One of the most sumptuous and beautiful of all illuminated alchemical texts, Splendor Solis was published in various versions throughout the German states in the 16th Century. Attributed to Salomon Trismosin, a legendary figure who acquired the Philosopher’s Stone and was allegedly Paracelsus’s teacher, Splendor contains 22 (the same number as the Major Arcana of the Tarot) gorgeous, mystifying images with elaborate decorative borders reminiscent of medieval Book of Hours. As with all alchemical treatises the text is full of dense allegorical references to the Solar King and Lunar Queen, death and re-birth, the black and the inner suns, planets and tinctures.
In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism from 1930, among all the excommunications and score settling, Andre Breton calls for the ‘…THE PROFOUND, THE VERITABLE OCCULTATION OF SURREALISM,’ which is suitably followed up by quotes from Cornelius Agrippa’s Third & Fourth (spuriously attributed) Books of Magic. This interest in the occult, hermeticism and alchemy can also be evidenced by the set of playing cards the surrealists designed during WWII, which features another Renaissance occultist, Paracelsus, as the Magus of Locks.
However it wasn’t until after WWII and Breton’s return to France from exile in New York that this hermetical tendency become dominant. The realities of the Cold War political landscape meant that the Breton placed ever less hope in the achievement of a Marxist Utopia, shifting his focus towards the idiosyncratic mystical Socialist thinker Charles Fourier.
As can be seen from the above portrait (crayon, charcoal, oil and glitter on linen) Toyen embraced the change of direction enthusiastically. Painted as a birthday present and presented to Breton on the eve of his birthday, this idealised portrait places Breton in the centre of three triangles (one equilateral and two isosceles triangles) and surrounded by the four traditional elements, water and air, earth and fire.
Around this time Toyen had been working on the drawing series Neither Wings Nor Stones; Wings and Stones which has strong alchemical references. Also from this period Toyen painted At the Golden Wheel, At the Black Sun and At the Gold Tree inspired by signs that were ‘luminious on the inside, not the outside’ of the Alchemist Street in Old Prague, magical capital of Europe since the days of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. The importance of the androgyne in alchemical literature and art would also have surely been noticed by Toyen, who purposefully chose an ungendered pseudonym.
Toyen’s unwavering devotion towards Breton and Breton’s respect and veneration of Toyen was such that, after his death in 1966, Breton’s widow Elisa insisted that Toyen move into his original studio at 42 Rue Fontaine, where she lived until her death in 1980. She was buried in Paris des Batignolles cemetery; close to her friends Jindrich Heisler and Andre Breton.
I will leave the last word on this exceptional artist to her friend Benjamin Peret, also buried in Paris des Batignolles;
The entire work of Toyen aims at nothing other than the correction of the outside world in accordance with a desire that feeds and grows on its own satisfaction.