The Myth of Light

Toyen-The Myth of Light 1946
For most of the Second World War Toyen lived in a tiny apartment in Nazi-Occupied Prague where she sheltered her Jewish artistic partner, the poet, photographer and object maker Jindrich Heisler from the Gestapo. To distract any unwanted attention they lived in a perpetual semi-darkness and Heisler slept in the bath-tub. “Because we lived in the darkness, Jindrich loved light,”  as Toyen later remarked about this period.

Heisler was flattered when Toyen asked him to pose of a portrait. However in typical Toyen fashion the reality of a portrait was only a springboard for an unsettling enigmatic painting. The portrait is reduced to a silhouette presenting plants that are suspended in space to a pair of gloved hands whose shadow forms a wolfs head. Does the Mythe de la lumiere depict in an elusive and mythical fashion an attempted seduction?



70 thoughts on “The Myth of Light

  1. I believe it is an attempted seduction. Having to hide in the shadows is brilliantly depicted, while the enticing gloved hands (the wolf) represents the Nazi regime. There is a small cross between the shadow’s first finger and thumb, coincidence? We see the bulbs growing towards the light. Is this suggestive of the mass conversion to Christianity in order to avoid the Germans? It almost looks like an offering. “Mythe de la lumiere” is a fantastic painting, perhaps one of my favorites. You’ve selected a wonderful Toyan to feature, lovely post Mr. Cake. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. Thank you Miss Cranes and I love your analysis of that painting very much. Although it has been suggested that they were lovers, I don’t believe this is the case, though they were remarkably close. I want to have a selection of her work during the various stages of her productive career and this one is an excellent representative of the immediate post war period before she fled Prague, when the Stalinists took over in 1947. The wolf in this reminds me of the fox in At the Chateau Lacoste, though the symbolism is different, I think. I believe you are spot with the wolf head=Nazi Regime. Glad you enjoyed, more Toyen to follow.

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  2. I feel like I’ve been in semi-darkness, living in my bathtub. I decided to turn on the light this morning…and take a shower instead…. I love this painting. Is the wolf going to eat the plant? Or is it just barking at it? I notice the wolf’s head is not only smaller but lower than the…yanked at the roots…plant. This could mean so many different things. Couldn’t it Cake? Thank you, as usual, for a wonderful post.

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    1. Thank you, I am glad you enjoyed. My previous two posts were also about/works by this artist. Please stop by and comment. It is a marvellous painting with a depth of symbolism, the meaning of each is, as always, with symbolism open to interpretation. I do think it is an attempted seduction

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  3. The uprooted plant – a displaced life? Soon to die with out finding new soil and water? Presented to the person who can save him? Ah, but then facing the wolf’s head doesn’t make sense if it represents the Nazis. But if it merely represents rebuttal of an attempt at seduction? I’m sure that’s all wrong.

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    1. The wolfs head is the shadow of the gloved hands. Another possible explanation is that the shadow is offering a new life to the gloved hands, which will cause them to be up-rooted, however it is something. The wolf is a canine that will bite the hand that feeds. Toyen paintings are full of animals, the fox in the Chateau La Coste, the moths is Screens, the owl in the Message of the Forest. Her nature though is a Sadean nature, vast and devouring.

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      1. Yes I got that about the shadow being the wolf’s hands. Hands concealed by gloves… that’s something too. To me the plant seems in a precarious state, to live or to die. And it’s not a traditional offering of plucked flowers so it says something else. I will stop now

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      2. It was just another possible explanation…I think it was a very difficult period for Toyen, and she fled Prague with Heisler the next year when it became apparent what the new Communist regime was going to be like. However, considering the whole state of affairs in Central Europe during WWII and its aftermath Heisler and Toyen where fortunate (but in such circumstances do we count ourselves lucky that other people are in even greater misery?)

