Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 14, 2021
Karla Huebner Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic Russian and East European Series. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020. 408 pp. Cloth $100.00 (9780822946472)

The Czech Surrealist known as Toyen (née Marie Čermínová, 1902–1980) has too long been relegated to the margins of the movement. Interest in her art grew after her death, spearheaded by a 1982 Centre Georges Pompidou retrospective devoted to her work alongside that of her Czech friends and collaborators Jindřich Štyrský and Jindřich Heisler, as well as a later 2000 retrospective at Prague’s City Gallery. This year, for the first time, she will be celebrated with a major solo retrospective at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, which will tour to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the National Gallery, Prague. The first English-language monograph was also finally published: Karla Huebner’s Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic. This beautifully illustrated volume is a major contribution to our knowledge of Toyen and the Czech Surrealist circle, offering an extensively researched biographical account of Toyen’s career and work, notably in terms of her foundational role in the circle in the 1930s and then her career in Paris, where she moved after World War II and became an important Surrealist figure.

The book documents the challenges Toyen faced as a woman and an artist across a long career. Whether looking at Toyen’s early cheeky drawings of Montmartre strip clubs (Poulet, 1925), vulvic landscapes (Fire Smoulders in the Veins, 1955), or women as wild beasts (Dream, 1964; Paravent, 1966), Huebner analyzes her imagery in Freudian terms, seeing it as haunted by anxiety, trauma, and a rejection of the phallic father. In so doing, Huebner often echoes André Breton’s postwar reading of Toyen’s art as a struggle between “the inner conflicts and external problems that have besieged her [and] mark her progression towards ever more serenity and love” (xvii), as quoted from the book’s outset. This is a curious authorial stance, given that Breton was reluctant to embrace same-sex desire within Surrealism, but it buttresses the author’s argument that despite Toyen’s many erotic works, her sexual life remained a closed book, allowing her success in a predominantly male, heterosexual circle.

The first chapter considers her childhood in Smíchov, her leaving home at sixteen in 1918 (just as the First Czech Republic was formed), and her “birth” as a Surrealist, coinciding with the birth of Czech modernism. Running throughout is a consideration of Toyen’s ambiguous sexuality and how it created a mythology around her work, as well as whether her nonheteronormativity may have helped her overcome some of the challenges female artists faced in a male-dominated art world. When speaking Czech, Toyen used the masculine singular form for herself; many commented on how she wore mannish trousers and brogues, and she took the gender-neutral name “Toyen” early in her career (from the French citoyen, “citizen”). For Huebner, Toyen’s “queer sexuality,” read in terms of a scopophilic gaze and the Freudian “polymorphously perverse” (17), allowed her greater liberties and to explore the erotic in new ways. Huebner relates the development of Toyen’s art to the changing profile of the nation-state and the cosmopolitan city of Prague, where her career began: women won the vote in 1918 and “prostitutes were thick on the streets” of the capital (125).

In chapter 2, Huebner documents Toyen’s role in the eclectic group Devětsil (1920–30), led by Karel Teige. Toyen’s platonic friendship with fellow artist Štyrský was crucial to her erotic pursuits. They also formed a curious couple—he was typically viewed as feminine, she as virile. With Štyrský, Toyen would coin the term “Artificialism,” a style that brought poetry and painting together in abstracted, automatic works. She also developed an obsessive interest in eroticism, unleashed first in the 1920s but continuing through to the 1970s.

Chapter 3 sees Toyen moving with Štyrský to Paris in 1925, where she discovered the bohemianism of the Left Bank and both artists began to develop an iconography of broken, sexually ambiguous forms in their paintings. Paris offered brothels, gay magazines, and lesbian life—Huebner assures the reader that the city did “spur” Toyen’s erotic interests (80), but there is no archival material that proves Toyen engaged with it all. Huebner is at pains to emphasize that Toyen does not fit the profile of more well-known women associated with Surrealism in Paris, such as Meret Oppenheim or Leonora Carrington, described as “real-life models for the femme-enfant [child-woman]” (99). For Huebner, Toyen’s erotic art distances her from this sorority; indeed, “Toyen’s phallic imagery is perhaps the only work by a surrealist woman that uses the body of the opposite sex to explore sexuality in a manner at all similar to the men’s use of the female body” (104). While Toyen did not fit the imago of the femme-enfant, Huebner’s decision not to compare her art in any great detail to that of other women Surrealists who did explore sexuality and erotica across the same decades—whether through their representation of lesbian (Valentine Penrose), androgynous (Leonor Fini), or “neuter” (Claude Cahun) desire—is the one shortcoming of the book, as the Surrealist erotic fostered a burgeoning queer network that is still waiting to be fully documented.

