Lucy Ives on the art of Toyen
Rare are they who are up to the task of freeing love from caricature.
—Annie Le Brun
FOR FIVE YEARS, Toyen’s dear friend Jindřich Heisler hid from the Nazis in the artist’s bathroom. There—perhaps also venturing from time to time into Toyen’s neighboring studio—Heisler developed some of the most remarkable experimental photographic techniques of the twentieth century, capturing painstaking miniature dioramas and deploying photomontage to highly original ends. He converted everyday objects and common substances into rich, strange forms, toying with scale and unexpected juxtapositions. One of his favorite materials was Vaseline.
Legendarily, when Prague’s occupiers came knocking, Heisler skipped down the building’s front steps, waving sociably as his would-be abductors passed him on their way up. They would have found his protector alone, smoking and reading. Toyen was known for her love of books. The novel she preferred before all others was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Because she seldom wrote, we know little of how Toyen, born Marie Cěrmínová in Prague in 1902, experienced these events. Heisler died in 1953, leaving no account of the war years. Indeed, we do not even know if Toyen, who famously referred to herself in Czech as a “malíř smutnej” (sad [male] painter), would have employed feminine pronouns. It feels awkward to make use of them in these sentences, but this is the convention among the few chroniclers of Toyen’s life and the mode chosen by one of Toyen’s last living friends, the French author Annie Le Brun. Toyen, were she alive today, might elect differently. Given her tendency to secrecy regarding her personal life and, as time went on, her refusal to speak at all while in public (a reticence she adopted whenever she felt her milieu lacked “poetry”), perhaps it is best to think of she, her, and hers as imperfect signs, mediocre translations, found objects. Asked why she chose to be silent in overly prosaic settings, she remarked, “Je mets mon scaphandre” (I put on my space suit).
That Toyen is simultaneously one of the least known and most productive, multifarious, and inventive of the Surrealists is another mystery to add to the list. She provided illustrations for some 570 books over the course of her career, realized dozens of brilliant paintings, created stunning line drawings and prints responding to the horrors of World War II, and amassed a connoisseur’s trove of pornographic materials. She had two close collaborative relationships. With Heisler, whom she met in 1938, she created the revolutionary photobook Z kasemat spánku (From the Strongholds of Sleep, 1940), among other clandestine wartime publications. Before this, she and the painter, poet, publisher, and set designer Jindřich Štyrský, with whom she was close from 1922 until his death in 1942, founded their own artistic movement, Artificialism, in support of which they held a number of successful exhibitions in Paris, becoming famous in their native Prague and infiltrating André Breton’s inner circle. Breton, Toyen’s staunch supporter, once compared her to a nightingale that had become trapped in his apartment, maintaining that she was somehow beyond judgment or valuation. All that Toyen touched, Breton wrote, was connected to the wild and utterly free song of the nightingale by “a ladder of silk.”
Breton romanticized Toyen as a revenant of the lost nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Prague, city of paradisiacal bridges and Franz Kafka. He wrote of “the mark of nobility that stamps her face, the deep tremor within her co-existing with a rock-hard resistance to the fiercest attacks.” It is true that Toyen had a distinctive look: In 1919, a year after the creation of the nation of Czechoslovakia, a photograph was taken of then-seventeen-year-old Marie, or “Manka,” as she was known. Her fashionable features convened the ideals of Victorian beauty and of the so-called New Woman, combining doll-like symmetry with striking eyes that projected a worldly clairvoyance. The face in the picture is that of a teenager who has just left home, stalwart, ready to forget childhood—the face of a revolutionary. Toyen had joined the anarchists, a group then ascendant in the Czech capital, taking work at a soap factory. She frequently dressed in men’s clothes and distanced herself from her parents. Four years later, she changed her name and became affiliated with Devětsil, a leading local avant-garde devoted to Proletkult and the fantastic.
