A leading theoretician and proponent of the Czech avant-garde during the very active decades of the 1920’s and 30’s, Karel Teige was involved in Devětsil and was a co-founder of the Czech Surrealist Group along with Toyen, Jindřich Štyrský and Vítězslav Nezval.
Teige created over 300 collages in private during the last two decades of his life, frequently featuring elements of a female figure forming part of the landscape. Subject to a brutal smear campaign and constant vilification, Teige was hounded to an early death by the Stalinist controlled government in 1951. Even this didn’t satisfy the authorities who ransacked his house, destroyed suspect unpublished writings and continued to suppress his published writings for decades to come. These factors probably contributed to the suicides of both his wife and mistress shortly afterwards.
The collages only came to light after samizdat surrealist publications ended up in Germany during the 1960’s.
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.
In the early 1930’s Jindrich Styrsky, the co-founder of the Czech Surrealist group made a pilgrimage to Provence, to visit the ruins of the Chateau La Coste, the ancestral home of the Sade family. Here he took a number of mysterious photographs of the crumbling walls and overgrown doors which inspired his artistic partner, Toyen, to paint in oils the illusionistic Au Chateau La Coste. The drawing of the predatory fox seemingly coming to life gives the painting a singular sense of menace which is particularly apt for the place which so inspired the Marquis De Sade.
The Marquis was very attached to La Coste. During the long years of his confinement in various prisons and asylums he routinely mourned its destruction during the Revolution. It was at La Coste, after all, that the Marquis had first developed his lifelong passion for the theatre, staging lavish productions which he naturally starred in. More ominously it was also at La Coste that the Marquis orchestrated and choreographed, with the aid of his wife, Renee-Pelagie, elaborate orgies that was to serve as the model for the unbridled license afforded his characters in the sinister and oppressive castles in his searingly radical, and horrifying, libertine fictions of the prison years.
Toyen was profoundly influenced by her exposure to Sade. A large majority of Toyen’s work is explicitly sexual in content. She surrounded herself with erotic objects and imagery. Her artistic collaborator, the Surrealist poet, Sadean scholar and cultural theorist Annie Le Brun, whose blistering critique of contemporary society The Reality Overload I cannot recommend highly enough, commented that Toyen, who was at the time well into her seventies, would visit the movie theatre several times a week to watch X-rated films.
The controversial life and work of the Marquis De Sade, the man so diabolical he was called divine, is still the subject of much debate between apologists who defend him as the apostle of total freedom, and his detractors who view him as a vile libertine possessed with an over-weening feudal sense of entitlement and a virulent misogynist. The question that Simone De Beauvoir nervously asked in 1951, ‘Must We Burn Sade?‘, is still no closer to being answered satisfactorily. But maybe it will never be, as the challenge De Sade lays down is an impossible one.
Regardless of De Sade’s ambiguous position in culture, what is not in doubt is the influence he possessed over the Surrealist movement. Andre Breton name checks the Marquis in the Surrealist Manifesto and he is included in the Pope of Surrealism‘s Anthology of Black Humour (with good reason, De Sade possessed a cruel, sharp wit on occasion), and it seems to have been de rigeur for Surrealists artists to reference and/or illustrate the Divine Marquis.
Below are examples from various artists, many of whom are favourites here. I have written about Toyen on many occasions and have highlighted her repeated rifts on Sadean subjects (see especially At the Chateau La Coste). Her artistic partner Jindrich Strysky provided a cover for Philosophy in the Boudoir, as well as producing the erotic story Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream. Valentine Hugo‘s images have graced several headers of my poems and stories, including several of her illustrations for Eugenie de Franval.The Argentinian artist Leonor Fini was another woman Surrealist who astounded with her frank depiction of erotic subjects and was instinctively drawn to illustrating Juliette. Finally in this post is the deliriously lurid and low-brow paintings of Clovis Trouille, whose entire oeuvre appears to be a psychedelic actualisation on canvas of a Sadean scenario of the mind.
Jindrich Strysky-Cover for Philosophy in the Boudoir
Jindrich Strysky-Emilie Comes to Me In a Dream 1933
Valentine Hugo-Eugenie de Franval 1948
Leonor Fini-the lovers
Clovis Trouille-Rêve Claustral
Leonor Fini-L’Entre Deux-1967
Valentine Hugo-Eugenie de Franval 1948
Clovis Trouille-My Tomb 1947
Clovis Trouille-Dolmancé et ses fantômes de luxure
The sixth and final volume of Edition 69, a series of erotic publications combining art and literature that showcased the talents of Jindrich Styrsky, Toyen and others of the Czech avant-garde, saw the publication of Jindrich Styrsky’s Emilie Comes To Me In A Dream, an Surrealist erotic text with accompanying explicit collages, that featured images culled from French and British pornographic publications of the period. Because of censorship, the magazine was strictly limited to subscribers, in the case of Emilie Comes To Me In A Dream the number of copies issued was, appropriately enough, 69, of which only 20 now survive.
Here is a brief excerpt from the text, which is as disturbing, dreamlike, erotic and Surreal as the accompanying image above:
Later I placed an aquarium in the window. In it I cultivated a golden-haired vulva and a magnificent specimen of a penis with a blue eye and delicate veins on its temples. In time, however, I threw in everything I had ever loved: shards of broken teacups, hairpins, Barbara’s slipper, light bulbs, shadows, cigarette butts, sardine tins, my entire correspondence, and used condoms. Many strange creatures were born in this world; I considered myself a creator, and with justification. When I later had the box sealed shut, I gazed with satisfaction at the putrefaction of my dreams, until the walls became so covered in mould it was no longer possible to see anything. Yet I was certain that everything I loved in the world existed therein.