Chapter 4 considers Toyen’s collaborations in Prague when she returned there in the early 1930s and produced a large volume of illustrated erotica for the imprints Lotos, Olisbos, Mys dobré naděje, and Štyrský’s Edice 69, projects that included illustrations for editions of Aubrey Beardsley’s Venus and Tannhäuser (1930), Felix Salten’s Josephine Mutzenbacher: Memoirs of a Viennese Tart (1930), and the Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1932). Her frontispiece for Justine portrays an eye looking out at the world through labia that have been prized open with hooks—a confrontational perspective on the male gaze that regularly emerges in her oeuvre. This erotic canon inevitably led Toyen closer to Surrealism, such that she decided to form her own Prague branch in 1934, the subject of chapter 5. The following year, Toyen and her fellow Prague Surrealists declared the movement was “NOT AN ARTISTIC SCHOOL . . . but a tool and a means, one of the ways that can lead to liberation of the human spirit” (178) through engagement with the whole human being. This stance extended to the gamut of erotic human desires, as well as more coded engagements with sexual difference. In the first Prague Surrealist group show, Toyen exhibited Magnetic Woman (1934), the oil painting from which Huebner takes her title. It portrays woman as a cracked, abstracted pink torso, headless but bearing a dark vulvic tear, staged in a desolate blue landscape with a white phallic stick hovering to her side. The woman of the painting seems evasive in her abstracted form but is actually a haunting and defiant presence—and a form of self-portrait.

Inevitably, the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 dealt a huge blow to Czech Surrealism and saw Toyen not only hiding her artwork but also hiding Heisler (who was of Jewish origin) in her apartment bathroom. As Huebner explains in chapter 5, Toyen’s erotic art took a sinister turn in response to fascism, as seen in the disturbing image of a headless girl suspended beside a hood/bag and fly swatter in Relâche (1943) or in At La Coste Castle (1946), which depicts ruined walls and a predatory fox pouncing on a bird, an homage both to Sade’s exploration of the cruelty of Nature and to her beloved Štyrský, who had made a pilgrimage to Sade’s ancestral home in 1932 and taken many photographs of its ruins (and who died of pneumonia in 1942).

Chapter 6 focuses on Toyen’s “visual language” iconographically and “in relation to her underlying exploration of gender and eroticism” (205), deviating from the otherwise linear chronology of the book. Huebner presents a useful analysis of the motifs of the child, the dream, emptiness, mimicry, and the uncanny in Toyen’s work. Huebner argues that these motifs emerged from a Czech sensibility for semiotics, thanks to Toyen’s exposure to the Prague Linguistic Circle, coupled with a taste for Surrealism inflected by a Bretonian appreciation of “convulsive beauty” as articulated in his Nadja (1928) and L’Amour fou (1937). Indeed, convulsive beauty, especially in its veiled form, is read by Huebner as a key trope for appreciating Toyen’s works. This chapter also explains how Toyen played with signifiers, making actors out of inanimate objects, including toys, allowing repressed desire and fear to seep through her canvases. As a stand-alone, the chapter sits a little oddly in the mix, both in its retreading motifs already discussed and its asking the reader to step into a broader thematic frame, but it will be of great use to the student of Surrealism.

When the Communist Party assumed power in Prague in 1948, Toyen moved to Paris. The final chapter documents the last thirty years of Toyen’s career there, where she exhibited in Surrealist exhibitions and produced paintings and collages that often mock the iconography of the femme-fatale, which were celebrated by Surrealist writer Annie Le Brun.

Huebner closes her study by picturing the elderly Toyen in her Paris flat, stroking and prodding the surfaces of her canvases, smiling—but going no further. Toyen remains as enigmatic as she is magnetic to the end.

Alyce Mahon
University of Cambridge