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Surrealism Against the War: The Shooting Gallery and Hide, War! by the Czech Artist Toyen

As the only woman artist in the 1920s avant-garde group Devětsil and an important figure in both Czech and French Surrealism, Toyen produced a significant body of work in painting, drawing, printmaking, and collage. The MoMA Library’s holdings include several examples of her Surrealist illustrations and book designs, as well as printed editions of The Shooting Gallery (Střelnice) and Hide, War! (Schovej se, válko!), seminal cycles of drawings the artist created during World War II. This essay examines how Toyen’s series address the harrowing dimensions of wartime violence and suffering through a Surrealist lens.

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Surrealism Against the War: The Shooting Gallery and Hide, War! by the Czech Artist Toyen

As the only woman artist in the 1920s avant-garde group Devětsil and an important figure in both Czech and French Surrealism, Toyen produced a significant body of work in painting, drawing, printmaking, and collage. The MoMA Library’s holdings include several examples of her Surrealist illustrations and book designs, as well as printed editions of The Shooting Gallery (Střelnice) and Hide, War! (Schovej se, válko!), seminal cycles of drawings the artist created during World War II. This essay examines how Toyen’s series address the harrowing dimensions of wartime violence and suffering through a Surrealist lens.

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As the only woman artist in the 1920s avant-garde group Devětsil and an important figure in both Czech and French Surrealism, Toyen produced a significant body of work in painting, drawing, printmaking, and collage. The MoMA Library’s holdings include several examples of her Surrealist illustrations and book designs, as well as printed editions of The Shooting Gallery (Střelnice) and Hide, War! (Schovej se, válko!), seminal cycles of drawings the artist created during World War II. This essay examines how Toyen’s series address the harrowing dimensions of wartime violence and suffering through a Surrealist lens.

In the aftermath of the war, in February 1946, Toyen (Marie Čermínová, 1902–1980) published a cycle of twelve drawings from the years 1939–40 as a series of prints titled The Shooting Gallery, with an introduction and typographic design by leading avant-garde artist and theorist Karel Teige, and an introductory poem by Surrealist poet Jindřich Heisler.1 As I will discuss in more detail below, this series is just one example of Toyen and Heisler’s collaborations exploring the possibilities of dialogue between poetry and visual representation.2

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Cover of The Shooting Gallery (Střelnice). The Museum of Modern Art Library.

The work’s title, The Shooting Gallery, refers to both a shooting range used for military training and a popular carnival attraction for children. And it is precisely the thematic duality of violence and childhood that shapes the haunting landscapes of Toyen’s series within. The destructive nature and catastrophic reality of war seeps into the once-joyful realm of childhood through the fragmentation and disintegration of objects associated with children’s games and experiences, such as toy blocks, marbles, dolls, puppet theaters, a jump rope, a schoolbag, and letters lifted from a primer or children’s notebook. Such objects are juxtaposed with images of ghostly and disintegrating bodies that, in a barren environment, suggest the fragility of life.3

Heisler’s Surrealist introductory poem animates these imaginary landscapes through evocative associations: “In a fever that rushes through vast valleys over / the wrinkles of piled bodies, straw, dry and as if dazed, lies / on overturned tables and felled chairs / rotting straw interweaving these hours with the broken / clocks on the walls.”4 Echoing Heisler’s poetry, Toyen’s series invites associative reading and it proliferates with metaphors. Underscoring Toyen’s visual language, Teige’s introduction renders explicit the tension between the represented and the implied, conveying a strong indictment of war and violence: “Destroyed houses from children’s toy blocks in the grass, the ruins of bombarded cities, and children, killed while playing—torn bodies of birds, lying on the ground like downed airplanes.”5

Teige describes Toyen’s work as “a stage where familiar, strange and everyday things turn into ghosts,” likening The Shooting Gallery to a Surrealist mirror maze, in which meanings associated with individual representations are multiplied and refracted.6 A particularly haunting print from Toyen’s series features the stage of a peculiar puppet theater, out of which hang the limp bodies of geese marked with number tags, the birds’ heads either concealed or cut off. Bodily fragmentation is further echoed in the severed finger pinned to the puppet theater, which is framed by crumbling columns and a backdrop featuring a castle ruin. The areas of black ink that foreground the cracks and ruptures in the structure become so deep as to almost represent a void, gesturing toward nothingness, beyond the space of representation. In the distance, a second puppet theater’s curtain is closed, a view of the stage withheld. The puppet theaters are surrounded by poles connected with barbed wire that extend to the horizon as markers of a war-torn landscape.

