In October 2020, while the world was in Lockdown, a painting broke Czech auction records at a sale in Prague. The painting "La Dame de Pique" ("The Queen of Spades") by the late Czech artist Toyen sold for 78.65 million crowns, or just over £2.6m. This beat the previous record of 78.5 million crowns for Oskar Kokoschka's painting "Prague - View from the Monastery of the Knights of the Cross with a Red Star".
Kokoschka is internationally known. Her work has appeared on numerous exhibitions, books, memoirs, magazines, films, documentaries and blogs. Toyen is not so famous outside of the Czech Republic. Most of the artist's work is in private collections, and what little is known about Toyen's life is shared amongst academics and those with an interest in gender studies. Which is a pity, as Toyen is an artist who deserves to be rediscovered.
Toyen was born Marie Čermínová in Prague on 21 September 1902. Čermínová never seemed to quite fit in. Toyen had fantasies about being an artist and supposedly held strong anarchist beliefs. At 16, Čermínová left the family home. She worked in a factory then enrolled as a student at UMPRUM (Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design). Here Čermínová met and formed a working relationship with the artist and poet Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942). At college, Čermínová reinvented herself as Toyen - an abbreviation of the French word for citizen "citoyen" - and described herself in masculine terms, adopting the pronouns 'he', 'his' and 'him'. Toyen dressed as a man in working men's clothes, but also wore skirts and dresses. Toyen's main working and domestic partnerships were with men - Štyrský and later Jindřich Heisle
In the early 1920s, Toyen's painting style progressed from Impressionistic to Cubist. Yet, the ideas behind Cubism seemed stifling, which led Toyen and Štyrský to develop their own artist movement called Artificialism. This proposed “Leaving reality alone” and striving for “maximum imaginativeness".
Artificialism is the identification of painter and poet. It negates painting as a mere formal game and entertainment for the eyes (subjectless painting). It negates formally historicizing painting (Surrealism). Artificialism has an abstract consciousness of reality. It does not deny the existence of reality, but it does not use it either. Its interest focuses on poetry that fills the gaps between real forms and that emanates from reality. It reacts to the latent poetry of interiors of real forms by pursuing positive continuity.
Artificialism never caught on. Well, anything that tricky to explain was always going to be up against it. It lasted for a couple of years from around 1927-29, but never quite gained enough devotees to grow into a fully-fledge movement. But this was unimportant as Toyen was onto the next project, collaborating with Styrský on his magazine Erotická Revue (1930–33). Toyen supplied sexually explicit illustrations and often collaborated with Styrský on collages.
Surrealists considered sex and in particular the sexual organs as the source of creativity. Toyen began painting and drawing erotica focussed on male and female genitalia. In 1938, Toyen was commissioned to produce a book called 'Jednadvacet' (Twenty-one) as a gift for a friend. This book contained advice for the bride on what to expect on her wedding night.
While Toyen liked to épater les bourgeois, they realised that erotica was in danger of undermining their stature as a serious artist. Toyen began work on a series of more personal surrealistic paintings that engaged with the world. The threat of war infected everything. Toyen thought Europe was sleepwalking into disaster. In March 1939, when German armed forces invaded the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, Toyen went into hiding.
Things began to unravel. Toyen's work was denounced as degenerate by the Nazis. In 1942, Styrský died from a congenital heart problem, which had claimed his half-sister at the age of twenty-one. Toyen was devastated.
Toyen moved in with the Jewish poet Jindřich Heisler. Toyen and Jindřich lived in the shadows during the Nazi-occupation, knowing that if discovered they would be sent to an extermination camp.
Bruised but alive, in 1947 Toyen and Jindřich moved to Paris, where they reignited a friendship with the Surrealists André Breton, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí and Benjamin Péret. But Toyen lived in relative obscurity. Artists and friend José Pierre called Toyen “the least acknowledged of the great surrealist painters".
Until their death in 1980, Toyen continued to work as an artist producing paintings, illustrations, sculptures, and collages. Yet Toyen never reaped the praise or acclaim their fellow artists received. Toyen's work often predicted other art movements - drip paintings before Jackson Pollock; collage prints before Warhol - yet, still the critics looked to male artists like Pollock, Warhol, Bacon, Johns, Rauschenberg, Hockney to tell the history of art. Perhaps identifying as a man was never enough to be judged equally as a male artist? Or perhaps, it's because Toyen followed what came before (Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism), which undermined his status? But many artists did the same and there is certainly enough originality and vision to suggest it is time for Toyen's work to be re-appraised.
All 'Jednadvacet' images courtesy of the wonderful erotic art blog Honest Erotica