Toyen: two short syllables. Various origin stories have been proposed for this mononym, some more plausible than others. Le Brun understands it as a shortening of the French masculine noun citoyen, or “citizen,” an etymology that links the artist to the French Revolution and foretells her emigration. American critic Whitney Chadwick, author of a landmark article on Toyen, 1989’s “Toyen: Toward a Revolutionary Art in Prague and Paris,” proposes a pun on to já jen, Czech for “to think oneself.” Toyen’s contemporaries made their own interpretations. Adolf Hoffmeister, a caricaturist, depicted her in 1930 as Ten-Ta-To-yen on the cover of the Prague review Rozpravy Aventina (Aventine Debates). The hyphenate compound is a declension: “that male, that female, that neuter-creature.” Hoffmeister’s thoughtful portrait—a smiling individual in pants casts a shadow as a heteroclite figure with a bird for a head, a pair of fish for a chest, and a drafting triangle and a picture frame for arms—stands in contrast to others’ bafflement at or (as scholars Karla Huebner and Malynne Sternstein put it, respectively) “mythologiz[ing]” and “heteronorma[lizing]” of Toyen’s self-fashioning. Poet and fellow Devětsil member Jaroslav Siefert goes on at length, claiming to have devised the name himself: “I wrote TOYEN on a napkin in big letters.” In a memoir, he lingers over his shock at having often “encountered a strange but interesting girl” wearing “coarse cotton pants, a guy’s corduroy smock, and on her head a turned-down hat, such as ditch-diggers wear.” Later, at a cafe, he is astonished to discover her transformed, “with a clean face” and “dainty pumps on her pretty feet,” sharing a table with Štyrský, a male painter already known to him. “When she extended her hand,” Siefert writes, “I couldn’t exhale for a couple of seconds and I looked in amazement.”
Toyen’s ability to inhabit more than one persona—“male” worker, “female” intellectual—made her an object of fantasy, although the nature of her own fantasies remains a matter of speculation. She was apparently uninterested in romantic attention from straight men. As for her reference to herself as a “malíř smutnej” (“Farewell, I am a sad [male] painter!” she exclaimed from the window of a taxi after a night of carousing with the Devětsilians), Seifert made the wry observation: “We didn’t believe in her sadness.” After Toyen began to collaborate with Štyrský, whom she had met on vacation in 1922, she was seen by some as his “druh,” his companion or common-law wife, although Toyen always maintained that their relationship was platonic. Some who took a prurient interest in the duo thought of them as “twins” or as somehow exchanging gender characteristics. The poet Vitezslav Nezval, fascinated by what he viewed as a symbiosis of binary genders, wrote, “Štyrský was her soul and her female element, because Toyen, who after a certain time dressed like a boy, refused, when she spoke of herself, to use the feminine endings, in order to demonstrate her human and artistic equality.”
Not to be outdone by these many commenters, Toyen created a striking painting titled Polštář (Cushion), 1922. It depicts the salon of a brothel in which naked men and women form a flower chain of flesh, brushstrokes quick but unerring. At the bottom right of the piece of cardboard on which the image was made, two women pleasure each other. “I don’t know if today one can measure the incredible audacity that it took for a young woman twenty years of age to realize this tableau,” writes Le Brun. For her part, Toyen maintained that she had been making erotic images since she was a child. Speaking of her first sexual experience, she used terms suggestive of autonomy and empowerment, declaring that she herself had “ended” her virginity.
Whatever the case may be regarding the physical aspects of Toyen and Štyrský’s intellectually intimate partnership, by the fall of 1925, they were living together in Paris. Theirs was an ambitious plan: Following in the footsteps of Apollinaire—the French-Polish poet whose death from influenza in 1918 cut short an ingenious career—they would synthesize painting and poetry. Although socializing with noted Surrealists, they rejected Surrealism’s fetishization of the unconscious. In two manifestos from 1927 and 1928, “Artificialism” and “The Poet,” they wrote of melding painterly form with poetic sensibility, claiming mysteriously, “We have no memories, but we are trying to manufacture them. There is only one way to rid oneself of memories. To be abandoned by them.”
