Toyen: The Dreaming Rebel: Exhibition review

One of interwar Czechoslovakia’s best-known younger artists, Toyen (1902–1980, born Marie Čermínová) had a long and productive career – first as a member of the interwar avant-garde Devětsil group, then as a founding member of the Prague surrealist group, and finally as a core member of André Breton’s Paris surrealist group. Through almost five decades and many stylistic shifts, Toyen forged a remarkable and unusual career, not least because of her important role as a woman central to, rather than peripheral to, three important creative groups. Works such as the moody and lyrical abstractions of her Artificialist period, and surrealist paintings such as Dream (1937) and Eclipse (1968), have assured Toyen’s significance in the contexts of both the Czech and the international avant-garde. In recent years, Toyen has also become a figure of interest for the international trans community, due to the artist’s gender-ambiguous self-styling.

Toyen - The Voice of the Forest, 1934

Toyen: The Voice of the Forest, 1934, oil on canvas, 54.5 × 46 cm, National Gallery Prague

It has been two decades since there has been a Toyen retrospective of the magnitude of Toyen: The Dreaming Rebel, although in the meantime there have been several important shows featuring or even focusing on the artist. Curated by scholars from three countries, one of whom – Annie Le Brun – was a personal friend of the artist, this show is a rich visual experience that leads the viewer through a generally chronological tour of Toyen’s work, emphasizing the paintings but not neglecting the drawings, prints, collages, and book designs. Beginning in Prague at the National Gallery’s ‎Valdštejnská jízdárna (Waldstein Riding School) exhibition space next to the Malostranska Metro station, the show is scheduled to move on to Hamburg and Paris, and may also reach the Art Institute of Chicago.

In its organization, Toyen: The Dreaming Rebel is relatively traditional. It leads the viewer from Toyen’s early cubist and ‘primitivist’ paintings through the artist’s Artificialist work of the late 1920s and early 1930s, then into the pre-war surrealist explorations, the fewer and more veristic wartime paintings, the mystical and poster-like paintings of Toyen’s first postwar years in France, the move to a more Tachist style in the mid-1950s, and finally to the imagery of the 1960s and 70s that places recognizable figures (human or animal) in mysterious spaces and relationships, often adding collaged paper to the paint. Up in the smaller upstairs area of the ‎building, the exhibition focuses on works on paper: Toyen’s drawings, prints, collages, and book design and illustration. The artist’s erotica is shown mainly, but not entirely, in a separate upstairs room. A small number of additional sketches are displayed chronologically together with the paintings downstairs, and the major wartime prints and drawings are also downstairs at the entry to the stairway, which both fits chronologically and provides a transition to the upper-level focus on paper. Displays of photos and timeline data in Czech and English are provided at intervals throughout, offering considerable factual information as well as many photos of the artist and friends that have never previously been published.

Toyen - Fjords, 1928

Toyen: Fjords, 1928, oil on canvas, 100 × 81 cm, National Gallery Prague

This traditional, chronological, single-artist, and painting-focused curatorial strategy is an excellent example of both the strengths and some of the weaknesses of such a show. It unquestionably provides the viewer with a beautifully presented, easy to follow introduction to every period of Toyen’s career. It includes many of the best-known and major works, and also brings forth some that have not to my knowledge previously been published or perhaps even publicly exhibited. It has much to offer all categories of viewer, from the curious tourist to the expert.

What, then, is problematic or less successful here? First of all, it could be argued that this show prioritizes painting over other media, despite the fact that Toyen was equally at home with a range of media and for years made a living primarily through book design and illustration. It is not that works on paper are neglected, but their physical separation from the paintings somewhat ghettoizes them – there is certainly value in looking at the works on paper together, but there would be something different to be gained by seeing them in closer chronological connection to the paintings, something that happens primarily in the case of some early sketches shown near the ‘primitivist’ paintings. In emphasizing painting, the show both continues the long-standing art-world valorization of oils over other media and visually suggests that Toyen was above all a painter. Essays in the accompanying catalog rightly emphasize that Toyen should not be seen primarily as a painter, or even simply as a visual artist, but as a deeply engaged surrealist participating on a theoretical level in conversations with other core group members. This is not, however, the impression given by the exhibition itself, splendid though it is to see so many of the paintings and to be able to follow how their style and subject matter developed and changed over a period of nearly fifty years.

A related matter is that Toyen’s close connections with other creative figures are dealt with almost solely through the timeline and photos. Viewers who don’t engage with these areas of text and photos will almost completely miss out on understanding the importance of friendship and artistic/intellectual networks to this artist. Not only did Toyen have two hugely important long-term artistic partnerships (with Jindřich Štyrský [1899–1942] and Jindřich Heisler [1914–1953]), but she worked closely with poets such as Vítězslav Nezval (1900–1958), André Breton (1896–1966), Benjamin Péret (1899–1959), Radovan Ivšić (1921–2009), and Annie Le Brun (*1942). Štyrský’s work is represented in the exhibition by three Artificialist paintings and one surrealist painting, four drawings (one from 1922 and three illustrating erotic texts), and finally by an exquisite corpse and nine book covers done in collaboration with Toyen. At first glance, that might sound like plenty—and indeed it does provide good representation of the pair’s early collaborative book covers – but given Štyrský’s major significance during the first half of Toyen’s career, two or three more of his paintings plus an example or two of his collages and photography would be useful here in showing both the commonalities and differences in the two artists’ work.