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Toyen. Untitled, 1940. From The Shooting Gallery (Střelnice) (Prague: Fr. Borový, 1946). The Museum of Modern Art Library.

Toyen had already deployed the motifs of poles and barbed wire in a 1935 drawing representing hollow head-shaped objects wrapped in thorny wire and impaled on wooden rods. Notably, this image was published the following year, in 1936, in the Anthology of Anti-Fascist Artists (Anthologie protifašistických umělců).7 Focusing on authors from Czechoslovakia, this collection brought together poetry and prose, caricatures and drawings, and even musical compositions. The visual material occupies two distinct registers, featuring explicitly political and anti-militaristic caricatures by Adolf Hoffmeister, Antonín Pelc, and František Bidlo, as well as more lyrical drawings marked by fissures and fragmentation, by Toyen and her close artistic collaborator Jindřich Štyrský.

Fig 5 anthology of anti fascist artists
Toyen. Drawing, 1935. From Anthology of Anti-Fascist Artists (Prague: Odeon, Jan Fromek; Pavel Prokop, 1936). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

By then, Prague had become an important site for anti-fascist resistance in the wake of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, with many émigrés, including the artist John Heartfield, arriving from Germany to continue their struggle against fascism in the Czechoslovak capital.8 The local artistic and intellectual community would also become deeply involved in anti-fascist activity. For example, in 1934, Czech artists Hoffmeister, Emil Filla, and Alois Wachsman organized the International Exhibition of Caricature and Humor (Mezinárodní výstava karikatur a humoru) at the seat of the Mánes Association of Fine Artists in Prague.9 Featuring caricatures, collages, and photomontages by artists from Czechoslovakia, Germany, France, and the Soviet Union, this exhibition served as a site of resistance, generating significant controversy leading to the removal of certain works after protests from German, Austrian, and Italian authorities.10 While the images on display foregrounded the emphasis on caricature and satirical drawing as a primary medium of resistance against fascism, Toyen’s later drawings offer a more veiled yet equally powerful mode of responding to the deeply unsettling political climate in which Europe was increasingly engulfed.

Shifting political conditions also profoundly affected the way Surrealist artists could produce their work. Founded in 1934, the Czechoslovak Surrealist Group became a key hub of European Surrealism, with the activities and communication between artists in Prague and Paris intensifying during the 1930s. The situation significantly worsened following the 1938 Munich Agreement, which allowed for Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland, the border region of Czechoslovakia inhabited by Sudeten Germans. This marked the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, which also drove Surrealist activity underground. It was in this increasingly hostile political context that Toyen began collaborating with Heisler.11 When Heisler, who was of Jewish heritage, received an order for deportation in 1941, he decided to go into hiding. He would secretly live in Toyen’s apartment and other hideouts until the end of World War II, and create his work in secret.

Already their earliest collaborative projects established a dynamic relationship between drawing and poetry, as Toyen developed aesthetic principles that would importantly inform The Shooting Gallery and the Hide, War! series. The Specters of the Desert (Les Spectres du désert, 1939) presents in book form her first major series of Surrealist drawings from the years 1936–37, accompanied by Heisler’s poetry.12 While initially privately printed in Prague, the book appeared in French translation under the auspices of the Paris-based publisher Éditions Albert Skira for the purposes of evading censorship.13

Toyen and Heisler’s next collaboration, a collection of Heisler’s poems with illustrations by Toyen, was published illegally in 1939 with the provocative title Only Kestrels Calmly Piss on the Ten Commandments (Jen poštolky chčí klidně na desatero).14 Appearing after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, it included the following statement: “This book was created in the stifling atmosphere of military commands as a document of Surrealist activity that will not be destroyed by any of the reactionary powers of mobilized Europe.”15 Moreover, as Jindřich Toman remarked, the forty copies published in German (in contrast to only fifteen Czech copies) were supposed to be “handed out to invading German soldiers as subversive material,” even if it remains unclear whether the book could have fulfilled such a role.16

In 1944, Toyen created a cycle of nine ink drawings responding to the height of war, which was published in November 1946 under the title Hide, War! (Schovej se, válko!), with yet another introductory poem by Heisler. After arriving in Paris with Heisler in March 1947,17 Toyen published a French edition of the portfolio of prints, one of which is in the MoMA Library’s collection.18 Except for a single print, the series features uncanny skeletal forms as central motifs. These hybrid beings occupy an unstable position, effacing the boundary between subject and object, movement and inertia, life and death. The meticulously drawn, highly detailed fantastical creatures are situated in barren landscapes extending into the far distance, drawing on the compositional structuring of The Shooting Gallery. Furthermore, the viewer is invited to decode and reconstruct the identity of these beings, yet subtle discrepancies, ruptures, and details—such as the merging of a seahorse with a table, or a safety pin replacing a skeleton’s leg—undermine the process of identification. The viewer’s perception is thus called into question through seemingly recognizable anatomical studies, which nevertheless do not coalesce into established systems of representation and knowledge.

