Thursday, November 10, 2005

Toyen in Film

The new Toyen film by Jan Němec premiered here November 2. Alas, I was not able to get in to the premiere to hear Němec introduce the film, but I did manage to catch the November 9 showing at Bio Oko, along with Alex and her friend Tom. (No, this movie is not showing daily in every multiplex in Prague.)
It is a rather difficult film to describe. Is it a documentary? Is it a surrealist work in itself? A bit of both. Silent actors play the roles of Toyen, Jindřich Heisler, and Jindřich Štyrský in vignettes collaged with photos of the artists themselves and images of some of their works, interspersed with footage of neighborhoods where Toyen and Heisler lived in Prague and Paris, amateur footage shot by the artists themselves, and documentary footage of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and of the postwar show trial of surrealist sympathizer Zaviš Kalandra (who was executed by the Communist regime). The narration provides both factual and poetic background.
This film is clearly intended for an audience familiar with Toyen’s art and life. For viewers who know nothing of Toyen or interwar Czech surrealism, like Alex and Tom, it is a visually and auditorily rich mystery. Even a viewer fluent in Czech (but otherwise ignorant) would not get a clear sense of who these artists were, other than that Toyen hid Heisler from the Nazis. For a viewer familiar with Toyen’s life, the film is beautiful and intriguing but prompts questions about its focus and the portrayal of Toyen herself.
It’s possible that Němec has captured an aspect of Toyen unknown to me. Each of us builds our own images of specific historical figures, which may come solely from PR, the evening news, or our own romanticizing. The image that comes through my research is one of a person whose external persona was much more down-to-earth than her imagination. I encounter a Toyen who had many friends despite being somewhat reserved, who was an extraordinarily prolific and respected artist, who handled her business affairs sensibly, who was courageous in her actions and beliefs, and who always, in Nezval’s diaries, appears to do her part and is never (unlike Štyrský or Makovský) late or a no-show. In my research, Toyen also comes across as a person who rejected stereotypical gender roles and baffled her friends by speaking in the male gender and by presenting herself in what we might now refer to as both butch and femme modes of dress, while nonetheless attracting quite a few of her male comrades (of whom it is unclear how many, if any, she was willing to accept as sexual partners). The film, however, emphasizes Toyen as feminine and presents her not just as Heisler’s lover but also as a sort of vague, mystically self-absorbed person who spent much of her time obsessively tracing shapes on mirrors. This image may be just as true as the Toyen I encounter in historical documents; the Toyen I find in documents is, after all, unquestionably not the internal Toyen.
But in a sense, the film revolves more around Heisler than Toyen herself. Toyen is, in a sense, defined via Heisler in this film. The action (if it can be called such) focuses on the period during which the two were close, almost ignoring her twenty-year artistic partnership with Štyrský and giving the impression that after Heisler’s premature death in 1953, Toyen’s life consisted of painting and waiting to die. What? It’s unquestionable that Heisler, her second and much younger artistic partner, was of enormous importance to her, and very likely his death left a great hole in her life (they had gone into exile together), but the body of work she created in the 27 years after his death shows that there was still plenty going on somewhere inside her. An artist who avoided writing anything personal of her own, Toyen preferred the company of writers, and after the deaths of Štyrský and Heisler (both of whom were both visual artists and writers), she made new friends within the French surrealist group.
I also had the odd feeling that the portrayal of Toyen and Heisler owes more to the practices of the postwar Czechoslovak surrealists than to those of the original group. The postwar Czechoslovak surrealists kept their group alive underground. There is something hermetic about them. The original group, however, mostly began their careers in the twenties in Devětsil, with huge and public optimism. These surrealists met openly, in cafes, and told everyone what they were doing until the Nazis rolled in and put them in daily fear. And this is the point, really, where the film begins—this shift to the secret, muffled, underground life.
The point, I think, is not to take this film as a documentary that will somehow reveal all about Toyen. Toyen didn’t want all revealed, none of us will succeed in revealing all her secrets, and it was not the director’s intent to tell her life story or analyze her intentions. Take the film as a meditation inspired by a portion of her life, just a portion, and that introduces only small bits, impressions, of the outside world that she was a part of.

Some links about the film or about Toyen and Czech film more broadly:
A look on the Web suggests that Argo is publishing a book on the film.
For those who read Czech, has an article on the film, with reader discussion way at the bottom of the page. They have another article here.
See also České noviny; the Czech BBC (note on the far right the reference to the recent death of Czech surrealist Eva Švankmajerová).
The Association of Czech Film Clubs gives further information (don’t be fooled by the “English” link at the top, there is no English text); also;;
České filmové nebe gives basics on the production. shows a different still than most.
And, According to Český rozhlas, an earlier film about Toyen exists (this article is in French).
Read about the director at Literárky v Síti.
Read about Czech films in general in the Czech Film Center’s English-language newsletter; and another issue of it.
Finally, the 1966 short film Anxiety was inspired by Toyen’s paintings (I have not seen this film).

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