Toyen - Three Dancers, 1925

Toyen: Three Dancers, 1925, oil on canvas, 77 × 69.5 cm, National Gallery Prague

Viewers interested in Toyen’s ambiguous gendering will be disappointed to find that this aspect of the artist’s life and career is essentially ignored. While the curators did not shy away from showing Toyen’s erotic work – even including such potentially shocking works as Paradise of the Blacks – almost nothing is said about gender. There is little acknowledgement of how unusual it was for early twentieth-century women to build secure careers in the visual arts, nor is there real consideration of Toyen’s unique and still somewhat mysterious choices regarding gender and how these may have affected her position within her peer groups and the larger art world. It is relatively well known that Toyen was assigned female at birth but spoke in the masculine in the Czech language, took an ungendered pseudonym, and in the latter part of her life preferred to dress in a manner usually considered more masculine than feminine. These facts have prompted speculation that Toyen was in fact trans – which cannot presently be confirmed and may never be verifiable. Indeed, it is perhaps less well known that Toyen’s friends referred to her in the feminine without, apparently, any pushback. But whether or not it is possible to label Toyen as trans, lesbian, or something else, Toyen’s ambiguous gender signage, coupled with the fascination with multiple forms of sexuality that is so evident in her work, deserves serious consideration in such a major exhibition, because in this artist’s case it bears on the work and is not a purely private and biographical question. It could well be asked, for example, whether Toyen’s more feminine public visual appearance in interwar Czechoslovakia (in publicity photos, and so often accompanied by Štyrský, Karel Teige [1900–1951], or other male friends) was a conscious strategy to present her as heteronormative as she built her career, or was rather a gender-fluid preference that shifted for her over time. We may not have solid answers to such questions, but they should at least be asked so that we can better understand how this artist navigated the cultural worlds of Prague and Paris (no matter what Toyen’s close friends may have known and chosen not to reveal). It is therefore disappointing that the gender aspect of Toyen’s persona receives so little attention in this retrospective.

Screen by Toyen, 1966

Toyen: Screen, 1966, oil and collage on canvas, 116 × 73 cm, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris

Finally, a seemingly minor, yet potentially problematic, curatorial choice is the fact that the timeline text displays, while valuable, require significant viewer investment. It’s not simply a question of whether viewers choose to engage with text, it’s a question of whether it’s easy for them to do so. Unfortunately, in the Prague venue it is not as easy as it should be. The display boards are large and filled with masses of data and photos. The Czech and English blocks of text aren’t that well separated to ease reading through in a single language (the eye has to jump around to find the preferred language blocks), and not very many people can read a given display board at the same time. This is a particular problem under pandemic circumstances when each group of viewers is allowed a maximum of 80 minutes to see the show – everyone is allowed in at once and the group must exit on time. People crowded around the first display, but then mostly gave up and focused their attention on seeing the art. Indeed, it is not unusual for serious viewers, even those who do not read all of the text, to be unable to quite finish touring the show within 80 minutes. While there is something to be said for display practices that separate contemplation of art from the reading of information, this ensures that fewer visitors will leave with a grasp of the wealth of factual information that was so painstakingly compiled.

Indeed, we might ask whether a glut of factual data and timeline information is what best serves exhibition viewers. Such information is important for scholars, and certainly belongs in the catalog (where it is nicely presented), but do most viewers need or want to know the minutiae of an artist’s life? Wouldn’t exhibition viewers be better served by a less detailed timeline and separate, short but informative chunks of text placed more frequently throughout the space to encourage increased engagement?

Viewers who buy the catalog, which currently is available in Czech and English but will also appear in German and French editions, will have at their fingertips all of the timeline data plus intelligent essays by the three curators and several other scholars. The catalog further offers previously unpublished letters from Paul Eluard and Yves Tanguy, a scientific analysis of Toyen’s paints and techniques, and various other goodies. This catalog is a boon for scholars; it may, however, not be the ideal entry point for those who are discovering Toyen for the first time or who know relatively little about Toyen, Devětsil, or surrealism. That is unfortunate, especially as the only more introductory text on display during my visits was Rita Bischof’s Toyen, Das malerische Werk, published in 1987.

The show as presented in Prague is a major achievement and beautifully composed – a real treat. A great deal of work and new scholarship went into putting this show together, including the very welcome participation of some newer scholarly voices. It is sad that, due to the pandemic, regrettably few people were able to see this exhibition during its run at ‎Valdštejnská jízdárna. It will be interesting to see how the exhibition is presented in its other venues.

Karla Huebner

Toyen: Snící rebelka / Toyen: The Dreaming Rebel
Curated by Anna Pravdová, Annie Le Brun, and Annabelle Görgen-Lammers

National Gallery Prague, Waldstein Riding School, 9 April to 22 August 2021 (sold out)
Hamburger Kunsthalle, 24 September 2021 to 13 February 2022
Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, 25 March to 24 July 2022

Karla Huebner is associate professor of art history and affiliate faculty in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality program at Wright State University.

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