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Toyen. Untitled, 1944. From Hide, War! (Cache-toi guerre!), 1947. The Museum of Modern Art Library.

Whereas in The Shooting Gallery, temporality is emphasized through the fracturing and deterioration of bodies and objects, here it unfolds through the repetition and multiplication of pictorial motifs, such as rows of poppies or fish hovering above ground, establishing a visual rhythm across individual images and the series as a whole. The mode of repetition is also reflected in the careful, almost obsessive mark-making that Toyen employed to create the eerie environment of the series.

As in The Shooting Gallery, traces of war are only present in a sublimated manner, surfacing in certain details, such as the representation of dandelion seeds descending toward the ground against an ominous sky, marked by expressive marks left by an ink-stained sponge or other material. In the viewer’s imagination, these more gestural elements hint at smoke and explosions, much as the dandelion seeds transform into parachutes.

Fig 8 300156819 4 ricr copy
Toyen. Untitled, 1944. From Hide, War! (Cache-toi guerre!), 1947. The Museum of Modern Art Library.

In Hide, War!, the consequences of armed conflict are portrayed through the absence of human beings, as the human body is either reduced to mere skeletal fragments—a torso attracting moths in place of a candle or lamp, severed hands grasping the bars of a birdcage—or is completely absent, its erstwhile presence only suggested through footprints in the sand.

In his introduction to The Shooting Gallery, Teige remarks that this series provides a powerful challenge to the commonly leveled critique that Surrealism turns away from social reality and conflict in its search for an “illusory refuge in an ivory tower.” He argues that the series proves that “the romantic ivory tower has been abandoned and torn down” and that “poetic thought does not resemble a rootless orchid, it does not grow in a greenhouse nor faints from the traumas of the present.”19 Indeed, in both cycles, Toyen masterfully conjures a nightmarish Surrealist universe through the displacement of meanings associated with everyday objects and familiar experiences in unexpected and often disturbing juxtapositions, revealing an anxiety-ridden psychological terrain. As such, Toyen’s work offers a unique testimony to World War II, articulating a powerful indictment of war in an attempt to capture the unfathomable degree of violence and death, as well as of fascism’s destructive effects on the personal, cultural, and sociopolitical landscapes of the twentieth century.

1.

Toyen later returned to The Shooting Gallery, publishing a 1973 reedition with Éditions Maintenant in Paris. This edition includes two new drypoints representing targets, as well as a poem by Radovan Ivšić entitled “Les grandes ténèbres du tir.” See Toyen and Radovan Ivšić, Tir: Cycle de douze dessins, 1939–1940 (Paris: Maintenant, 1973).

2.

Other examples of work by Toyen include the cover design and frontispiece for André Breton’s La lampe dans l’horloge (1948), illustrations for Radovan Ivšić’s Le puits dans la tour (1967), and illustrations for Annie Le Brun’s Sur le champ (1967) and Annulaire de lune (1977). While it is beyond the scope of this essay to consider Toyen’s wartime paintings, they constitute an important parallel to the artist’s drawings from that period. For a comprehensive overview of the relationship between Toyen’s wartime painting and drawing practices, including other drawings related to the series discussed here, see Karel Srp, Toyen (Prague: Argo; City Gallery Prague, 2000), 152–80.

3.

While the copy in MoMA’s library features black-and-white prints, a limited edition of 200 hand-colored prints on higher-quality paper was also produced.

4.

“V horečce, která se žene dlouhými údolími přes / vrásky nakupených těl, suchá a jako omámená leží / na převrácených stolech a pokácených židlích nať, / trouchnivá nať splétající tyto hodiny s rozbitými / hodinami na zdích.” Jindřich Heisler, “S důvěrou,” in Střelnice, by Toyen (Prague: Fr. Borový, 1946), 7. Unless otherwise noted, all translations mine.

5.

“Rozbořené domky z dětské stavebnice v trávě, trosky bombardovaných měst a děti, zabíjené při hře – roztrhaná těla ptáků, ležící na zemi jako sestřelená letadla.” Karel Teige, “Střelnice,” in ibid., 3.

6.

