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.
In August 1936 the young Hungarian artist Lajos Vajda (1908–1941) was intensely excited about the new artistic programme he was devising with his friend, the painter Dezső Korniss (1908–1984). The two of them had spent the last two years roaming the picturesque small town of Szentendre and its vicinity, exploring the diversity of local vernacular culture and drawing everything they found interesting. It was now time for a synthesis: time to define their artistic goals based on this research. As Vajda explained in a letter to his future wife, the artist Júlia Richter (1913–1982, from 1938 Júlia Vajda): ‘Our starting point is that it is impossible to create without tradition, and in our Hungarian circumstances that tradition can only be Hungarian folk art. … What we want is more or less the same as what Bartók and Kodály have achieved in music.’ This meant delving deep into vernacular culture to find its essence, its core elements, in order to revitalise modern art by reconnecting it to an organic tradition.
In 1928 the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in Brno featured a pavilion dedicated to a display on the theme of “The Origin of Humans” (Člověk a jeho rod). Organised by the geologist Karel Absolon (1877-1960), it featured recent discoveries of Palaeolithic artefacts from southern Moravia, including the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, a female figurine just as significant as the better-known Venus of Willendorf in the Vienna Museum of Natural History. Pride of place was taken up by a life-size model of a mammoth reconstituted on the basis of found remains. The distinctive pavilion, designed by the modernist architect Jiří Kroha (1893-1974), was demolished, but the mammoth survived and is now housed in the Anthropos Pavilion, the location of an exhibition on human evolution that features much of the material originally on display in 1928.
The important year of anniversaries related to the history of Czechoslovakia is nearly over. Many art galleries and museums in the Czech Republic have commemorated them by a variety of exhibitions and accompanying events. The foundation of Czechoslovakia one hundred years ago in October 1918 is the most referred to date, as it is portrayed as the beginning of a new, democratic era. In the visual arts, this period is also easily linked to the rise of new modernist language framed in the official progressive and internationally oriented narrative of the Czechoslovak state.