Prague diary: Toyen exhibition

Vidím neboť je noc/I see for it is night
Museum Kampa, 05.09.15-16.02.16

Žlutý spektr/Yellow Spectre, 1934

Today I finally got round to seeing the Toyen exhibition at Museum Kampa. It has been extended to the 16th of February, which must mean it’s been popular, and I could see why: it brings together a well-chosen range of Toyen’s paintings (and a few drawings), from a variety of scattered locations. Many come from private collections. It’s exciting to see all these pictures in one place, and they are definitely worth seeing ‘live’: the colours have a luminous quality, with half-defined shapes appearing from the darkness.

My only real criticism applies to all the exhibitions I’ve seen at Museum Kampa: there is hardly any commentary on the art. Instead, the gallery offers a superficial timeline of the artist’s life, including a few tantalising facts which are not discussed further or related to the work. In this case, the timeline mentions that Toyen hid the artist and poet Jindřich Heisler in Prague from 1941 until the end of the war. I would have liked to know more about that, and also about the young Parisian surrealists who apparently helped to name her paintings.

Given the general lack of commentary, maybe it’s not surprising that the exhibition also avoids any explicit reference to Toyen’s ambiguous gender presentation: according to many sources, the artist used masculine pronouns to refer to herself, but the exhibition makes use of feminine pronouns without comment (this seems to be the convention, which I’m reluctantly following here).

Opuštěné doupě/Abandoned Burrow, 1937

However, the lack of interpretation also has advantages. It allows visitors to draw their own parallels between the works. For me, the exhibition seemed to be full of images of artifice and costume. The female body appears repeatedly in states of incompleteness, fragmentation or decay, but without losing its strength or solidity. The painting Žlutý spektr (Yellow Spectre, 1934) makes use of the popular circus theme which recurs both in Toyen’s work and in that of her contemporaries, but also reminded me of Degas’ ballerinas, eroded and recomposed by Toyen to create a form resembling driftwood. In several paintings, bodies and costumes are linked: in Opuštěné doupě (Abandoned Burrow, 1937), the space which is left empty is that of a bodice or corset, and the well-known Spící (Sleeping, or ‘Sleeper’, 1937) shows a figure whose body is hollow, but who still appears to be gazing intently away from us. My favourite of these ‘costume’ pictures was Po představení (After the Performance, 1943): I imagined that the performer had ‘hung up’ her body after the show was finished, possibly taking only her head with her. These paintings seem to oscillate between a sense of freedom brought by leaving behind the body, and a feeling of unease.

Po představení/After the Performance, 1943

The exhibition approaches Toyen’s work in chronological order, and I was less sure of what I thought of the later paintings: here, the body fades much more smoothly into the background and the texture is sleeker altogether. The series Sedm mečů bez pochvy (Seven Swords Unsheathed, 1957), a response to Apollinaire’s poem Les sept epées (The Seven Swords), reminded me of illustrations for a fantasy novel. The sense of hidden faces and hidden stories remains throughout all the works shown, but the later paintings didn’t compel me to keep on looking at them in the same way as the rough-textured, nearly abstract works of the 1930s and 40s.

There is a good bilingual catalogue available, including lots of extra material and an explanation of the exhibition’s title. It’s a quotation from the Slovak poet Rudolf Fabry, which encapsulates the mysterious solidity of Toyen’s dreamlike images:

Ó prudká zeleni jež připomínáš smrt
vidím neboť je noc
pozdní noc jež mi umožňuje vlastnit věci
jichž nebude jichž není
jež nebyli a přece jsou
jsou ještě tam kde je nic.

[Oh, sharp green, you resemble death
I see for it is night
late night which lets me own things
that are not and will not be
that were not and yet still are
they are still there where there is nothing.]

(From Rudolf Fabry, Já je někdo jiný (I is Someone Else), Prague: Mladá fronta, 1971, p. 51. I haven’t managed to find the Slovak original yet.)

Pedantic note: the exhibition and catalogue give the titles of the paintings in Czech and English only, even though a lot of them must have been named in French. E.g. After the Performance was called Relâche.


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