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Toyen (1902 - 1980). Sexuality, Desire, Identity.

Toyen (Marie Čermínová) (1902 – 1980). Sexuality, Desire, Identity.

Martina Pachmanová

Toyen. Painter, illustrator, one of the leading members of Czech inter-war avant-garde, and Surrealist movement; a pioneer woman-artist who broke many taboos about representing female sexuality in art, and introduced new techniques into painting.

Toyen was born as Marie Čermínová in Prague on 21 September 1902. Although there is not much known about her family background, it is assumable that the relationship between her and her parents was influenced by different political views. Toyen sympathized with anarchism, and left the family at the age of sixteen. In 1919, she was accepted to the School of Applied Arts in Prague where she studied in the studio of painting led by Emanuel Dítě. She graduated in 1922, and it was in the same year during the summer holidays when she met a young painter and writer, Jindřich Štyrský (1899 – 1942) on the island of Korčula in Yugoslavia. The two artists immediately formed an inseparable artistic couple, and until the death of Štyrský in 1942 they collaborated on a large number of exhibitions in Czechoslovakia and abroad. In 1923, they together joined the most radical Czech avant-garde group, Devětsil that brought about a crucial transformation of artistic paradigm: it emphasized both formal experiments and political engagement. Toyen was the first woman artist who broke into the bastions of male-dominated artistic circles in newly formed Czechoslovakia. Undoubtedly, it was the politics of the first Czechoslovak president, T. G. Masaryk (1850 – 1937), who followed the legacy of the Czech feminist movement of the 19th century, and asserted suffrage and equal educational rights for women in 1918 that helped to change the role of women in the Czech culture and society of that time. 

In the beginning of her career, Toyen’s work was informed by Cubism and Purism but she soon discovered poetics of naïve and primitive art. Around the mid-1920s, she painted a series of canvases of exotic and circus motifs that echoed the style of her admired painter Henry Rousseau, and that were close to the “proletarian” art, as declared by Devětsil. However, the biggest break-through in Toyen’s work came in 1925. She began working on book-cover designs together with Štyrský, majority of which were for one of the most path-breaking Czech publishing houses of that time – Odeon. Among the authors whose books they designed in the second half of the 1920s, were foremost Czech writers or critics, such as Jaroslav Seifert, Vítězslav Nezval (1900 – 1958), Jindřich Honzl, or Karel Schulz. Their book design usually consisted of combination of photo-montage, abstract planes, and text, which usually resulted in playful, yet formally disciplined compositions. In autumn 1925, Toyen and Štyrský traveled to Paris where they developed and formulated a unique artistic style called Artificialism. In the manifesto issued in conjunction with 1927 exhibition of their work in Paris and Prague, they described Artificism as “an abstract consciousness of reality… defined by poetic perceptions of memories.” Marked by innovative painterly techniques, such as dripping or spray painting through grids, stencils and various objects, or layering thick and tactile structures, Toyen’s Artificialist style emphasized the material properties of paint, and radicalized the conventions of painterly abstraction at that time. For a short period of time (1929 – 1930), Toyen and Štyrský tried to experiment with Artificialism also in the sphere of applied arts. They founded a fashion studio in which they used techniques of abstract art, mainly spraying, for decorating various kinds of textiles, including scarves, lingerie and ties. Albeit this is considered to be a rather secondary episode in Toyen’s professional life, the intertwining of painting and textile can be seen as an important step to undermine the traditional gender-based, and also and gender-biased, hierarchy and opposition between “high” (masculine) and “low”, or “decorative” (feminine) art.

In the beginning of the 1930s, Toyen’s work started to change again. The small interventions of various, mostly natural objects or their fragments (shells, eggs, stones, crystals) into the abstract system of Artificialism anticipated the arrival of Surrealism. During this time, Toyen was already an established and internationally recognized author. She participated in important international group shows, her work was written about by foremost representatives of modern art (André Breton, among others), and she was even included into a prestigious 1928 survey of women artists in the history of Western civilization entitled Die Frau als Künstlerin (Woman as an Artist) and published by a German art historian Hans Hildebrandt.

In 1934, Toyen signed the declaration on the founding of the Czechoslovak Surrealist Group, which meant the definitive turning point in her work. The poetics and politics of Surrealism occupied the artist till the end of her life. She was fascinated by Surrealist symbolism that unveiled hidden, or suppressed libidinal and sexual desire, and that helped to build her imagination. Her paintings and drawings from the 1930s are full of specters, phantoms, dreamy objects, but have also a strong erotic accent.

