Toyen (b. Marie Čermínová), France, 1950’s, by André Breton
Czechoslovakia France (63 mi) 2005 d: Jan Němec
Czechoslovakia France (63 mi) 2005 d: Jan Němec
At no time does the film evoke an impression of connection; the image continually disintegrates, its shapes merge and spill over, and its transparent composition assumes a ghostly quality. Even Toyen herself…only flickers across the screen, eclipsed by what look like half tangible, half abstract qualities.
—Zdena Škapová, Professor, FAMU Prague Film School
This film is an abstract recreation of the life of Czech artist Toyen, born Marie Čermínová in Prague (1902-1980), rejecting her given name in favor of a single word where gender remains ambiguous. At 17 she attended UMPRŮM (the School of Decorative Arts) in Prague, becoming a painter and printmaker. Shortly afterwards she met and collaborated with fellow painter and illustrator Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942), and from 1922 they worked together for the rest of their lives, joining Devětsil in 1923, a young, avant-garde artists’ association where they exhibited their works with the group. Perhaps it was not by accident that Prague is halfway between Moscow and Paris, as both cities influenced the budding art world of Prague in the 1920’s, dominated on the one hand by Russian poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky and avant-garde Polish painter Kasimir Malevich, who studied at the Moscow School of Painting, and on the other, French poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire, one of the founding fathers of surrealism. Toyen and Štyrský came into contact with André Breton and surrealism during their stay in Paris from 1925 – 1929, where Toyen’s first exhibition was introduced, and together they developed a style of painting known as Artificialism, a bridge between abstract art and reality, creating a lyrical abstract style intended to capture fleeting moments of memory, dream, and sensation, which was partly directed against surrealism. It was not until they returned to Prague in 1929 that both artists began an intense exploration of dream, erotic, and the world of the subconscious, becoming co-founders of the Prague Surrealist group in 1934, becoming the group’s principal visual artists, working in oil painting, drawing, collage, graphic design, and even theater décor. Forced underground during the Nazi annexation and occupation of 1938-39, as Surrealism was another of the “Degenerate” art movements banned by the Nazi’s, they were joined by Czech poet Jindrich Heisler (1914-1953) who went into hiding after refusing to register as a non-Aryan Jew, so Toyen hid him from the Gestapo in her apartment during World War II (Štyrský died in 1942) as the group continued to work in Prague during the war, fleeing before the Communist takeover in 1947 for Paris, where they became associated with the Breton group.
The film’s narrative commentary is partly made up of words or poems by Toyen (Zuzana Stivínová) and Heisler (Jan Budař), occasionally those of Štyrský (Tobias Jirous), while the director offers informational detail. Since there is little written in English on Toyen, almost all of it published in the Czech Republic, most would be familiar with her work only through collections of surrealist artists. Toyen, however, is a major surrealist painter who regarded painting as a natural need free of any ambition. She never conformed to the demands of galleries and art critics, where exhibiting paintings was an opportunity to express camaraderie with fellow Surrealist poets, who often wrote poems for her. Nĕmec uses a quotation from Toyen, Splinters of Dreams, as a guiding visual aesthetic, showing close ups of her paintings, emphasizing various textures, before moving to museum pieces, including a close shot of her painting The Myth of Light (Le mythe de la lumière, 1946, Toyen - adagio). Heisler can be seen sitting for the painting, where Toyen interestingly only depicts him as an intruding shadow. She explains that she painted it because Heisler loved light, forced to live in confined claustrophobic conditions of semi-darkness during the war, but it’s also a prominent theme throughout her work. He seems to delight in placing columns of watch springs up his nose, creating a bizarre mask-like effect, while also sleeping in the bathtub, claiming it absorbs the outside vibrations, or Toyen tries wearing various hats, where they film one another like the playful objects of home movies, but we also see the streets of wartime Prague outside in a collage of cobblestone streets, dark and narrow stairways with peeling plaster on the walls, closed window shutters, and a variety of urban textures. Toyen can be seen visiting the grave of the real Toyen in Paris, creating a certain distance and detachment from reality, but equal weight is given to showing their work, where among the most powerful images is a slow selection of her paintings, one after the other, which has a transfixing effect on the audience.
No previous study of Toyen or Czech surrealists has been done in this manner, where Nĕmec creates the portrait of an artist through an abstractly structured film that is true to the subject’s own surrealist style, becoming a dreamlike, impressionistic montage of her work, set mostly in the most difficult period of her life. Nĕmec resorts to newsreel coverage of the Nazi occupation, which includes the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich by Czech paratroopers trained in England who blocked the passage of his car and shot him. Intelligence falsely linked the assassins to the village of Lidice, which was razed to the ground in revenge, with all men and boys over the age of 16 murdered, while the women and children perished in concentration camps. The effect of this incident haunted Toyen, who began drawing black and white images of war, skeletons of strange creatures lost in a devastating landscape, or the faces of the young girls lost from Lidice, commenting “I saw the child in my subconscious.” Equally horrific was the Soviet liberation and subsequent postwar occupation of Czechoslovakia, including a Soviet scripted trial by the prosecutor and a false confession by Toyen’s surrealist friend, Záviš Kalandra, which was broadcast on the radio, supervised by Soviet advisers, eventually executing Kalandra and Milada Horáková, who was part of the Czech underground resistance movement, along with a handful of other innocent victims as anti-Soviet traitors in the Stalinist show trials of the 50’s. Ludmila Brožová-Polednová, the prosecutor in the Horáková trial, was sentenced to six years in prison 58 years after her crime in 2008 at the age of 87. Flashes of the painting The Myth of Light is cut into the newsreel footage of the trial, where Nĕmec works by association, allowing reality to be emotionally charged by the imposition of the imagination, often superimposing various images, creating artistic impressions that evoke the spirit of the surrealistic avant-garde movement. The most powerful images are reserved at the end for Toyen’s own works, shown to the sound of a lone bell ringing with the wind rustling in the background, where the spirit of the artist is equated with a remarkable stream of pure light that shines through the enveloping dark period of history.