“V surrealistickém zrcadle nových kreseb a obrazů Toyen vidíme jeviště, kde známé, podivné i každodenní věci se mění v přízraky.” Ibid.

7.

Fifteen copies of the book were printed on handmade Pannekoek paper with hand-colored illustrations, with an additional 550 copies published in black-and-white on wood-free paper. See Anthologie protifašistických umělců (Prague: Odeon, Jan Fromek; Pavel Prokop, 1936).

8.

For an analysis of the key Prague-based anti-fascist satirical journal Simplicus, see Martina Pachmanová, “Liberating Power of Exiled Laughter: Gender, Caricature, and the Antifascist Movement in Prewar Czechoslovakia. The Case of Simplicus.” Umění 51, no. 1, 2003. For a discussion of John Heartfield’s work from Prague, see Jindřich Toman, “Émigré Traces: John Heartfield in Prague,” History of Photography 32, no. 3 (2008): 272–86.

9.

In 1943, wartime anti-fascist caricatures by Adolf Hoffmeister and Antonín Pelc were exhibited at MoMA— the Museum’s first exhibition of Czech art. See Anna Pravdová, “Part 1: Anti-Fascist Caricatures by Adolf Hoffmeister and Antonín Pelc at MoMA in 1943,” post, The Museum of Modern Art, January 4, 2017, https://post.at.moma.org/content_items/937-part-1-anti-fascist-caricatures-by-adolf-hoffmeister-and-antonin-pelc-at-moma-in-1943; and Pravdová, Part 2: Anti-Fascist Caricatures by Adolf Hoffmeister and Antonín Pelc at MoMA in 1943, ibid., https://post.at.moma.org/content_items/952-part-2-anti-fascist-caricatures-by-adolf-hoffmeister-and-antonin-pelc-at-moma-in-1943.

10.

Pachmanová, “Liberating Power of Exiled Laughter,” 45.

11.

One of the most striking and significant examples of wartime collaboration between Toyen and Heisler is the rare experimental photo-book From the Strongholds of Sleep- (-Z kasemat spánku, 1940), which attempts to showcase “materialized poems” by Heisler embedded in staged environments composed of miniature animals and various other small objects and materials. For a digitized version and English translation by Jindřich Toman and Matthew Witkowsky, see http://aic.onlineculture.co.uk/ttp/ttp.html?id=bf622f87-484b-4770-b0ff-598f239f63ce&type=book. [Click on document icon to the left to display introduction and translations of individual poems]

12.

Srp, Toyen, 152.

13.

This arrangement was mediated by the French poet Benjamin Péret. Lenka Bydžovská and Karel Srp, Knihy s Toyen (Prague: Akropolis, 2003), 58.

14.

Jindřich Štyrský is the author of the collages on the book’s cover.

15.

“Tato knížka vznikla v dusné atmosféře vojenských povelů jako dokument surrealistické aktivity, kterou nezničí žádný z reakcionářských mocností zmobilizované Evropy.” Jindřich Heisler, Jen poštolky chčí klidně na desatero (Prague: Edice surrealismu, 1939).

16.

Jindřich Toman, “Hope of Fire, the Freedom of Dreams: Jindřich Heisler in Prague and Paris, 1938–1953,” in Jindřich Heisler: Surrealism Under Pressure, 1938-1953, by Toman and Matthew S. Witkovsky (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 12.

17.

Toyen and Heisler had left for Paris to organize an exhibition at the Denise René gallery, but they decided to stay in France as émigrés in light of the postwar political developments in Czechoslovakia and the establishment of a pro-Soviet Communist regime.

18.

The exclamation “cache-toi guerre!” is lifted from Poésies by the nineteenth-century French writer Isidore Lucien Ducasse—also known as Comte de Lautréamont—who was a major influence on the Surrealists. See Isidore Ducasse, Poésies (Paris: Librairie Gabrie, 1870), 2:8.

19.

“Surrealismus, jemuž jeho odpůrci kladou za vinu, že se odvrací od dějů objektivní zkušenosti a od sociálních konfliktů, hledaje ilusorní útočiště ve věži ze slonoviny, že je netečný k volání doby a neúčastní se revolučního boje o nový svět, vytvořil tímto albem dílo dost průkazné, aby mohlo pro vždy vyvrátit takové a podobné předsudky a křivé obžaloby. Střelnice provedla důkaz, že romantická věž ze slonoviny byla opuštěna a stržena, že básnická myšlenka se nepodobá orchideji bez kořenů, nevyrůstá ve skleníku a neomdlévá v traumatech přítomnosti.” Teige, “Střelnice,” 6.

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