Multi-media in scope, the remarkable and wide ranging collection of Czech avant garde art that Roy and Mary Cullen have built up sheds a fascinating and revelatory light on the artistic community in Prague between the First and the Second World Wars, and life in Paris thereafter. Focused on the work of Karel Teige, Jindřich Štyrský and, in particular, Toyen (Marie Čermínová) and their close associations with such writers as Vítězslav Nezval and Jindřich Heisler, the collection encompasses paintings, watercolours, drawings, collages, prints and photographs, books and periodicals.
Genesis of the Collection
Introduced to the work of Czech artists of the period during their first trip to Prague in 1989, Roy and Mary’s visit coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. By chance, that same autumn the Houston Museum of Fine Art was also showing their landmark exhibition: Czech Modernism 1900-1945. Galvanised by their first hand experience of political events (including meeting Václav Havel), the serendipitous opportunity to study the development of Czech avant garde back home in Texas, and Mary’s natural curiosity combined with Ray’s unstinting support, they embarked on a collecting spree that would last for the next two decades.
From left to right: Toyen, Bohuslav Brouk, Jacqueline Breton, André Breton, Vítězslav Nezval, Jindřich Štyrský (seated), Vincenc Makovsý, Paul Eluard, Karel Teige
Devětsil and the Collective
Acquisitions focused on works executed after the First World War. Parallel with the political, economic and social upheavals that were transforming Europe, Czech artists explored new ways to define their surroundings. The most politicised of them was Karel Teige who co-formed the group Devětsil, with fellow artists Josef Šíma, Štyrský, Toyen and Alois Wachsmann, the poet Nezval and others. Both a wild flower, and a reference to concentrated power, the name Devětsil embraced both a post-war call for artistic renewal, and the intrinsic strength to be gained from constructive collaboration, a reflection of the group’s left wing political views and - led by Teige - their support of Communism.
Teige and Poetism
Influenced by the technological advances of photography and film, Teige renounced traditional painting. Instead he embraced the process of mechanical reproduction, and the power of artistic synergy across a range of disciplines - poetry, prose, painting, photography, music and film among them - to form Poetism. Transcending any single discipline, the aesthetic melded words with image, and encouraged collective endeavour and enjoyment. Central to it was the picture-poem, a style that combined elements of Constructivism with a form of Poetism inspired by the French poet Apollinaire. Teige published the First Manifesto of Poetism in Prague in 1924, (six months before the First Surrealist Manifesto appeared in France). A classic expression of the new multi-disciplinary endeavour of Poetism was the publication of Abeceda. Light in spirit, the book of poems and images was written by Nezval, interpreted visually by Hugo Boettinger, acted out dramatically by dancer Mayerová, photographed by Karel Paspa and designed by Teige.
Štyrský, Toyen and Artificialism
In 1925 Štyrský and Toyen joined fellow Devětsil member Josef Šíma in Paris. There they explored a painterly programme that would build on the essence of Poetism; while to make ends meet they wrote and designed a tourist guide to Paris. They called their new aesthetic Artificialism, a style driven by an individual’s reminiscences, independent of memory, and linked to poetry. As well as a conscious reaction to prevailing Parisian interest in Surrealism and Abstraction, the style also offered a new take on the more functional elements of Poetism and Constructivism. Their imagery drew upon the primordial: on forms from the the sea, caves, labyrinths and forests. Štyrský and Toyen held the first of a series of Artificialist exhibitions in their studio in the spring of 1926.
The Prague - Paris Axis
As the decade progressed, the Czech avantgarde and Paris Surrealist axis grew inexorably closer. Prague artists looked to Paris, and artists in Paris were fascinated and intrigued to visit and exhibit in Prague. In 1927 Šíma became a founding member of the French Surrealist group Le Grand jeu.But the watershed moment was the publication of the Second Surrealist Manifesto in 1929. In it André Breton announced the movement’s support for the Communist party in France. Now the Czech and Paris artists shared a common political agenda as well as similar aesthetic ideas. And immediately thereafter translations of texts by the leading voices of the Surrealists - André Breton, Luis Aragon and Paul Eluard - began to appear in Czech publications including the Devětsil journal ReD edited by Teige. And in the early 1930s Štyrský founded two publications: The Erotic Reviewand Edition 69 . Štyrský’s interest in sexual taboo mirrored those of the Paris Surrealist’s including the writings of Aragon and Benjamin Péret, the photographs of Man Ray and Salvador Dali’s erotic drawings. This reaches its strongest expression in the photo montages with which he illustrated his short story Emily comes to me in a Dream of 1933.
