Toyen’s paintings are frequently imbued with a sense of phantasmic horror, fittingly for an artist born and bred in Prague, the city of Leppin, Meyrink and Kafka. Horror was also a frequent theme for her fellow Czech avant-gardists, of whom it has been remarked that they were the horror division of the Surrealist dream factory. Toyen’s first artistic partner Jindrich Styrsky (not to be confused with her second artistic partner Jindrich Heisler) in 1933 said, ‘An unwitting smile, a sense of the comic, a shudder of horror-these are eroticism’s sisters.’ As Strysky had been involved with Toyen in the late 20’s and the early 30’s in the publication of both the Erotic Review,a magazine dedicated to erotica, and Editions 69,strictly limitededitions (subscription of 150 only) of famous pornographic novels including the Marquis De Sade and Pierre Louys, with illustrations by Toyen, hehad a fair idea of what he was talking about.
At first glance the viewer may wonder why Toyen decided to title this painting Horror. However if T.S Eliot can show ‘fear/in a handful of dust,’ then Toyen can show us horror in a wilted dandelion clock. Again Toyen induces a sense of disorientation with scale, the dandelion is set against a fence that almost fills the horizon, the top of the fence is grasped by five hands, all clinging on, apparently for dear life, though one fears for the possessor of the hand in the centre of the picture, the only hand not part of a pair. Horror hints that beyond the banal facade of the world, there lies a incomprehensible and monstrous reality.
Regular readers will be aware of the high esteem that I hold the mysterious, brilliant artist and co-founder of the Czech Surrealist Group, Toyen, through the many posts that have featured her extra-ordinary artwork. However while I have certainly noted the influence of the erotic upon her work ( notably At the Chateau La Coste), I have refrained from featuring her more explicit drawings that she produced for Edition 69 (see Dreams of Desire 34 (Emilie Comes To Me In A Dream) and throughout her career, instead concentrating on her marvellous paintings and lithographs (see The Myth of Light, Horror and The Shooting Gallery); however these erotic drawings and dry-points are exceptional in their technical execution, mastery of line (unsurpassed within the Surrealist group, with the possible exception of the supremely disquieting Hans Bellmer), visual wit and power to cause unease.
Below are some of Toyen’s illustrations for the Edition 69 series, which included Justine by the Marquis De Sade and Pybrac by that urbane decadent writer and pornographer Pierre Louys, which is without doubt the filthiest poem ever published. Also included are later dry-point illustrations from Radovan Ivsic’s Le Puit dans la tour/Derbis de reves (The Well in the tower/Debris of dreams).
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?
In 1936 Toyen returned to painting after a period concentrating on collages and erotic book illustration, and produced what is arguably her masterpiece The Message Of The Forest, a painting that seems to be an pictorial representation of a particularly sinister Central European fairy-tale.
A massive owl-like creature, painted in a startling shade of electric blue bears in its one remaining claw the severed head of a young girl. As is frequent in Toyen she plays with scale to induce a sense of disorientation in the viewer. The vivid green of the tree bark and the absolute inky blackness of the night contrast with the pallid mask-like face of the girl, suggesting that the forest, and by extension nature, is essentially inimical to humanity.
The period immediately following the Czech avant-garde engagement with Surrealism in the mid 1930’s saw Toyen produce one masterpiece after another, including The Message Of The Forest, Horror and Asleep (pictured above).
Against a bleak, featureless landscape with a nausea-inducing receding horizon a strange, spectral figure hovers in mid-air, holding a butterfly net. There is a collage-like effect to the figure that adds to the uncanny atmosphere; the bright red hair is wig-like and the stained white coat that is open at the back to reveal nothing at all produces a sensation of unbearable desolation and loneliness. Few paintings fully capture the sheer defencelessness and utter isolation that we experience nightly when we close our eyes and give over control to our unconscious as Asleep does.