Toyen’s works from the mid- to late ’20s, in any case, look less like memories (manufactured or otherwise) than visions of liberation. In one startling painting, Polykačmečů (Sword-Swallowers), 1925, a trussed female performer lies smiling on a carpet as nearby two men impale themselves on the titular weapons. Witty notebook drawings from around this time document sex workers, animals, and figures from the Bible, among other practitioners, engaging in every act under the sun. Salome placidly urinates on the head of John the Baptist. Meanwhile, Toyen and Štyrský were compiling a sizable collection of print pornography. For their Artificialist project, they made pleasant, vaguely Cubist landscapes mostly devoid of humanity, the paint thickened with sand—not always their finest work. They cooked up various moneymaking schemes, writing a travel guide to Paris for Czech speakers, designing fabrics, producing endless commercial book covers. They hit the clubs. “Elegant Manka, or Toyen, who buys herself clothes fashionable and ultrafashionable and dines on smoked mackerel at ‘Au rendezvous des chauffeurs’ with Jindřich Štyrský, a painter quiet and artificial,” wrote the observant Hoffmeister in 1926 regarding their Montparnassian exploits.
The ’30s brought change. Whereas Artificialist Toyen had favored flatness, now she began to paint more conventionally three-dimensional forms, rendering them at once vivid and hard to identify: Is the huddled, wire-wrapped entity in Prometheus, 1934, an empty garment? An outcropping of stone? In 1929, she had returned to Prague, although she continued to travel. She was moving out of step with Štyrský, employing some of the tenets associated with Artificialism but discarding others. It was as if she saw the possibility of interiority in a painting that manifested as an impossible-to-complete zone, a rip or fissure in representation itself. When, in 1931, Štyrský began publishing the Erotiká Revue and a serial imprint, Edice 69 (Editions 69), Toyen illustrated a Czech version of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine and explored the graphic qualities of oversize genitals. She seems to have been struck by Georges Bataille’s notion of the informe, which Rosalind Krauss has described as an undoing of traditional aesthetic categories, a “deny[ing] that each thing has its ‘proper’ form.” As if in anticipation of the brutality that would soon be unleashed across Europe, Toyen’s work by the mid-’30s had already turned to themes of horror and abandonment. Everything cracks; in works like 1934’s Růžový spektr (Specter in Rose), we no longer differentiate between subject and object, fluid and solid, surface and hole.
In 1939, the borders close and her name appears on a list of artists banned from public activity in occupied Czechoslovakia, now the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Along with Heisler and his immediate family, she has been swindled by a customs agent out of passage to South America. Toyen begins the long wait for the end of hell. Arrests and executions are not uncommon among Prague’s creative milieu. In a rare extant letter to the French poet Benjamin Péret in April 1946, Toyen will say, “Life was indeed terrible here and I often had to hide.”
It was very dangerous to shelter Heisler, who had elected not to show up to a 1941 deportation call. Equally risky was the pair’s continued artistic production. They condensed the unbearable into striking poetic images beginning in 1939 with their collaboration Les spectres du desert (Specters of the Desert), with illustrations by Toyen and poems in French by “Henri” Heisler. They hoped to distribute a second collaboration, this time in German, to invading soldiers as pro-defection propaganda. Nur die Turmfalken brunzen ruhig auf die 10 Gebote (Only Kestrels Piss Calmly on the Ten Commandments) featured Heisler’s poetry, Toyen’s drawings, and a cover by Štyrský, its colophon boldly proclaiming, “This book originated in the suffocating atmosphere of military commands as a document of Surrealist activity that none of the reactionary powers of mobilized Europe can destroy.” During the war, Toyen and Heisler, with occasional input from Štyrský, continued to develop such Surrealist samizdat. Their furtive efforts included the aforementioned Z kasemat spánku, a photobook of “realized poetry” (realizované básne), as well as a number of serial graphic works by Toyen. Her terrifyingly precise drawings for the cycle Strělnice (Shooting Gallery), 1939–40, reveal her at the height of her powers, confecting images of blasted landscapes inhabited by a cat’s head, memorial wreaths, crumbling puppet theaters, and faceless children, among other vivid fragments. She continued in this vein with Den a noc (Day and Night), 1940–43, and Schovej se, válko! (Hide Yourself, War!), 1944. Reminiscent of the work of contemporary artist Milano Chow, these meticulous illustrations-without-books, published only after 1946, evince an existential nausea seldom equaled in modernism.
