“In front of our house in the former Husova třída in Žižkov, usually at the time when workers from the Karlín factories were going home, I often encountered a strange but interesting girl,” recalls Czechoslovak Nobel prize-winner Jaroslav Seifert in his 1982 memoir All the Beauties of the World. At a time when women’s attire resumed to skirts and dresses, the girl “wore coarse cotton pants, a guy’s corduroy smock, and on her head a turned-down hat, such as ditch-diggers wear. On her feet she had ugly shoes.” The striking teenager in men’s clothing toiling at a soap factory in Prague was none other than Marie Čermínová, as Seifert would find out a few years later when she joined Devětsil, a socialist avant-garde group of artists and writers to which Seifert already belonged.
Yet Seifert wasn’t the only one taken aback by this intriguing young woman. In another account, the architect Karel Honzík paints a vivid image of Čermínová as “wearing a man‘s suit, a man‘s shirt, and a beret on her head, her hands in her pockets most of the time and perhaps a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. Her careless, swaying gait seem[ed] to say: ‘I don‘t care what you all think of me.’”
Set at the junction of an alluring, yet incomplete self-made myth and the elusiveness of past tense, Čermínová’s life would be completely unknown if not for the fond — though sometimes conflicting — memories of her friends and collaborators.
Take, for instance, the name the artist adopted after she declared herself disenchanted not only with her first name, Marie, but also with her female gender. Seifert claims it was he who came up with the moniker Toyen, and others corroborate his story, but in a later interview Čermínová asserted that its origins came from the French word citoyen (male citizen). This version stuck, with Toyen’s friend Annie Le Brun confirming that it was Čermínová’s youthful enthusiasm for the French revolution that propelled her to take on this name.
So there we have it: a male name, male clothes, a defiant attitude and, if that weren’t transgressive enough, Toyen also talked about herself by using the male gender. No wonder she was the perfect fit for the subversive, all-liberating, norm-shattering Surrealist movement.
Given her androgyny and the explicit eroticism explored in her earlier works, it’s hardly a surprise that Toyen’s art has been analyzed and interpreted through the lens of her gender’s fluidity and the mystery of her sexual orientation. This approach has as much to do with the artist’s non-conformism as it does with the sexual whirlwind that Surrealism set in motion with the help of psychoanalysis. But instead of falling down a never-ending rabbit hole — Was Toyen bisexual? A lesbian? Did she objectify women? — I’d rather we ditch Freud and take a look at Toyen’s art during World War II.
The war was particularly tough for Toyen, causing her deep anxiety and depression, as she helplessly witnessed the 1938 Nazi occupation of her homeland Czechoslovakia and the relentless persecution of her friends and peers, many of whom died during that time. The loss of fellow Surrealist artist and poet Jindřich Štyrský due to pneumonia was particularly difficult to bear given their enduring artistic partnership and the tight-knit friendship cemented during the years they had spent living together in late-1920s Paris. French writer Annie Le Brun aptly likened the affectionate and highly stimulating relationship between Toyen and Štyrský to “stories of pirates where the gold of friendship can sometimes dim the most fabulous riches.”
To call Toyen a good friend would be a massive understatement, especially during war time when a simple act of kindness could mean the difference between life and death. Showing extreme courage, she hid Jewish-born poet and dear friend Jindřich Heisler in her small apartment in Prague between 1941 and 1945, living in fear of being caught throughout all that period.
Yet those troubling years were also the fertile ground which begat some of her most accomplished and haunting cycles of drawings, most notably The Specters of the Desert, The Shooting Gallery, and Hide Yourself, War!. These melancholy ink series are brimming with Toyen’s iconography of fragmentation, solitude and death, where the dream-like imagery makes a compelling case as to why Surrealism was the ideal art movement to explore the absurdity and desolation of war.
