LONDON - One of the delights of Sotheby’s is the unexpected collections that appear at auction and afford an opportuntity to share with a wider audience a relatively unexplored collecting area. The Roy and Mary Cullen Collection is exactly such a collection. It focuses on Czech Avant-Garde art between the First and Second World Wars as told by the artists, illustrators, photographers and writers who captured the visual, literary and intellectual ideas that flourished in Prague and Paris at the time.

Toyen (Marie Čermínová), The Message of the Forest of 1936 by Toyen (Marie Čermínová). Estimate £700,000–1,000,000.

The star is unquestionably The Message of the Forest of 1936 by Toyen (Marie Čermínová), her masterpiece and one of the most enduring images of Czech Surrealism. Toyen had given up her original name and adopted an ungendered pseudonym based on the French word citoyen, 'citizen.' Along with her artistic partner Jindřich Štyrský, Toyen led the Czech interwar avant-garde movement on the international stage, the only female artist at its forefront and, along with Valentine Hugo, Eileen Agar, Kay Sage and Leonor Fini, a leading female artist in the international Surrealist movement.

Ambitious, majestic and haunting in equal measure, the work remains true to Toyen’s Czech roots, yet expresses the new found creative confidence that characterised her work in the years immediately before the Second World War, when both artistic synergy between Prague and Paris and interest in Surrealism was at its height.

Painted on a large format - The Message of the Forest is the culmination of a series of four paintings Toyen had first explored two years previously in the three versions of Hlas lesa (The Voice of the Forest) of 1934, now in public collections in Paris, Brno and Prague. Against a dark, mysterious wooded background that bears comparison with the textural techniques also employed by Max Ernst, looms an owl-like spectre bearing in its one remaining claw the severed head of a girl. The virtuosity with which Toyen has built up the creature's body, together with the striking electric blue and bright green palette, contrast with the vague expression, pallid form and more sober execution of the head, producing a prime example of the unsettling "convulsive beauty,“ which for André Breton, represented the aim of Surrealism in the visual arts.

Tessa Kostrzewa is Head of Sale, 20th Century Art – A Different Perspective and a specialist in the European Paintings department, Sotheby’s London.

Czech Avant-Garde Art from the Roy & Mary Cullen Collection
London, 12 November

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