The wartime projects led to what are perhaps Toyen’s most unforgettable works: a group of loosely related paintings of the 1940s and ’50s united by an attention to hyperfine detail that ebbs cryptically into a zone of nonrepresentation or impossibility. The first among these, Po prědstavení (After the Performance), 1943, depicts a girlish body suspended upside down from what seems to be a dancer’s barre, embroidered bloomers exposed even as feet and head have melted into a carefully worked wall of dripped and scraped paint. Below the hanging figure are an empty pillowcase and what looks like a combination flyswatter–riding crop, accessories for a discomfiting Sadean recital. De Sade, Štyrský and Toyen’s former household god, also informs two paintings titled Na zámku La Coste (At Château La Coste) after the ancestral home of the Marquis, one from 1943 and the other from 1946. In these two studies of ground and wall, a graffito of a fox steps ominously forth, ready to make a kill. Toyen seems to play with an ambiguity also broached in de Sade’s writings: that the causal relationship between imaginative representations of violence and genuine acts of horrific cruelty remains undefinable—and that this uncertainty sits disturbingly at the heart of human politics.
In the early ’50s, Toyen produced paintings based on signs of Prague businesses. By then, she had relocated permanently to Paris, bringing most of her artworks with her—thus much of her oeuvre is in private collections in France. She completed an iconic painting, Mýtus světla (The Myth of Light), in 1946. By 1953, Heisler, its subject, was dead. “The war destroyed his heart,” she later told a friend. One might also say that the war destroyed the last of Toyen’s illusions, convincing her simultaneously of the artificiality and fleetingness of visual experience and its viselike hold on the human imagination.
In exile, Toyen reestablished herself among the Surrealists and began a new series of book-related collaborations. In the 1960s and ’70s, she worked closely with Le Brun and her late husband, the Croatian-French poet and playwright Rodovan Ivšić, providing collages and illustrations for their books. Le Brun once annotated a vulvar collage by Toyen with an intriguing fragment: BIJOU FAVORI: “LA PATTE MEDITATIVE D’UN GRAND FAUVE SUR LA CLITORIS” (FAVORITE JEWEL: “THE MEDITATIVE PAW OF A LARGE BEAST ON THE CLITORIS”). Toyen’s late paintings become increasingly nocturnal and concerned with enigmatic genital forms. Her most reproduced work of this period is the partly collaged Le paravent (The Screen), 1966, in which a spectral three-faced figure garbed in leopard spots and bright-green gloves appears to hover in the central panel of a folding screen. By the ’70s, Toyen was working almost exclusively in collage, mining the exploitative universe of popular print. Le Brun observes that the artist still went to see X-rated films in the theater several times a week at the age of seventy. In November 1980, Toyen passed away.
It is to be hoped that the traveling survey “Toyen: Dreaming Rebel,” which originated at Prague’s National Gallery and is currently at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, will bring Toyen’s work to a larger audience. Curators Le Brun, Annabelle Görgen-Lammers, and Anna Pravdová have accomplished the near impossible in securing loans of Toyen’s paintings from so many private collections and have published a biographically informative and visually rich catalogue in German. A full appreciation of Toyen’s achievements might require a series of smaller exhibitions focusing on short periods—such that her wartime works, for example, can develop their own mythos, a bit like Philip Guston’s Nixon drawings or Adrian Piper’s graphic experiments with the Mythic Being, whose name is borrowed, with apologies, for this essay’s title. Yet the present survey makes an undeniable contribution to the broader ongoing reevaluation of Surrealism. To paraphrase the Artificialist manifesto: Art history retains few memories of Toyen, and thus this is the time to begin manufacturing those memories. We should recalibrate our visions of the past to include this artist, who was a defender of that which hovers fitfully at the edges of visibility and intelligibility, that which does not and cannot conform.
“Toyen: Dreaming Rebel” is currently on view (through February 13) at the Hamburger Kunsthalle; travels to the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris, March 25–July 24.
Date: February 1, 2022
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Artforum, February, 2022.