It was around that time that Toyen painted La Guerre (The War) showing the ingenuous, visually deceiving profile of a soldier-dummy in a deserted field scattered with busts mounted on socles. The erecting silhouette of the make-believe soldier towers over the low horizon landscape like a scarecrow warning us about the ills and the dehumanizing effects of war. But the army of busts behind it, some of which are toppling, also endows the dummy with leadership qualities — an illusory general leading its powerless, shaky troops into battle. It is a war of fake idols where statues don’t immortalize bravery, but the folly of human vanity and hubris.
Perhaps this painting is a satire or a premonition of the imminent end to the nonsensical, bloodthirsty World War II, an event more horrifying than the Surrealists’ bleakest nightmares. Beyond the structured or unstructured narrative appealing to the viewer, what is most fascinating here is Toyen’s representation of the figures. On its face, it looks like a visual trick, a crafty way to depict human life without actually revealing any human being. This is part of Toyen’s signature aesthetic, who often signaled human presence through its very absence, in works such as Sleeping (1937) and Abandoned Corset (1937) where clothes are used as proxies for female representation.
But if in those paintings the self seemed to be too elusive to be captured on canvas — or reduced to its garments in its objectification — here the essence of the figures is completely devoid of meaning. The dummy with a soldier’s tunic, stemming from the bark of a tree, is hardened in its appearance, its stomach is puffed up with haystack and a swarm of wasps gives the illusion of a head; the failed promise of reason. The few hints pointing at the fragility of human existence arise from the blood-red stain on the chest and the bandaged arm, as if flexed with conviction. Behind the scarecrow, the busts are also deprived of substance; the solid, enduring marble typically used for them has been replaced with haystack.
Somehow La Guerre seems more structured than Toyen’s other paintings, by lacking the hazardous play of subconscious imagery that Surrealists so eagerly indulged. Add to that the brighter colors on display — especially the blue sky with its swirling, dissipating clouds — and I can’t escape the feeling that there’s a timid sense of hope here.
As I was approaching finishing this blog post, down to my very last sentence, I stumbled upon something truly spectacular. Call me sentimental, but after spending weeks immersed in Toyen’s art and life, I was moved to discover Field Scarecrow, seemingly a study for The War.
There is nothing unusual about it — many artists completed preparatory sketches, after all — except for the dedication to her close friend Karel Teige, Czech artist and writer, and leader of the avant-garde group Devětsil. You see, regardless of where you pick up Toyen’s art — oftentimes blooming in collaborations — or the most defining moments of her life, what you will find, time and time again, is the warmest and most selfless friendship.
Toyen offered this sketch to Teige on December 13, 1945. I wish I could tell you more about it, but I can’t. A while back I contacted the Prague gallery that had sold it to a private collector in 2009, and they couldn’t help me with additional information either. Their best guess was that the sketch might have been a Christmas present.
The date of the study, however, is a clear indication that World War II had ended by the time Toyen painted La Guerre. This is an important piece of context that makes Toyen’s painting more contemplative and forward looking than if created in the blur and subjectivity of real-time tragedy. How much hopeful the sky looks in light of all this! And how pungently satirical the makeshift army of busts appears. Yet at the forefront there’s still that dehumanized soldier, the scarecrow carrying its scars and scares long after the war has ended.
“Wild, solitary, secret, Toyen paradoxically embodied one of the most beautiful figures of surrealist friendship”, mused her friend, writer Radovan Ivšić. Adored by all the big Surrealist names of those times, from French poets Paul Éluard (who sent her semen-stained love letters), André Breton and Benjamin Péret to the most creative minds of the Czech avant-garde (Jindřich Štyrský, Jaroslav Seifert, Jindřich Heisler), Toyen was loved by everyone who knew her. It is thanks to them — her friends, admirers and collaborators — that we’re able to get a glimpse of this self-effacing, enigmatic character too.
In his 1944 play No Exit Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “hell is other people” — an infamous quip which, taken out of context, later became the anthem of misanthropes all over the world. Set in a mirrorless one-room hell and anchored in a toxic triangle of unrequited love, the inferno that Sartre describes in his play is the agony of seeing yourself through the eyes of other people. But replace those people — with, say, your friends — and Sartre’s idea of hell turns into the sweetest heaven. At least, that’s what Toyen’s story would suggest.