Details & Cataloguing

Czech Avant-Garde Art from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection


Toyen (Marie Čermínová)
1902 - 1980
signed and dedicated à andré Breton / Toyen / 18 II 1950 lower right
crayon, charcoal, oil and glitter on linen, held by two wood batons as a scroll
46 by 64cm., 18 by 25¼in.
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André Breton (a gift from the artist; sale: Calmels Cohen, Paris, 21 March 2004, lot 41)
Purchased at the above sale


Houston, Cullen Collection, 2011, no. 109, illustrated in the catalogue


Victor Castres, André Breton, Paris, 1952, illustrated on the frontispiece

Catalogue Note

In Toyen's portrayal of André Breton, the idealised profile of the writer, thinker and 'high priest' of Surrealism is projected into the centre of the pyramidal form of an equilateral triangle, superimposed over two isosceles triangles set at opposing angles behind. Around Breton are symbols of the elements: beneath his swept back features are earth and water; to his right and left are wind and fire. Painted on the eve of Breton's birthday, the work was a gift from Toyen, and vividly illustrates Toyen's respect and admiration for him. 

Toyen’s interpretation of Breton reflected the writer’s changed priorities for Surrealism in the post-War years. No longer advocating a political Marxist agenda, he aligned Surrealism with alchemy and the occult, and advocated a belief in universal harmony effected through peaceful means, in which the heart and mind would be wholly in accord with the laws of nature. His ideas were affected, among others, by his interest in the early nineteenth century writings of the utopian socialist Charles Fourier. In 1945 Breton wrote Ode à Charles Fourier, a paean to the writer that reflected Breton’s despair with the War and a call for a similar cosmic harmony, a motif symbolically captured in Toyen’s idealised portrayal.   

The composition derives from one of a series of eighteen drawings titled Neither Wings nor Stones: Wings and Stones. Started in 1948 when Toyen visited the Ile de Sein off the Brittany coast with Heisler, Breton and Péret, the works on paper were a sequel to her other two drawings series: Spectres of the Desert, The Shooting Gallery and Hide, War! The portrait of Breton that she drew as part of this sequence is very close in composition to the present work, but not at all typical of the series as a whole which is characterised by an assortment of motifs and details such as birds, fish, plants, houses and other objects, fragments of the human figure and captions. As with the present work, she subsequently developed certain motifs from the series into independent paintings. 

Toyen’s initial collaboration with André Breton dates from the spring of 1934 when she was a co-signatory to the founding of the Czech Surrealist Group. That autumn she designed a book cover for the Czech edition of Communicating Vessels by Breton (lot 6). Breton was captivated by the result: he wrote to Nezval: ‘Pass on my sincere thanks to the artist for a brilliantly inspired cover design. It is exquisite; nothing has pleased me this much in a long time.’ (quoted in Srp, Toyen, p. 125). It was one of a number of book covers that she designed during the next few years for both Heisler and Breton among others, including the latter’s La Lampe dans l’horloge of 1948. In 1935, on the occasion of Breton and Paul Eluard’s visit to Prague, Toyen dedicated her painting Prometheus to Breton, and Voice of the Forest to Eluard (lot 24, fig. 1). In June 1947, following her arrival earlier in the spring with Jindřich Heisler, Toyen had a solo exhibition at Galerie Denise René in Paris. André Breton wrote the introduction to the catalogue; the following month Toyen’s work was included in the exhibition Le Surréalisme at Galerie Maeght, curated by Breton and Marcel Duchamp, and that same year she and Heisler became members of the French Surrealist Group. Thereafter Toyon and Breton collaborated regularly, their relationship one of great mutual respect, and through Breton Toyon was at the heart of the post-War Surrealist activities. Following Breton’s death in 1966, Breton’s widow Elise offered Toyen Breton’s original studio in the rue Fontaine, and it was there that Toyen lived until her death in 1980.    

Breton was the inspiration for a of number of artists within his Surrealist circle, among them Victor Brauner, Alberto Martini, and Max Ernst and Marie-Berthe Ernst (fig. 1). The present portrait of André Breton was overlooked when the first Breton estate sale took place in 2003. Toyen had given the work to Breton who had hung it in his studio above a large bookcase; the nail broke and the portrait fell down behind it. For several decades it lay undiscovered and was consequently missed in the inventory for the first estate sale, but sold a year later. 

Czech Avant-Garde Art from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection