Toyen: The Paradise of the Blacks, 1925

Artwork of the Month, March 2022: The Paradise of the Blacks by Toyen (1925)

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a negrophile is ‘someone (especially a white person) who is very sympathetic to or supportive of Black people, their culture, or their rights and interests.’[1] The levels of sympathy and support may, indeed, differ and be open to interpretation. Negrophilia, then, is the attraction to Black culture and Black people, often linked to the fascination of the interwar avant-garde with Africans and African Americans in European metropolises.[2] Between the wars, Black culture became a subject of inspiration, captivation but mostly exploitation by many writers, poets, painters, musicians, or dancers from Paris to Prague.

Toyen: The Paradise of the Blacks, 1925

Toyen: The Paradise of the Blacks, 1925, private collection

The painting The Paradise of the Blacks, that was created in 1925 by the Czech artist Toyen (1902–1980), is an example of this fascination. Using primitivist visual language, the image depicts a tropical forest filled with Black women and men who are engaging in various sexual acts, either in groups, or in pairs or by themselves. There is a strong theatrical element to the whole scene. The figures are mostly naked but have various props – they are adorned only with jewellery and headwear, one figure is holding a protective parasol above the central group in front of a yellow sheet, reminiscent of a stage backdrop. Two of the protagonists are playing a musical instrument, which only increases the theatricality of the scene.

Despite the attention that Toyen’s oeuvre received recently at the retrospective of her work at the National Gallery in Prague, The Paradise of the Blacks, although displayed there, was strangely neglected, with little serious analysis or contextualisation of its content. It is, obviously, a very uncomfortable work. Not only it is sexually explicit, it also depicts Black people as highly exoticised and objectified. Coming from a white, central European female painter, the work therefore raises uncomfortable questions. To what extent is the painter exploiting the subjects? Given the adoption of primitivist language, is she complicit in promoting the stereotypes of Black people typical of many of her peers? Or can we find a degree of redeeming criticism of the colonialism that the artist necessarily encountered during her visits to Paris at the time?

What’s in a name?

Toyen was born Marie Čermínová in Prague in 1902 (and died in 1980). After the First World War, she studied at the School of Art and Design in the Czechoslovak capital, but the more significant formative experience was her friendship with the painter Jindřich Štýrský (1899–1942). They worked closely with each other for many years and influenced each other’s involvement in Surrealism. Around 1927, they devised their own visual language, which they termed ‘Artificialism,’ and which built on a link between artists and poets using what they referred to as the ‘maximum imaginativeness’ of visual memories.[3] Toyen was also one of the few female members of the avant-garde artistic group Devětsil and, later, of the Group of Surrealist Artists (Skupina surrealistických umělců) in Czechoslovakia. While she also engaged in drawing or graphic design, the main medium that she is nowadays associated with is painting, some of her work generating sky-high (within the Czech context) prices at auction.

Styrsky and Toyen around 1929

Toyen and Jindřich Štýrský, photograph, published in Domov, 4 May 1929 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

The origins of her pseudonym Toyen are obscure and subject to much speculation. As Toyen did not leave any written accounts shedding light on her gender and sexual identity, nor on her work, much is left to interpretation based on accounts from her friends and fellow artists. The poet Vítězslav Nezval (1900–1958), for instance, noted that the painter did not use feminine pronouns when talking about herself and instead used masculine forms.[4] On top of that, she often wore masculine clothes and accompanied her male friends to bars and brothels. Nezval’s account is often seen as an explanation for the nickname ‘Toyen’ which might be seen as gender neutral. Another of her friends, the poet Jaroslav Seifert (1901–1986), is sometimes credited with coming up with the pseudonym. An alternative interpretation claims that the name Toyen may be derived from the French term citoyen, ‘citizen,’ which points to her embrace of French Republicanism and leftist ideology in general.[5]

Music hall bodies

In her monograph on Toyen, Karla Huebner talks about ‘the myth of Toyen,’ which may include the painter’s non-adherence to tradition gender divides and may be seen as part and parcel of the performative personae that many surrealists cultivated [image 2].[6] In 1924–25, Toyen travelled around France and reached Paris with its world of theatres, cabarets and music halls. As a member of the Czech avant-garde (who were in close contact with their French counterparts), Toyen stayed in Paris on various occasions and frequented the clubs in the company of other artists or on her own. She was therefore familiar with the various shows and staged performances taking place in the city. These included the bal nègre, popular in interwar Paris, which brought together performers from Africa and white visitors in a form of interracial entertainment, visible in many paintings and promotional posters of the time.

Paul Colin: Revue nègre poster, 1925

Paul Colin: Revue nègre poster, 1925 – photo: Flickr, kitchener.lord

The biggest show in Paris was the Revue nègre consisting of a group of thirteen Black dancers and twelve musicians. Performing for the first time in Paris in October and November 1925, it featured the young Josephine Baker. Her dance acts and nudity, as well as her entire persona, were based on some of the stereotypes about Black people that were already well established, and she deliberately exaggerated and utilised them. This included her ‘savage dance’ which combined eroticism and comedy together with her minimalistic costumes. Baker’s ‘exotic’ origins and difference of colour were promoted by, for example, the highly aestheticised photographs by Madame d’Ora that focused on Baker’s seemingly exotic, ‘primitive’ dark, oiled body. These stand in contrast with Baker’s makeup and short hair, cut in the style associated with the image of the ‘New Woman’ and a sign of her modernity.[7] Through the many public performances and images of her body (especially in illustrated magazines) Baker quickly captivated men and women alike and Black culture in interwar Paris and other cities across Europe became a popular spectacle for broad audiences, including the avant-garde. Toyen was undoubtedly struck by the world of theatres, circuses and cabarets that appear in her sketches from her travels around Europe and oil paintings like the Three Dancing Girls from 1925. In these, she captured oriental dancers, orientalised prostitutes and Black servants rendered in a primitivist way similar to The Paradise of the Blacks.

And it is in this context of performance across various modes of entertainment that we may read the painting The Paradise of the Blacks. The figures here do not appear as individuals but as a collective of an anonymous Black troupe, whose only distinctive features are, apart from the props, their red nipples and exaggerated lips. Their anonymity may also be seen in line with one of the few interpretations of the painting carried out by Rado Ištok.[8] He links the scene to the late nineteenth-century tradition of human zoos that appeared in many cities in Europe as spectacles showing people and animals from distant countries. Anonymous Africans often performed various typical ‘native’ activities (although most probably not explicit erotic encounters) for the pleasure of audiences in Europe.

Who’s looking?

Even if we accept that Toyen’s painting is aware of these performative aspects that Black culture was associated with, as Annie le Brun has also suggested in one of the essays in the catalogue for the National Gallery exhibition, we still have to consider the curious gaze of the painter.[9] This could be interpreted as a voyeuristic exploitation of Black bodies on Toyen’s part, for she paid a lot of attention to female and male body parts in other works, too. Especially in her later work, she depicted a range of sexual practices in various environments quite explicitly. She often portrayed women as sexual and sexualised objects, with men appearing often only as representative body parts. As Jaroslav Seifert noted in a poem written about her, she had vivid fantasies and ‘sometimes in ink she drew for me mischievous naked black women on pink silk.’[10]

Banana Harvest by Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau: Banana Harvest, 1910, Yale University Art Gallery – photo: Yale University Art Gallery

Erotic fantasies were an indispensable part of her work. The very title of the painting, The Paradise of the Blacks, refers to a fantasyland, something imaginary, which itself evokes the breaking of rules that took place in the biblical paradise with the original sin. In the painting, we do not observe the innocent Eden of Adam and Eve, it is one of vivid sexual practices after the apple has been tasted. And while the individual elements of the surrounding forest are reminiscent of Henry Rousseau’s landscapes of a primitivist paradise, Toyen captures what others (and herself) might project as their vision of the imagined sexual pastimes that Black people may be associated with, based on the various shows staged in Paris.

Performed Blackness

By depicting the scene as a performance with props, she gives the figures their own agency despite their apparent anonymity. They do not appear controlled or directed by an external agent, they are even adopting western beliefs of what Black culture meant. To what extent was Toyen attuned to this mimicry or to what extent she is appropriating it through her gaze is, however, unclear. Yet for instance, the central group wears hats taken from western fashion – a top hat, a symbol of upper-class superiority which had been popularised in various shows as visible for instance in the Revue nègre poster. The straw boater on another of the protagonists is more middle-class headwear, which was popular at the beginning of the twentieth century as another colonialising marker that until today remains part of school uniforms in the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa.

Photo of the African-American performer Louis Douglas

Photo of the African-American dancer Louis Douglas, newspaper clipping – photo: https://uneicone-josephinebaker.webador.fr

Moreover, the exaggerated features, such as red lips, may be mocking the ways Black people were framed by popular culture but also how they presented themselves when performing. One can include Josephine Baker’s self-stylisation and her adoption of the banana skirt in 1927 as her signature outfit. A profusion of posters, illustrations and photographs of the various shows, emphasising specific body features, was common, and many were absorbed into the visual arts, also in the Czech context. An example of such an approach could be the work of the Czech painter Josef Čapek, who was fascinated by the so-called ‘primitive’ artistic expression that he found in exotic cultures and later in the work of amateur artists and children. His early painting African King from 1920 uses the tropes of a top hat and fat lips that Toyen applied five years later, deconstructed by his cubist approach. Other Czech artists too, such as, for example, Adolf Hoffmeister (1902–1973), Milada Marešová (1901–1987), or Věra Jičínská (1898–1961), all of whom depicted Black subjects, put emphasis on the difference of colour and exaggerated tokenistic accessories.

Conclusion

As earlier contributions to this blog have noted, depictions of the ‘exotic’ and especially of Black people were common in the Czech environment from the late nineteenth century onwards.

Josef Čapek: The Black King

Josef Čapek: African King, 1920, National Gallery, Prague – photo: National Gallery, Prague

In the interwar period, artists, including the visual poems and graphic work of the representatives of the avant-garde group Devětsil – that Toyen was associated with – admired and to a large extent exploited African cultures, art and bodies. It was around 1925 that Devětsil’s fascination with primitivism and naïve art started fading in favour of a more critical awareness of the impact of colonialism. In 1928, for instance, the group’s spokesman Karel Teige (1900–1951) published the second manifesto of ‘Poetism,’ in which he – among others – related the interest in what he called ‘Negro sculpture’ to pure poetry that colonialism did not manage to spoil. Nevertheless, the visual representation of Black people remained in most cases subject to a simplifying fascination with difference.

Toyen’s work in general has challenged established notions of gender and recently received due attention especially for her surrealist paintings and erotic illustrations. Her depiction of race has, however, been mostly omitted because it raises uncomfortable questions about possible racial prejudice of the famed artist. The Paradise of the Blacks did not appear in public until the 1950s, which may suggest that it was initially meant for private consumption. We also do not know the true motivations for the painting, which may have been a pure fantasy, criticism of how Black culture was habitual displayed or a purely exploitative image. Now that the painting is in the public sphere, itself fetching a decent price at auction, it opens up much needed discussion about its uncomfortable content, the extent of exoticising imagery in central European avant-garde art and artists’ complicity in endorsing objectification of Black people. The painting should therefore attract further analysis not despite, but because of its uncomfortable content.

Marta Filipová

[1] ‘Negrophile,’ https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/negrophile

[2] Petrine Archer-Shaw, Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s (London, 2000).

[3] Jindřich Štyrský and Toyen, ‘Artificialism’ (1927–1928). Translated from the Czech by Alexandra Büchler, in Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910–1930, eds. Timothy O. Benson and Eva Forgacs (Cambridge, MA, 2002).

[4] The Czech language is gendered and uses feminine, masculine and neutral forms.

[5] Much has been written about Toyen’s possible sexuality and gender, with some art historians referring to the painter as non-binary or queer. In this text, I refer to the painter using the feminine nouns and pronouns. It is not to disregard the complexity of the gender/sexuality issues, discussed by others, but rather to follow the argumentation about gender ambiguity expressed by Karla Huebner in Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic (Pittsburgh, PA, 2020). On the issue of the artist’s identity, see for example Milena Bartlová, ‘Ten-Ta-Toyen. Obrazy toho, o čem se mlčí,’ in Martin C. Putna et al., Homosexualita v dějinách české kultury (Prague, 2011) pp. 349–358; Ladislav Zikmund-Lender, ‘I am not your lesbo! K diskurzu o soukromí “snící rebelky”,’ https://artalk.cz/2021/06/14/i-am-not-your-lesbo-k-diskurzu-o-soukromi-snici-rebelky.

[6] Huebner, Magnetic Woman.

[7] Marsha Meskimmon, We Weren’t Modern Enough: Women Artists and the Limits of German Modernism (London, 1999) p. 188.

[8] Rado Ištok, ‘Kapitoly z koloniálního dějepisu umění: Kapitola 3: Ráj, bál, vesnice nebo výstava?’ [Chapters from colonial art history: Paradise, ball, village or exhibition?] https://artalk.cz/2021/06/28/kapitoly-z-kolonialniho-dejepisu-umeni-kapitola-3-raj-bal-vesnice-nebo-vystava/

[9] Annie le Brun, ‘The Theatre of Aura: Toyen and Performance,’ in Toyen. The Dreaming Rebel, eds. Anna Pravdová, Annie le Brun, Annabelle Görgen-Lammers (Prague: National Gallery, 2021) pp. 82–86.

[10] Quoted in Karel Srp, ‘Un baiser par T.S.F.,’ in Toyen. The Dreaming Rebel, p. 32.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/6QRJU

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One thought on “Artwork of the Month, March 2022: The Paradise of the Blacks by Toyen (1925)

  1. Don Sparling says:

    Very interesting article – this is still, almost a century later, a provocative and mysterious painting. One point: the hat in the Revue negre poster is in fact a bowler, not a top hat. For the many associations related to the bowler hat, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowler_hat.

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