The Sign of the Black Sun

Black Sun-Toyen 1951
Black Sun-Toyen 1951

My thoughts and as a consequence my dreams have been occupied by Prague lately, (a place I have never visited, incidentally), the city of Emperor Rudolf II with his court of alchemists, magicians, scientists and artists; where Dr John Dee and his medium Edward Kelley conjured up a vast array of angels in a Aztec obsidian mirror and Guiseppe Arcimboldo painted his bizarre composite portraits of visages made of fruit, branches, flowers and books. The city (fast forwarding three centuries) of Meyrink and his Golem haunting the ghetto; of Kafka and his monstrous metamorphoses, bewildering reversals and byzantine bureaucracies. The city of the incomparable Toyen.

Toyen’s phantasmagorical art is filled with images of transformation, of women becoming animals or vice versa, of sudden and terrifying shifts in size and scale, of spectral figures in the process of materialisation, of impossible desires becoming reality. Sometimes it seems that the decidedly ambiguous Toyen was channeling the entire occult and magical history of Prague.

The paintings that Toyen produced in the 1950’s onward, after Surrealism had shifted decidedly from revolutionary politics and towards the occult, frequently point towards the signs of Alchemist Alley, now Golden Lane. The black sun is the first stage of the magnum opus and also refers to the dissolution of the body and hence the ego.

I have included a selection of Toyen’s magnificently compelling paintings of metamorphosis and phantasmal  figures.

All the elements-Toyen 1950
All the elements-Toyen 1950
They Rise at Dawn-Toyen 1950
They Rise at Dawn-Toyen 1950
In Slow Motion-Toyen 1954
In Slow Motion-Toyen 1954
Fire Smoulders in the Veins-Toyen 1955
Fire Smoulders in the Veins-Toyen 1955
Seven Swords-La Belle ouvreuse-Toyen 1957
Seven Swords-La Belle ouvreuse-Toyen 1957
Vigilance in the Mirror-Toyen 1959
Vigilance in the Mirror-Toyen 1959
Toyen-Dream 1964
Toyen-Dream 1964
Toyen-Secret Room 1966
Toyen-Secret Room 1966
Toyen-New World of Year 1968
Toyen-New World of Love 1968
At the Castle Silling-Toyen 1969
At the Castle Silling-Toyen 1969
Reflection flow Out-Toyen 1969
Reflection flow Out-Toyen 1969
Elective Affinities-Toyen 1970
Elective Affinities-Toyen 1970
The Trap of Reality-Toyen 1971
The Trap of Reality-Toyen 1971

 

 

 

 

Vertumnus

Vertumnus-Guiseppe Arcimboldo
Vertumnus-Guiseppe Arcimboldo circa 1590-1591

Guiseppe Arcimboldo is a hazy peripheral figure in art history. Enjoying noble and royal patronage he was honoured during his lifetime before completely falling out of fashion during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries only to be rediscovered by the Surrealists in the 20th. Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Man Ray were all admirers and Arcimboldo’s visual puns and double meanings undoubtedly influenced Dali’s infamous paranoiac-critical method. Other art historians posited Arcimboldo as the most mannered of all the Mannerists. His composite portraits certainly show the period’s taste for enigmas and riddles taken far into the hinterlands of the grotesque and the whimsically bizarre.

Vertumnus is Arcimboldo’s most famous painting, a composite portrait of his patron, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Rudolf II as Vertumnus, the Roman God of metamorphosis, the seasons, gardens and vegetable growth. The plants, flowers and fruits that form the portrait of Rudolf II are from every season and are taken to represent the perfect harmony and balance with nature that his reign would re-establish. Unfortunately events and history had other things in mind for the studious, occult inclined Rudolf II and his notably tolerant court of Prague, leading eventually to the calamity of the Thirty Year War between competing Catholic and Protestant states before engulfing the majority of European great powers.

Other notable composite portraits painted by Arcimboldo include the Four Seasons, the Four Elements and the witty The Librarian (below).

The Librarian- Guiseppe Arcimboldo 1566
The Librarian- Guiseppe Arcimboldo 1566

The Occultation of Surrealism

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Toyen-Portrait of Andre Breton 1950

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.

Dreams of Desire 29 (Sitting Nude)

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Sitting Nude-Toyen 1932
As I have noted in my previous posts on the leading Czech Surrealist Toyen, she was obsessed with the erotic and all through her life she produced remarkable line drawings of a directly pornographic nature. The drawings usually feature sleeping women dreaming of huge phalluses. Also predominate are labia-like flowers, allusions to vaginal openings and a myriad of tongues and brightly lipstick-painted mouths.

Above is one of her less explicit drawings, however the sitting nude radiates a full and frank sensuality and this charming drawing has an undeniable attraction.