female pronouns regarding herself in Czech, for the majority of her life she spoke principally French. In French, she never used a male pronoun regarding herself. While there is evidence of cross-dressing and some linguistic reframing in one of her two languages, there is nothing here to suggest she considered herself in identity terms such as transgender, transman, transvestite, intersex or anything else. The most that can be said of her is that (at times) she did not act in ways that were considered normatively female – along with a number of other women in that era, who likewise did not consider themselves transgender. It seems that Toyen did not want to be thought of by others as a woman because that might limit her; there is no evidence in this book that she thought of herself as anything other than a woman. She was a woman who acted the ways she wanted to. That in itself is noteworthy and does not need embellishing.
This publication is a rare foray into art history by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Let us hope it will not be the last. The book is well illustrated and handsomely bound in buckram, doing both subject and author credit. A word of advice for anyone who is a devotee of Surrealism, Czech Modernism, erotic art and female Modernist artists: buy this book. Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic is certain to become an essential source book, much sought after and expensive. Buy it now, while you can.
Karla Huebner, Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020, cloth hb, 408pp, 28 col./many mono illus., $100, ISBN 978 0 8229 4647 2
© 2021 Alexander Adams
To view my books and art, visit www.alexanderadams.art