The stuff that dreams are made of
Decades after its demise, Surrealism still flourishes in Prague
Posted: May 14, 2009
Toyen employs blatant sexual imagery in her series Tower Well - Fragments of Dreams.
Surrealism came belatedly to the Czech lands, but when it arrived, it came to stay. The Czech Surrealist movement was an outgrowth of the Poetism practiced by the avant-garde Devětsil group, two of whose founding members, Toyen and Jindřich Štyrský, moved to Paris in 1926 and formed close ties with the leader of the French Surrealist movement, André Breton. Another Devětsil member, Josef Šíma, had already been living in Paris since 1922.
The exhibition "Fragments of Dreams" at the relatively new Galerie Moderna brings together an extensive number of works on paper, prints, paintings, a smattering of collages, sculptural objects and photographs by Czech artists working in the Surrealist vein. This show follows on the heels of an exhibition devoted just to Toyen and Šíma.
During the 1920s, there was a lively exchange of ideas between Breton's Paris-based group and Czech artists working along the same lines. In the '30s, the movement gained strength following the "Poetry 1932" exhibition staged by the Mánes Association of Fine Artists - the first major manifestation of Surrealism on Czech soil. This important show brought to Prague artists such as Salvador Dalí, Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Georgio di Chirico, Paul Klee, Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy, displaying their works alongside Czech artists including Šíma, Toyen, Štyrský, František Muzika, Adolf Hoffmeister and half a dozen others. In 1935, Breton came to Prague, where he gave three important lectures that were well-attended by the public and later published in Czech translation.
Surrealism became the dominant art movement of the '30s and was in full flower in Czechoslovakia before World War II, when it was forced underground first by the Nazis, who labeled it "degenerate art," then a second time after the communists took power in 1948. It came up for air briefly during the short-lived liberalization of Prague Spring in 1968, then finally re-emerged in full after 1989 - and the post-revolution generation of neo-Surrealists is still going strong. In the past 20 years, there have also been a lot of exhibitions and scholarship devoted to Czech Surrealism's key figures.
at Galerie Moderna Ends May 31. Masarykovo nábř. 36, Prague 1-New Town. Open daily 10 a.m.-noon, 1-6 p.m.
One of the disappointing things about the current exhibition at Galerie Moderna is that most of the works were created in the late 1940s to '70s, after Surrealism had ceased to be a vital movement internationally and artists in Czechoslovakia were largely cut off from contemporary currents in the West. As a result, some of them seem stuck in a time warp.
For example, three lithographs from 1960 by Šíma (1891-1971) appear to be made using the originally revolutionary technique of automatic drawing. They seem like a forced exercise, especially since they're done in a graphic medium that lacks the immediacy of drawing.
Among the artists who came on the scene a little later, usually considered second-generation Surrealists, is František Gross (1909-85), who is represented by a couple of noteworthy works. One is titled Three Machines, although it actually looks like there are four of them, and they could just as easily represent beings (in the Surrealist manner) as things. The painting is strikingly reminiscent of Picasso's 1921 synthetic Cubist painting Three Musicians.
As with the gallery's last show, Toyen is also the star of this one. Born Marie Čermínová in 1902, this artist with an androgynous self-presentation (she dressed in men's suits and referred to herself as "he") emerged one afternoon from a café reborn as Toyen, a name that in Czech grammar is declined as masculine. She is represented by a number of works from her postwar period, after she had settled permanently in Paris with her friend Štyrský (1899-1942) and joined Breton's Surrealist group. She remained in France until her death in 1980.
Dream analysis and mining of the unconscious, especially using Freud's free association, were the pillars of the Surrealists' approach to art-making. The best examples of the dream fragments of the show's title are works by Toyen, particularly her suite of 12 graphic (this may be understood in more than one sense) works titled "Tower Well - Fragments of Dreams."
These drypoint prints, first published in 1967, are in a knee-level display case in the center of the gallery. Primarily black and white with touches of bright pink, their imagery is frankly erotic - male-female, female-female, auto-erotic - using some of her favored motifs, such as flowers and birds. One print, for example, shows a woman's vagina and clitoris being lightly touched by delicate fingers painted with pink nail polish. Of course, it's not quite as explicit as that: What we actually see is a button-like flower, a jagged piece of rock, a linden leaf - but the artist's intent is obvious. The neatly manicured hand we see gingerly pinching the nipple of a breast covered in a wallpaper-like flo
ral pattern in another print most likely belongs to a man.
Toyen's painting As Laws Fell Silent (1969) is a centerpiece of the show. It is a colorful work that combines a woman's mouth collaged onto the face of an otherwise featureless painted shadow, which shares the scene with a bright blue bird wearing a pink carnival mask and a leopard skin with human breasts on the back. (This painting was also part of the gallery's previous show.)
Nicely placed next to it is a 1937 oil painting by Štyrský titled Gift - one of the best pieces in the show. At the center of the painting is a large human ear, emerging from an old book whose pages are burned and curling back at the edges. Dreams had been an important source of inspiration for this artist since the mid-'20s, offering up a wealth of motifs that he could draw upon and recombine in his art.
The Surrealist movement ended, according to various historical accounts, either after World War II, or after André Breton's death in 1966, or even as late as 1989, when Dalí died. This last date for the movement's demise, however, was exactly when Czech Surrealism got a new lease on life. It has a vital existence today in Prague, where perhaps some 30 artists consider themselves Surrealists.
Interest in the historical movement and its main protagonists remains very high among the Czech public; unprecedented crowds came to see a Surrealism show organized by the Prague City Gallery in 1996. The same institution held a Toyen retrospective in 2000, a big Šíma show in 2006, a Štyrský retrospective in 2007, and is currently planning a Czechoslovak Surrealism show to travel to Germany in the fall.
The human psyche is a subject that never loses its fascination, so it seems that Surrealism might well remain an evergreen on the Czech art scene for some time to come.
Mimi Fronczak Rogers can be reached at
Tags: gallery, Surrealism, Devetsil, Toyen.