Painted on a large format - the largest in Toyen's oeuvre, repeated in only a handful of other works - The Message of the Forest is the culmination of a series of four oil paintings that 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 (fig. 1). 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 dramatic painterly 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.
The subject embodies a recurring and central theme in Toyen’s work, that of the power of nature over the human world and its laws. Representing the unconscious and irrationality, the themes of night and the forest were typical Surrealist tropes, rooted in the Romantic movement of the previous century (fig. 2). Wild nature in general, and bird imagery specifically, are distinctive elements in the work of a succession of twentieth century artists, ranging from Henri ‘Le Douanier’ Rousseau to Max Ernst. Ernst published a text titled Les mystères de la forêt in 1934, and painted a series of works in the mid-1930s that took the forest as their theme (fig. 3).
Toyen’s development of the subject in the present work, followed a hiatus in her painting in 1935, during which she worked on her drawings and collages, prepared for the first group exhibition of the Czech Surrealists that year, the visit of Breton and Paul Eluard to Prague, and her and Styrsky’s own return visit to Paris thereafter. It was a gap that served to re-invigorate her. Srp describes it as the moment when she entered ‘the sphere of “greater reality”, or super-reality, a new phase in Czech Surrealism…’ (Srp, p. 120).
The artistic leap that Toyen had made was bound to the work’s added visual complexity. While in the 1934 versions Toyen focused almost exclusively on the bird’s feathers set against a textured wooded background, in The Message of the Forest she introduced a vital tension transmitted by the bird’s claw grasping hold of the severed female head. An image of anxiety and helplessness, it gave rise to the series of twelve drawings that she embarked on over the next two years, influenced by the Nazis occupation of Prague, entitled Spectres of the Desert (see lot 41). Also related is The Shooting Gallery series she completed in 1940, which dwells on the theme of a solitary girl wandering in dislocated landscapes (see lot 112).
Both Teige and Nezval were keenly aware of the advance that The Message of the Forest represented both for Toyen and Czech Surrealism as a whole. Srp explains that for Teige ‘objective super-reality: “typified those paintings in which the world of free imagination assumes the same convincing, self-evident and material consistency of the world of everyday reality. Through these paintings, the imagination seeks a world which would correspond with it in the sphere of the phenomenal real”. Tidings of the Forest also similarly affected Nezval who specified Teige’s abstract reflections: “In Tidings of the Forest, in her supremely corporeal language based on a mastery of the optics of absolute painting, Toyen reveals a specifically irrational situation expressing an objective coincidence: namely the chance encounter of a female head and a woodland phantom; thus she demonstrates to us that what was hitherto considered incompatible – the subjective painting style and the objective notion with its symbolic validity – is uniquely disposed to create in this misalliance an irrational construction par excellence, such as the spectre.’ (Srp, p. 120).
The motif inspired contemporary poetry. Nezval dedicated his poem The Voice of the Forest to Toyen, and published it in Volné Smery (Free Directions) in 1935. Paul Eluard’s poem Balustrade printed in the collection Fertile Eyes in 1936 also references the image:
I surely hear a voice
So your faithful bird will come to watch
Over thousands of closed eyes
My bird is an owl
Sleek as a goddess
A flawless murderess of colours
An owl with its accurate gaze
In the comely earth of its feathers.
In addition to the mysterious juxtaposition of the different elements that make up the compostion, the painting is also remarkable for its painterly technique. As with the three smaller earlier works from which The Message of the Forest is developed, it is clear that Troyen is interested in exploring surface textures. In the present work the essential elements: feathers, claws, head and forest make it an object lesson in the study of hard and soft forms. Thus she accentuated the bark of the trees in the background through the strong use of verticals and contrasting surfaces, whether through the suggestion of the black abyss to the right of the bird, or the feeling of aperture to the left. In the feathers of the owl-like form Toyen built up the sense of soft down though an almost Expressionist use of brush strokes. In contrast the paint surface of the face of the young girl is smooth and polished. Joining these two opposing textures together is the sharp spikey grasp of the birds claw.
Accounting for Toyen’s painting technique during the mid-1930s Srp writes: ‘In her paintings from 1934 Toyen systematically examined the substance of the chosen material. She expressed its stone quality and elasticity, its expansion and contraction, coldness and white heat, its moulding and pulverisation. For each type of painting she found a special painting style, even characterising them in contradiction to their actual qualities. She visualised experience taking her ideas from a much broader sensory spectrum, than the purely optical.’ (Srp, p. 119). Toyen of course was not alone in such interests; Méret Oppenheim’s Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure), of the same year as the present work explores a similar theme. (fig. 4).
Different reasons have been advanced as to why Toyen (Marie Čermínová) adopted an ungendered pseudonym. A plausible suggestion is that it derives from the French word citoyen, 'citizen'.
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