Jan Němec: Toyen (2005)

reviewed by Peter Hames © 2006

Splinters of Dreams

Jan Němec’s latest film is difficult to classify. Is it a documentary about the lives of the Czech surrealists, Toyen and Jindřich Heisler? Is it a feature film in which their lives are dramatized? Is it a documentary about Toyen’s art? Is it an exercise in what Němec once referred to as “pure film”? It includes documentary footage, actors playing the roles of Toyen and Heisler, and some stunning reproductions of Toyen’s painting. Yet it really fits none of these categories. The commentary is partly made up of Toyen’s and Heisler’s words or poems, sometimes those of Jindřich Štyrský, and sometimes a purely informative commentary by Němec himself. This includes the introductory words that follow the signature of “Toyen” for the title—“Splinters of Dreams,” “Silence and Darkness,” “a film by Jan Němec.” This part of the film’s commentary is almost cryptic, no more than is necessary to situate the scenes. But for those who never knew that there was a Czech surrealist group, who have never heard of Toyen, Štyrský, or Heisler, and their links with the Parisian group under André Breton, it can all be a bit opaque and mystifying.

Toyen is—or rather should be—as familiar as any other major Surrealist painter. Anyone who has seen her work is unlikely to forget it—its visionary quality, its color, and its political and social relevance are well demonstrated in the film. But in view of the fact that there is little in English on Toyen, and almost all of it published in the Czech Republic, most people will be familiar with her work only through the occasional images published in more general works on surrealist art.

Perhaps most familiar is Sleeping (Spící, 1937), in which a young girl holding a butterfly net is seen from behind, gazing into an almost abstract landscape and horizon. But the figure is that of a doll—like a corn doll—and we can see the hollow interior. Relâche (Po představení, 1943) is a later painting, in which a young girl hangs upside down as if from a gymnasium bar, with the folds of her skirt hanging down over her head and upper body. Her feet fade into the wall above her. The overall effect evokes an impersonal innocence. In Au Chateau la Coste (Na zámku La Coste, 1946), an homage to Štyrský’s photographs of the crumbling walls of the Marquis de Sade’s castle, a wolf-like creature crushes a bird against a disintegrating wall with fungoid growths.

Toyen (Marie Čermínová,[1] 1902-1980) was a painter and printmaker who collaborated with fellow painter and illustrator Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942) from 1922 onward. They worked in Paris from 1925 until 1929 where they developed a style of painting known as Artificialism, a lyrical abstract style inspired by image and film poems. They turned to surrealism in the early 1930s and, together with Karel Teige and Vitězslav Nezval, were co-founders of the Prague Surrealist group in 1934. Following the imposition of the Soviet line on Socialist Realism, Nezval attempted to dissolve the group in 1938. It was in that year that Heisler (1914-1953) joined the group and, after refusing to register as a non-Aryan during the Nazi occupation, Toyen hid him in her apartment until the end of the war. They continued to work in Prague during the war and after until their departure for Paris in 1947, where they became associated with the Breton group.

Toyen had always worked closely with poets and, in the 1930s, had done illustrations for many books including collections by Nezval. After Heisler joined the group, she began a close creative association with him. In a monograph on Toyen written on his death in 1953, Breton argued that Toyen had a great influence on Heisler’s thinking: “He had an affinity with her like no other; they published several works together in the closest cooperation that can exist” (quoted Srp 322).

In 1939, Heisler’s collection of poems Only Kestrels Calmly Piss on the Ten Commandments (Jen poštolky chčí klidně na desatero) was published illegally by Edice surrealismu with drawings by Toyen and collages by Štyrský, and a series of twelve drawings by Toyen—The Spectres of the Desert (Přízraky poušté / Les Spectres du désert [2])—with poems by Heisler also appeared. In 1941, poems from their joint project From the Casements of Sleep (Z kasemat spánku) were published, and in 1946 Toyen published her sequences of drawings The Shooting Party (Střelnice, 1939-40) and Hide, War! (Schovej se, válko!, 1944), each with a poem by Heisler.

Němec makes it clear in the subtitle for the film—Splinters of Dreams (a quotation from Toyen)—that this is to be no ordinary work. It is primarily a visual and aesthetic exercise, and while the poems and comments by the artists strike a perfect balance, the need to use explanatory words seems like an unnecessary intrusion. The need to use English subtitles makes matters even worse, tending to turn the film’s visual poetry to more conventional directions. Nonetheless, Němec keeps explanatory material to a minimum, providing a greater opportunity to respond to the film as film.

The film has a firm if elusive structure. It begins with close ups of small areas of her paintings, emphasising the texture of canvas and paint. It then moves to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and a close shot of Toyen’s painting The Myth of Light (Le mythe de la lumière / Mýtus světla, 1946), in which we see the shadow of a hand curved like a bird and of a human head. Karel Srp describes it as follows:

…the action of the painting could be described as a scene of seduction: the figure, whose shadow falls on the doors, holds an illusively depicted plant, suspended in space. The woman’s hands in white gloves lure the man with a strange gesture whose shadow assumes the form of an animal’s head. The formal conception of The Myth of Light may be understood as a meditation on the sense and scope of depiction itself… The Myth of Light reflects the real situation in which the surprising and the prosaic were a common part of life during the Protectorate, a time when Heisler and Toyen acquired an unprecedented sense of ordinary events, as captured in Heisler’s poetic prose On the Needles of These Days… [3] (Srp 180-186)

During the film, Heisler sits for the painting, discovering when it is over that Toyen has used only his shadow. At the end of the film we return to the painting and to Stockholm before the film’s final montage of Toyen’s works. Toyen explains that she painted it for Heisler because he loved light; it was to be hung in a place where there was full light. He loved light, she explains, because during the war they were forced to live in semi-darkness. But the painting does not merely perform this framing function; it is also recalled during the film as we frequently see shadows of Toyen or Heisler. Flashes of the painting are also cut into the newsreel footage of the Communist show trial of their surrealist colleague, Záviš Kalandra, in the early 1950s.

From the opening of the film in Stockholm we move to Toyen’s flat in Krásova Street in wartime Prague, introduced by black and white images of the city. The characters of Toyen and Heisler are played by Zuzana Stivínová and Jan Budař respectively, but there is no narrative development and no dialogue exchange, simply a series of situations. Stivínová does not look like the real Toyen and the actors seem to signify or stand in for the characters rather than represent them. This, of course, is highlighted towards the end of the film when Stivínová visits the grave of the real Toyen in Paris (although it also mirrors Toyen’s dream of sitting on her own grave). Thus, the actors achieve no importance in the film’s structural hierarchy, with other images being given equal weight. Here perhaps it is worth recalling Němec’s admiration for Robert Bresson’s use of actors: “I was always interested in the Bressonian distance between the actor and his role” (interview with Jiří Cieslar, quoted in Košuličová). Bresson’s notion that even the best theatrical actor lies is reflected in the fact that, while Němec uses actors, he does not require them to perform; they simply represent. In some scenes, we see Stivínová trying on a beret or wearing a man’s hat (Toyen was known for her masculine attire) as if trying them on for the sake of the role. The reality of his characters remains fundamentally elusive.

The most powerful and important images are, of course, Toyen’s own. The quiet and slow montage of her paintings at the end of the film—to the sound of the wind and a lone bell—are absolutely stunning, a triumphant and revelatory climax to the episodes and fragments that have preceded them.

The second most powerful selection of images are those by Němec himself. Viewers who have seen Late Night Talks with Mother (Noční hovory s matkou, 2001-2002) will recollect that it is almost entirely shot through a subjective camera—with Němec carrying his camera in front of him, photographing cobblestones on the street, movements up and down staircases, and even his own walking shadow. In Toyen, the images also recall the hallucinatory episodes in his first film Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, 1964). Based on the escape of two Jewish youths from a Nazi death train, the film is a virtually wordless account of their flight through the woods, intercut with their subliminal thoughts and fantasies. Shots of streets and textures form a major part of its affect. Similarly, in Toyen, there are shots of cobblestones, the peeling plasters of walls, steps, shutters, grates, gutter outlets, keyholes—a whole panoply of urban textures caught in both Prague and Paris.

The images of Toyen and Heisler alone her flat (both in Prague and Paris) are claustrophobic and offer an intimate detachment: Toyen appears to be practising a kind of callisthenics, Heisler sleeps in the bathtub (to absorb the vibrations), Heisler appears with watch springs stuck up his nose, together they create a death mask for Štyrský. Their inner world is enhanced by fragments of their art and specially shot home movies. The iconography of pre-war surrealism is also present—the face of the shop window mannequin appearing in their home movies, the detached eye that is also like the woman’s breast that appears in Štyrský’s Statue of Liberty (Socha Svobody, 1934), Štyrský’s Dreambook (Sny, 1940) and the “Dream of an Alabaster Hand,” the “Dream of an Abandoned House,” and the “Dream of Books.”

Toyen’s images unsurprisingly form part of the film’s visual flow. In both the Prague and Paris sections, there are reproductions of her erotic drawings, suggesting their continued relationship, or maybe just the permanent reality of erotic imagination. Toyen’s pre-war drawings for Sade’s Justine or Pierre Louÿs were extreme—even pornographic—by the standards of the day. Here they become part of the flow of imagery and, as Whitney Chadwick has suggested, Toyen was quite possibly “…the only Surrealist to have developed an erotic sense of humour, at once charming and playful” (Chadwick 116). Other paintings by Toyen and Štyrský—for example, Toyen’s Abandoned Burrow/ The Abandoned Corset (Opuštěné doupé, 1937) and Štyrský’s The Hand (Ruka, 1940)—and Heisler’s photographs become part of the film’s imagery.

The most difficult part of the film for both creator and viewer is probably the adjustment between these imaginative elements and the political events that formed their background. Němec opts for newsreel footage—Goebbels, the Nazi occupation, the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich by Czech paratroopers trained in England, the Nazi revenge (the liquidation of the village of Lidice and the transportation of the children to unknown destinations), the liberation by the Soviets. For the Paris period, he introduces footage of the trial and false confession of Toyen’s surrealist friend, Záviš Kalandra, executed along with other innocent victims (the politician Milada Horáková) in the Stalinist show trials of the 1950s. Critics have said that they have seen all this before and that Němec has added nothing new.

