To the general audience, the Czech painter Marie Cerminova is better known under the pseudonym Toyen, which in Czech language doesn’t fall within either the feminine or masculine gender. The word Toyen comes from the French word citoyen which means ‘citizen’. Not only as an artist but as a human, in her private life, Cerminova tried to get rid of all her female traits by dressing like a man and excluding herself from female company.
The exhibition at Kampa Museum “Toyen: I see for it is night” opens the doors to the four tedious grey-walled halls of the last floor. One may say it lacks personal curator’s touch or a general linking idea. However, Toyen’s work doesn’t need any presentation – it speaks for itself and takes a viewer on a journey through time and space. Her world shows no war, mundane troubles, clear distinction between human and nature, and sense of time. Everything becomes irrelevant and even the prosy grey-colored walls don’t matter anymore.
The exhibition highlights the key periods of Toyen’s work; starting with the circus motives paintings of the early 1920s, when Toyen was fascinated by the primitive art of Henry Rousseau. It is followed by the enigmatic paintings like “After Performance” which was created during the Nazi occupation. The exhibition closes up with her final extraordinary series of paintings such as “Zástěna” (Screen,1966), “Zatmění” (Eclipse, 1968) and “Když zmlknou zákony” (When the Laws Fall Silent, 1969) where she dramatically depicted a relationship of a man with a beast-woman, exhibited in Prague for the first time.
She held her first surrealistic exhibition in Prague in 1934, which was followed shortly by the second one in 1938. The most prominent paintings from these exhibitions, such as Ztroskotání ve snu (Foundering in a Dream) or Člověk z klihu (Man of Glue), together with some of her early works form Czech and Parisian private collections, are now gathered under the roof of the Kampa Museum in the exhibition “Toyen: I see for it is Night”.
Cerminova was born in Prague on the 21st of September of the year 1902. Little is known about her family background, as at the age of 16 she left her parents’ house to live with her older sister who was her “only family”, as the artist recollects. In 1922, she graduated from the School of Applied Arts in Prague (UMPRUM).
As a young girl Marie, together with her close friend, writer and artist, Jindrich Styrsky, left Prague in 1925 for Paris. There they entered a circle with Andre Breton where Toyen discovered her passion for surrealism. Hardly could she imagine that upon her return to Czechoslovakia she would not only be the founder of the Czechoslovakian surrealism movement, but the first female artist to break the bastion of the male dominance in arts in newly-formed Czechoslovakia.
Although Toyen tried to root out all the feminine traits in her appearance, she couldn’t completely eliminate it from her paintings. Behind all the brutality of colors, edgy and fortuitous details, there is still unavoidable tenderness and softens in her brushstrokes and poignancy in her motive which involuntary sluice in.
During the Second World War, Toyen had to join the underground art movements because of the Nazi’s condemnation of surrealism. Also, in the year of 1947, Jindrich Styrsky tragically died, the man with whom she shared her artistic experience. Despite all the turbulences of her personal life, she managed to preserve an inner consistency in her work. Although there is no one binding theme, Toyen’s oeuvre transmits always the same emotions of melancholy, mystery, and firmness.
Her most famous painting “Spici” (Sleeping), depicts a female figure with slightly curly golden hair, wearing a loose, white robe and holding a small lime-colored butterfly-net. At first glance, there is nothing special about it. But a second later, a viewer’s eye notices the absence of a body under the robe. The figure faces the horizon as if waiting for someone or something to show up. But it never will. The painting hangs next to the other works of that period, which altogether create an ineffable atmosphere in which time stands still and there is nothing but the viewer and the world of Toyen’s art.
Toyen’s art can be compared to the early works of another representative of the surrealistic movement – Salvador Dali. The motives from his key masterpiece, the “Persistence of memory”, parallels with the idea of Toyen’s imaginative world where everything is relative and tensile. However, the difference that strikes compared to Dali’s openness and brightness of the colors, Toyen’s world seems so intimate and fragile.