Foundation of the Czech Surrealist Group
In 1932 the international exhibition Poetry opened at the Mánes Society of artists in Prague. It was the most significant exhibition to feature Surrealist works ever held outside Paris. It included works by Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Dali, Joan Miro, André Masson and Yves Tanguy, alongside those of Šíma, Štyrský, Toyen and Alois Wachsmann among others. And it precipitated the foundation of the Czech Surrealist Group two years later, led by Štyrský and Toyen. To cement the accord the following year, in 1935, André Breton and Paul Eluard visited Prague at the time of the First Czech Surrealist Exhibition and published the first volume of the International Bulletin of Surrealism there.
Štyrský in the 1930s
Many of the jewels in the Cullen Collection are the fruit of such constructive dialogues and collaborations, with a clutch of key works dating from the flowering of the Czech and Paris artists’ Surrealist union in the mid-1930s. Chief amongst these are the works by Štyrský and Toyen. Štyrský’s collages in the collection are from his influential series The Portable Cabinet of 1934. All sixty-six works were exhibited the First Czech Surrealist Exhibition. Likewise his enigmatic painting Roots of the same year was one of a group of oils that he completed on this theme. Given by Štyrský to André Breton, it was shown at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936.
Toyen and The Message of the Forest
The major painting by Toyen in the collection, The Message of the Forest, is also from this critically important period. Painted in 1936 it is not just one of Toyen’s largest paintings, but arguably her most important, its haunting form a major addition to the Surrealist canon. In subject and style the painter references the work of Max Ernst. But in its extraordinary expression of the power of Nature and its ultimate hold over the human conscience, the composition clearly transcends any particular debt. Instead Toyen makes this image of discarded humanity, wounded avatar, and dense deformed vegetation uniquely her own, and in the process conjures up one of the truly great and utterly original Surrealist images of the day.
War and Exodus to Paris
With the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and the outbreak of the Second World War, Surrealism was classified as degenerate. Štyrský, Toyen, and Teige withdrew from public life, and the movement went underground. During the war Štyrský died of pneumonia, but afterwards Teige and Toyen resumed their endeavours. Teige developed his idiosyncratic use of collage, the example in the Cullen Collection of a lady’s inverted stockinged legs thrust suggestively from the wing of a British fighter plane, being particularly striking. Toyen, meanwhile, moved to Paris with the poet Jindřich Heisler, where she became an active member of the Surrealist circle of artists and poets there. Working alongside Breton, she painted likenesses a her distinctive portrait of him, his profile set within three overlapping triangles and surrounded by symbols of the elements. Executed on the eve of his fifty-fourth birthday and dedicated to him.
Toyen and the 1960s and 70s
In 1953 Heisler died. A generation younger than Štyrský and Toyen, he had been assimilated into the Czech Surrealist group in the late 1930s, and had collaborated with both artists on a succession of projects including The Specters of the Desert . During the War years he was forced to hide in Toyen’s apartment; afterwards he assisted in the exhibition Surréalisme in Paris and Prague. In 1966 Breton died. But as Toyen’s artistic associates of the pre-War years wained, Toyen took up with a new group of younger avant-garde artists and writers in Paris. Continuing to innovate, she worked with the poet and dramatist Radovan Ivšić. A native of Zagreb, he joined Breton’s group in the post-War years, and worked with Toyen on such works as Le puits dans le tour. Débris de rêves in 1967. The same year Toyen also collaborated with the young French poet Annie Le Brun, who had joined the Surrealist group in Paris in 1963. Together they published Sur-le-champ (Right Now), and the two continued to work together for the following decade, Toyen’s last book project being for Le Brun’s poetry collection Annulaire de la lune (Moon Ring-Finger) of 1977.
The only female artist at the forefront of the Czech Surrealist group, Toyen was one of a distinguished coterie of leading female artists in International Surrealism - Kay Sage, Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington among them. With her death in 1980 a period of unprecedented artistic activity and influence in Central Europe came to a close. But in the Cullen Collection many of the different strands that made this time so vital live on, a ferment of artists, poets and writers from Prague that left their indelible mark on the development of Modernism during the twentieth century.