In a 1936 speech following the formation of the Prague Surrealists, French Surrealism founder Andre Breton commented: ‘this attitude of ours, common to particular men and manifesting itself at periods nearly half a century distant from each other.’ He then highlighted two important Surrealist traits. Firstly, that Surrealism was an ‘attitude’ to life, not merely an art form. Secondly, that it was a male-dominated movement, one that often glorified the woman as muse. Though in reality, the Surrealist woman was no ordinary muse; she was often fragmented to a fetishistic body part or aligned with sexual violence.
Toyen, born Marie Čermínová in 1902, was part of the Czech Surrealist movement in Prague. A sexually ambiguous character, Toyen “spoke only in the masculine gender”, according to her Devětsil peer Jaroslav Seifert. So too, Toyen wore both male and female clothing, and explored sexual imagery in the artwork. This disruption of sexual norms and representations of the body emphasises Toyen’s role as a Surrealist, as these depictions of the human form encompass erotic desire, comedy, tragedy, and political subversion.
In the late 1920s, Toyen and close compatriot, Jindřich Štyrský, promoted ‘Artificialism’ as an alternative to Surrealism. This theory suggested that feeling and images were derived from experiences or dreams, which left traces in colour and form. Toyen and Štyrský had stayed in Paris for three years from 1925 and in 1935, Toyen formally affiliated with Surrealism. This arguably created a more coherent cross-European group with which to reject the rise of fascism. Speaking of the disparities between surrealists as a “community of ethical views”, the Czech artist’s output always contained a political dimension.
Toyen’s major interest was eroticism. In contrast to the Parisian Surrealist experience of the sexually reticent bourgeoisie, in Czechoslovakia there was a greater sense of freedom. Rather than socially seditious, Toyen’s work could at times be whimsical and frivolous. The artist drew small sketches of naked women stroking one another with giant feathers and Young Girl who Dreams, 1930, depicts a girl with a playful smile surrounded by balloons of floating penises.
Despite these experiments with erotic comedy, Toyen also explored the more prominently Surrealist aspect of desire, one impregnated with violence, even death. The Marquis de Sade was a figure of particular interest to the French Surrealists, because of the way he rebelled sexually and consequently – to them – politically. Toyen illustrated Štyrský’s Czech translation of Sade’s Justine, published in Edition 69, which tells the story of a virtuous woman who is raped, humiliated and beaten. One of Toyen’s illustrations shows a face peering from within a vagina. This imagery is one normally ascribed to childbirth, but here it becomes grotesque and distorted: the skin surrounding the eyes is ominously darkened as if bruised. The vagina is depicted almost as a giant gash bisecting the disembodied face, and is pinned violently back with nails and hooks. This macabre imagery explicitly suggests sexual violence towards women.
Toyen’s oeuvre was always political, at times by implicitly subverting societal expectations, at others more explicitly alluding to the political climate. From 1939, the Nazis occupied Prague, quashing any radical and especially Surrealist activity. Although ostensibly Czech Surrealism ceased, many continued to work illegally, including Toyen. The artist’s first series, produced under an oppressive regime, is The Shooting Gallery, 1939-40. The works showed the universal destruction of war, rendered through a children’s game. One image depicts several pen and pencil nibs rooted in the ground with some piecemeal paper scribblings in the background. These symbols of childhood become sinister, as the crumbling paper – which depicts a gagged face – looks like a tombstone, dislocated in a barren desert. Czech Surrealist Karel Teige wrote about this work: “Toys from a children’s paradise form scenery for today’s historical tragedy and become the object of our alarm; the age of childhood, the lost paradise of humanity ruined in time’s wild rage.”
Toyen used an underlying erotic element in imagery both to imply sexual desire and to deny it in times of political strife. Although in 1920s Czechoslovakia society did give women greater sexual freedom, such as access to contraception, abortion, and divorces, these simultaneously realised conceptions of heterosexual relationships. Toyen rejected such gender binaries and used art to explore the fullness of female sexuality – how it could be suppressed but also how it could be set free. The artists used eroticism and (perhaps conversely) the innocence of childhood to subvert the increasingly fascist world, proving that freedom of thought could prevail.