Toyen’s participation in the international Surrealist movement was more than artistic. Like most other members, she understood Surrealism as a moving force of both imagination and social and political progress. A lot of her paintings from the second half of the 1930s – the time prior to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia – had strong political undertones, and her anti-war engagement culminated in several cycles of drawings: Přízraky pouště (Specters of Desert, 1937), Střelnice (The Shooting Gallery, 1940), and Schovej se, válko! (Hide, War! 1944). Here, she evoked apocalyptic horrors of the World War II projected either into the innocent world of the children’s games or into the devastated world full of abandoned objects and fragments of human bodies. Despite her life-long commitment to communist ideas, Toyen left Czechoslovakia before the 1948 communist coup d’etat, and settled down in her beloved Paris. Being surrounded by many intellectuals from the Surrealist circles (André and Elise Breton, Benjamin Péret), and having respected artistic reputation, she found here welcoming and friendly audience. From the 1950s until the end of her life, she further developed methods of magic realism in paintings, drawings, collages, and illustrations, and kept participating in many international exhibitions of Surrealist art (one of the most important ones was organized in 1968 in New York under the title Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters’ Domain). In 1953, the first monograph of Toyen was published in Editions Sokolova in Paris, and her solo exhibition was held at the Galerie a l’étoile scellé (other solo exhibitions in Paris took place in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1960, and 1962). In November of the same year, the publication of the French edition of Specters of the Desert came out.

After Toyen left Czechoslovakia, she appeared on the “black list” of the communist aparatchiks; not only she did not fit into the official cultural policy that promoted socialist realism as the only appropriate (and allowed) art style of Soviet Bloc countries, but she was also considered to be the “imperialist” enemy. (It should be noted that a number of former members of the Czech inter-war avant-garde were executed, discredited, or exiled, while others opportunistically joined the new regime ideology.) During the 1960s, when the political situation in Czechoslovakia started to slowly open up to alternative ideas, Toyen started to attract more attention. For the first time after the WW II, her work was included in the 1964 exhibition Imaginative Painting, 1930 – 1950, in the Aleš  South Bohemian Gallery in Hluboká nad Vltavou, Czech Republic. In the era of so-called “normalization” that followed the Soviet troups’ invasion to Czechoslovakia (1968 – 1989), Toyen was again shown only sporadically, albeit some galleries managed to purchase her work into their collections. She died on 9 November 1980 in Paris. The largest retrospective of Toyen, curated by Karel Srp, was organized by the City Gallery of Prague in the House of the Stone Bell in 2000.

The history of Czech avant-garde is largely a story written by men about men. While a number of remarkable women artist worked in the decorative arts, the field of so-called high art, including painting and sculpture, was almost exclusively a male domain. Toyen was the only fully respected member of pre-war Czech art. Appropriating the gender-neutral pseudonym and referring to herself as “he”, the artist often wore men’s suits. Even more provocative than her appearance, the works she produced were pervaded by frankly erotic motifs, many of them representing the most taboo images, including lesbian desire. Toyen never openly expressed her sympathy to or support of feminism, nor did she ever openly spoke about her sexual orientation. For most avant-garde artists feminism was seen as a relic of the nineteenth-century bourgeois women’s movement that flourished in salons of the privileged ones; what they believed in instead was a collective work and fight for the ideal (and also idealized) classless society in which massed get involved, and gender does not matter. And yet, the life and work of Toyen greatly contributed to the feminist art history and art criticism. Not only she is considered a pioneer of women’s art who penetrated into modernist male preserve, and can thus be approached as a “role model” for other women; as an artist who represented and challenged woman’s sexuality, desire, and identity (both erotic and homoerotic, and on both symbolic and explicit, almost pornographic level), she also introduced a radically new perspective on how women can see, reflect, and understand themselves in modern world. Her art has been admired not only by male Surrealists, such as André Breton but also by a host of recent feminist scholars, including Whithey Chadwick, Renée Riese Hubert, Rita Bischof, Marry Ann Caws, or Silvia Eiblmayr.

Nezval, Vítězslav – Karel Teige, Štyrský a Toyen (Štyrský and Toyen). Praha: F. Borový 1938.
Bischof, Rita, Toyen. Das malerische Werk. Frankfurt a. M: Verlag Neue Kritik, 1987.
Eiblmayr, Silvia, Die Frau als Bild (Woman as an Image).Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag 1993.
Srp, Karel Toyen, Praha and Argo and City Gallery of Prague 2000.
Pachmanová, Martina, „Reconstructing Toyen“, Art in America, April 2001, pp. 130 – 131.
Breton, André, Surrealism and Painting. New York: Harper & Row 1972.
Hubert, Renée Riese, Magnifying Mirrors: Women, surrealism and partnership. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

This text was originally published in A Biographical Dictionary of Women's Movements and Feminisms. Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries, Francisca de Haan - Krassimira Daskalova - Anna Loutfi (eds.), Budapest: CEU Press 2006.