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.
A masterpiece of visual Surrealism, Oelze’s The Expectationmanages to create the sense of heavy dread that is only found in the kind of dream that doesn’t leave you for hours after waking, oppressing you with the knowledge that all it takes is for you to close your eyes for everything to disappear and be re-arranged in a way that you secretly suspect (although it wouldn’t do to admit it in public) has more real meaning than what you perceive with your five senses in the workaday world.
Oelze was a German Surrealist who studied at the Bauhaus. His relationship with the gadfly of modern art movements, the mysteriously ubiquitous and yet elusive Mina Loy is the subject of her only novel, the posthumously published Insel.
The sensation started in my thumbs. A weightlessness, an unbelievable lightness. I rolled over and shook my hands, thinking I’d just been sleeping too long in the same position. The sickening sensation only grew worse. I lay staring at the ceiling for a time, willing for it to stop. It spread from my thumbs to my wrists and back down into my other fingers.
I slipped quietly from bed so as not to disturb Henry. He was never pleasant when awoken in the middle of the night. In the bathroom, I elbowed the light on to protect my hands, hands that no longer felt like they belonged to me.
The flickering fluorescent light intensified the ghostly sensation. I heard the sound of metal against porcelain and realized that my wedding ring had dropped into the sink. What was happening? In my panic, I let out a scream that echoed throughout the house.
“For God’s sake, Molly, what’s with all the noise?” Henry shouted irritably from the bedroom.
For what seemed like an eternity, I was rendered speechless. How could I possibly articulate what was happening? “Henry, please come here!” I finally managed. “I’m dissolving!”
It was true, I was dissolving like sugar in a cup of tea. My fingers, wrists and forearms had disappeared. It was like I was being erased, I was being rubbed out. The phenomenon was dissolving every inch of flesh and bone as it progressed towards my shoulders.
With a sigh, Henry leaned against the door. “Really Molly? I think you’re being just a wee bit hysterical, don’t you?”
“Henry, look at me!” I cried.
“Seriously, Molly,” he said, frowning.
“Can’t you see? Henry, I’m disappearing, I am going to vanish!”
He sighed heavily and went over to the sink. “Please be more careful, you dropped your ring,” he said, holding out the ring.
“Henry, help me please, please, please help me,” I wailed in utter frustration.
He placed it on the bathroom vanity. “I don’t know what is going on with you Molly. Come back to bed when you have finished with your amateur dramatics.”
I sank to my knees sobbing. My shoulders had been rubbed out and now my breasts were being erased. Those breasts that Henry had so adored when we had first met. This self, myself, Molly Matthews, this unique identity was in process of complete disintegration. It was becoming difficult to breath; in desperation, I inhaled deeply as my body faded. Now I was just a head, an unconnected head floating in space. Henry always said that I lived too much in my head. Now all that was left of me was this head. For some reason this thought made me laugh hysterically. The light flickered before shorting, leaving me in the dark.
I sat bolt upright in bed. I was sweating heavily, but that was OK. It was only a dream, just a dream. I moved my fingers, they were there. I touched my arms, thighs, belly, breasts –all still there, Thank God, it was just a horrible dream. I was complete, I hadn’t vanished or been erased. I was whole.
My relief was so great that I couldn’t sleep. Unlike Henry, who didn’t stir, even though I tossed and turned. Towards four in the morning my limbs became leaden with the accumulation of toxins, but I welcomed this leadenness. If anything, I wanted it to increase so as to drive away the disturbing sensation of lightness that I had felt so vividly during my dream.
My sleeplessness meant that I didn’t get up with Henry like I usually did in the morning. I just lay there, staring at the ceiling. I could hear him getting ready for the day. The same routine, breakfast with two cups of strong coffee, a shower and shave. It was Wednesday, so Henry always went in a little later, but he still got up at exactly the same time. As I lay there, I thought about calling out to Henry to ask for a lift to my morning class as my car was in the garage, but I was seized with a curious inertia. I realized we hadn’t really spoken to each other for quite a while now, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember when or why. When had we stopped acknowledging one other? How had we let things come to this pass?
I was surprised to hear the doorbell ring. Who could that possibly be?
I heard Henry open the door.
“Oh hello Jane.”
“Hello, Henry. Is our Molly around?”
“No she isn’t. I don’t know where she has got to, to be honest. Maybe she went to her classes.”
There was a pause. I couldn’t shake this listlessness that had taken hold of me, because I knew that I should have announced myself and stopped whatever was going to happen from happening.
“Oh, that really is a shame, I was so looking forward to catching that new exhibition in town with her. I have so being looking forward to it. Really.”
“I’m sorry about that, Jane. Seems a pity that you will miss the exhibition.” Again, there was a pause, longer than before, but it didn’t matter, I knew what he was going to say before he said it. “You know, Jane, I’m at a bit of a loose end today. How would you like it if I took you to see the show?”
“Really, would you do that for me Henry? Are you sure you haven’t got something else you need to do?”
“Well, yes… but nothing that can’t be postponed. A little outing with you, Jane, would do me the world… yes indeed, a whole world.”
“I am flattered, Henry.” I could almost hear the smile in her voice. “Well… I would like that very much, indeed.”
“Great! Excellent! Come in then, Jane, while I get ready. It should only take me five.”
I heard her heels click on the marble floor in the hallway. I just lay there, unmoving, staring at the ceiling, while my husband and my best friend chatted and laughed away to themselves, like they were alone, like I wasn’t there, like I no longer existed, like I had never existed.
After the front door had closed and Henry’s car started up and they drove away, I still didn’t move, yet part of me disconnected… I was in the rear seat of the car watching the glances, the smiles playing upon their lips, the tension generated between them –tension that could only be resolved later. After the exhibition and the lunch, Henry had paid the hotel receptionist in cash and had received the key card –handed over with a knowing and complicit look– and my husband and best friend closed the featureless hotel door in some infinite corridor and Henry cupped her face, like he had done so many times to me, an aeon ago, an alternate dimension away, a universe apart… and kissed her parted lips. That disconnected part of me observed what followed without surprise or emotion, that part of me had known all along that it would eventually come to this. Even if they knew they were being observed it wouldn’t have stopped them, so intent upon each other were they. They knew I knew they knew…. And it didn’t matter.
And as I lay there in the deepening shadow, inert, listless, desperate, I willed myself to wake up, this time for real.
This is the cakeordeath treatment of Dr. Meg’s story Dissolved. She very kindly let me play around with her idea, and I added an extra layer of existential dread, a sprinkling of sexual paranoia and a dollop of ambiguity. You can find the original at https://drmegsorick.com/2016/08/18/dissolved/.