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      3. I just read your thoughts about the fox in the Chateau La Coste and wonder if the wolf could actually be a fox. I know very little about Toyen, am just now reading about Surrealist photography for a new (new to me) class on the History of Photography I’m prepping now for fall. I have stumbled across more information about Heisler and about his collaborations, including book art and photography, during the period. That said, I’m no closer to an answer. Fascinating material!

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      4. It is, the Czech group was very active and one of the most important groups after Paris and Belgian. The Surrealist contribution to photography is immeasurable. As to your question, yes it may be a fox. Thank you as always for your insightful comments.

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    2. The uprooted (or rootless, soon to be rootless– without a homeland, at least) interpretation seems clear to me, too, but I agree the “shadow” puppet is enigmatic. If you need light to cast a shadow, the painting suggests that light (still?) exists. Could it be moonlight, at which wolves are said to howl? Then moonlight has its own connotations. I keep thinking of there being two light sources, since shadows are cast in different values. This is a wonderful work, thank you for introducing it to me Mr. Cake!

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      1. My pleasure Lisa, it is a wonderful enigmatic painting by one of my favourite enigmatic paintings (as you can by the number of times I have written about Toyen). Maybe the myth of light is that Heisler loved it for its own sake when all it really does is cast shadows?

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      1. They certainly did. In a way Surrealism direct predecessors were The Symbolists filtered through Dada. The Symbolists believed in a hidden realm of correspondences, and the Surrealists believed in the unconscious as the ultimate reality.

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  4. The painting here could be suggestive of fear … The wolf attempting to attack the hands holding the plant.

    It could further be interpreted as a misconception arising out of our own mindset for the what that man sees is a reflection of wolf and not the wolf itself.

    The painting is indeed a brilliant work of art interpretation of which is left to those who consume it. Looking forward to your series which you mentioned in response to the posts above. Much love … Sugarsatchet


      1. Although Toyen was undoubtedly ambiguous, all the Surrealists referred to her as a woman and I think we must be careful in using contemporary terminology for historical figures. Let Toyen remain a mystery and concentrate on the artwork without trying to co-opt for a cause. The name Toyen is ungendered not masculine anyway.

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      2. So the article is biased?

        “She belongs to the most important and the freest creative people of artistic avant-garde in the beginning of 20. Century. Biography Childhood and adolescence”
        ^ Jumbled mess from wiki lmao

        Very informative as always cake, loved it

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  5. After an unexpectedly long hiatus, it only takes one post to pull me back into post after post as I try to catch up on these wonderful vignettes of artists of every stripe from Dada to Bauhaus to ???….
    I inevitably feel like I have snuck into an Art History class lecture devoted to a random topic of which I am only marginally aware, but intriguingly familiar, given some of my own predilections. For that, I am most grateful.
    There is a quality of vitality that you imbue into your descriptions of not only the Art, but also the context in which these people lived that points to just how revolutionary and daring an existence their contributions and lifestyles represented, given the times in which they lived, and how little real originality has been seen since.
    In an era when so much of what passes for talent or creativity seems more preoccupied with narcissistic posturing and self-promotion, I sometimes fear I may be missing the Here and Now due to the cynicism, myopia, and tunnel-vision of age and/or isolation.
    That having been said, do you see anything new, say within the last twenty to thirty years, that seems even remotely comparable?
    (Not that I have gotten bored with any of these posts.)

    Chazz Vincent

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    1. Thank you for your lovely comments regarding being pulled back in, though I fear my jumping around is more due to my butterfly mind than anything else, though to me it seems connected, though I have to admit somewhat tenuously. I think there is always talent but some periods are more golden than others, and really I have a blind spot concerning up to date art which I am trying to remedy, though all the new artists display surrealist influences. Thank you again Chazz Vincent

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      1. As it should be; after all, “The butterfly goes from flower to flower; the flower does not go from butterfly to butterfly…”
        (The butterfly’s reasons are sufficient that the greater good is accomplished just the same.)

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    1. Toyen is one of my favourites, I have done a whole slew of posts on her. One of the most faithful to Andre Breton but a really under appreciated artists. I can always send you more links (I am always sending you more links).

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