Mánes Exhibition Hall rests above Prague’s Vltava River, connecting the city to a small island. While many art collections in the Czech Republic are currently housed in repurposed homes, churches, and even mills, this functionalist building was erected in 1930 specifically to exhibit recent art. One of the first shows in this space, Poesie 1932, presented the people of Prague with their first major exhibition of the Surrealist movement in Europe. The catalogue includes the names of many well-known artists now in MoMA’s collection: Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Hans Arp, Salvador Dalí. The Czech names, however, are not so familiar to an American audience: Emil Filla, Adolf Hoffmeister, Jindřich Štyrský, Toyen.
As an American of Czech descent, I wanted to study the art of this region soon after I began my art history education. Toyen, one of the few female members of the Prague avant-garde, has been of particular interest to me. However, accessing information and the works themselves turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated. While many American universities, museums, and other institutions have started to expand their programs outside the Western European and North American discourse, researching artists outside this canon sometimes remains challenging. In Toyen’s case, much of the scholarship is only available in Czech, and many of her works remain in private collections in Europe. However, with the help of colleagues that have worked with MoMA’s C-MAP Central and Eastern Europe program, and a travel grant, I was able to visit Prague this spring to meet with scholars who have worked extensively on Toyen and the Czech avant-garde, and to see her work firsthand.
Toyen, born Marie Čermínová, abandoned her given name in favor of a genderless one, likely drawn from the French word citoyen (citizen). Although many of the men in the Prague avant-garde were puzzled by her unconventional behavior—she sometimes referred to herself in the masculine gender and wore men’s clothing—she gained access to their circle and became a major figure in the Czech interwar art scene. She and her artistic partner, Jindřich Štyrský, became close with the Parisian Surrealist group—and particularly its founder, André Breton—and helped found the Prague Surrealist Group in 1934. They exhibited in nearly every major Surrealist exhibition in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, from Prague to Paris and London. Due to the rise of the Stalinist regime in her native country, Toyen immigrated to Paris and continued to work with the Surrealists there. Yet despite this prominence in both the Parisian and Prague Surrealist movements, Toyen’s name is still unfamiliar to many people outside the Czech Republic.
While the Museum does not have extensive holdings of Toyen’s work, several collaborative pieces in the prints collection and the MoMA Library demonstrate her involvement in European artistic exchange. One of her compositions appears in the exhibition catalogue for Le Surréalisme en 1947 (Surrealism in 1947), alongside etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts by many of the artists with whom she exhibited at Poesie 1932, including Miró, Ernst, and Arp. Her drawing cycle decrying the horrors of war, Cache-toi, guerre (Hide Yourself, War!), appears in the Library as a portfolio of photogravures. As we continue to expand our understanding of the various avant-garde circles of the 20th century and how they transmitted ideas, it’s a delight to rediscover works by lesser-known artists like Toyen at MoMA.