Toyen: Messenger from the Forest

Toyen, Paravent, 1966. Source

When Czech-born Surrealist Marie Čermínová adopted the name Toyen (from the French citoyen or ‘citizen'), she (or “he”, as Toyen would have said), was signalling a desire to operate within a world unfettered by the constraints of gender.

Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský, cover for Falešný mariáš, 1925
A leading member of the Czech avant-garde, Toyen and her frequent collaborator, Jindrich Štyrský, worked in various  modernist styles throughout the 1920s. The duo’s 1925 cover for the book Falešný mariáš (False Poker) by Vítězslav Nezval is a fusion of Bauhaus-style geometry with a photomontage featuring the abrupt juxtapositions characteristic of Surrealism, the movement in which they were to become increasingly engaged during the 1930s.

Toyen, Relâche (Po představení), 1943. Source

Toyen, The Message of the Forest, 1936. Source

Toyen’s embrace of Surrealism was encouraged by the movement’s founder, Andre Breton, who, along with poet Paul Eluard, visited Prague in 1935. Perhaps due to her intentional androgyny, Toyen avoided being relegated to the role of passive erotic muse, the role females associated with Surrealism were often expected to play. Rather, her paintings frequently exude an eerie eroticism in which the forces of untamed nature and sexuality meet in an ambiguously charged dream space.

Toyen, Au Chateau la Coste (Na zámku La Coste), 1946. Source

Given her refusal to bow to female stereotypes, Toyen’s evident interest in Surrealist icon, the Marquis de Sade, at first seems odd, given that the notorious author’s work is not exactly woman-friendly. Whitney Chadwick, author of Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, suggests that for Toyen, who illustrated de Sade’s Justine, and paid tribute to his ruined castle in the menacing Au Chateau la Cost, the Marquis represented sexual freedom and the breaking of taboos.

Toyen, Horror, 1937. Source

Liberation remained a topic of concern for Toyen, as throughout the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, 1938 to 1945, she was unable to exhibit her work, as it was considered “degenerate” art by Nazi standards.

Toyen, plate from The Shooting Gallery, lithograph, 1930-40. Source

Toyen’s response to the violence and repression of this period was expressed in two suites of drawings, The Shooting Gallery, and Hide, War! (Schovej se, válko!), both created in the late 1930s then turned into prints in the mid-1940s. Barren landscapes sparsely populated by fractured creatures and broken structures that are the left-overs from conflict.

Toyen, L'avant-printemps, 1945. Source

At the close of the war Toyen painted L’avant-printemps (Before Spring), featuring another desolate landscape punctuated by stone covered graves. However now butterflies rise from the dead ground, a glimmer of hope in the wake of tragedy.

Toyen photographed by Andre Breton, 1950s.

Toyen left Czechoslovakia for Paris before the Communist takeover in 1948. There she rekindled her friendship with Andre Breton, who remained a great supporter of work.

Toyen died in Paris in 1980, at the age of 78. Her work continues to fascinate.