However, one could rather argue that his coverage is intentionally familiar, mundane, and brief. The real subject is the effect of these events on Toyen and Heisler, which is also at one remove. They lead to Toyen’s black and white images of war in The Shooting Party and Hide, War!, to her illustrations for a book on Lidice. In The Shooting Party she used children’s toys to confront indirectly the realities of war. In Hide, War! (a title taken from Lautréaumont) she set the skeletons of strange creatures against devastated landscapes. She drew her pictures for a book on Lidice without seeing any of the photos; she had drawn one of the children some years before Lidice. As she comments: “I saw the child in my subconscious.”

When Němec decided to ignore absence of funding and make Late Night Talks with Mother as a kind of home movie, he returned to the basics of filmmaking: how to assemble sound and image to create meaning without the standard requirements and expense of making a feature (in fact, a realisation of Astruc’s dream of the caméra-stylo). With Toyen, he works by association, forging links between reality and the world of imagination, which always emerges as a higher form of reality. While the film also reminds us of its artificiality by using images of the optical track, it also re-evokes the spirit of the artistic avant-garde. Its use of superimposition (principally the face of Stivínová), its imagery, and the mix of genres creates a true sense of the era it seeks to approach. As Zdena Škapová perceptibly observes: “At no time does the film evoke an impression of connection; the image continually disintegrates, its shapes merge and spill over, and its transparent composition assumes a ghostly quality. Even Toyen herself … only flickers across the screen, eclipsed by what look like half tangible, half abstract qualities” (89).

Another factor of particular importance is the film’s use of sound—by Ivo Špalj—who regularly works with Švankmajer. When Švankmajer stopped using composers after Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu, 1982), a film in which Jan Klusák’s music increasingly resembled the sounds of objects, he became, as Klusák agreed, his own composer (Hames). Němec, however, adopts a quite different approach. In addition to the “commentaries” listed above, he uses “natural” sounds, but ones that establish an aesthetic counterpoint to the image. Thus, in Toyen he uses the sounds of a tram and a bell, a ship’s siren, railway tracks, children playing, typing, church bells, the wartime call sign (the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), a film projector, a ticking clock, traffic, car horns. The rhythmic repetition of the wartime death lists also parallel those of the Communist show trials.

While many of these sounds are suggested by the subjects of individual scenes—the typewriter suggests Heisler writing poetry, the projector parallels the scene using home movies, the call sign coincides with the report of a Gestapo raid, the ticking clock accompanies the show trial of Kalandra and others—other sounds enjoy a free play across scenes. The sounds of gulls and of the sea, one might argue, represent the free play of imagination. But just as the visual track is a composition of disparate but evolving elements—in effect, a poem—the soundtrack presents its own symphonic reality in its juxtaposition of silence, sound, poetry, and fragments of reminiscence.

Ivana Košuličová suggests that Němec’s films are made up of the following elements: “a simple story, fragments of time and space, the theme of manipulation and degradation, mystification, game, visual deformation, amateur actors”. Much of this applies to Toyen—even the actors are given no opportunity to “perform” (although they do, of course, read the poems and recollections). His approach to “pure film” is to do what no other medium can do. His recreation of Prague and Paris in particular eras, his reconstruction of the lives of Toyen and Heisler, is based on association, an audio-visual montage that creates and also foregrounds its imaginary reality. As Košuličová suggests, his films serve to provoke a philosophical and spiritual reflection on the themes presented.

Toyen remains a unique way of approaching an artist’s life, an art that avoids its burial within the confines of an art historian’s lecture and searches for its creative sources while reminding us at the same time that it is a quest. The final presentation of her major pictures without comment or analysis reveals the richness and imagination of what is left, somehow more tangible than the lives that have produced it.

Peter Hames, Staffordshire University


1] The pseudonym “Toyen” seems to have been adopted around 1923. The poet Jaroslav Seifert said that it was based on letters he wrote on a serviette in a coffee house. Another popular version is that it is an abbreviation of the French word “citoyen.” The psychoanalyst Bohuslav Brouk interpreted it as an anagram of “to je on” (it is he)—not inconceivable given the masculine image she affected; see Srp 10-11.

2] The Spectres of the Desert was published in a French translation by Benjamin Péret and Heisler (Prague: Skira, 1939).

3] On the Needles of These Days (Na jehlách těchto dní, 1941), with photographs by Štyrský, was published illegally, then officially by Borový in 1945.

Stills courtesy to Iva Ruszeláková.

Toyen, Czech Republic, 2005
Color, 63 minutes
Director: Jan Němec
Screenplay: Tereza Brdečková and Jan Němec
Cinematography: Jiří Maxa
Art Direction: Tereza Kučerová
Sound: Ivo Špalj
Editor: Michal Lánský
Speakers: Zuzana Stivínová, Jan Budař, Jan Němec
Cast: Zuzana Stivínová, Jan Budař, Tobias Jirous, Marek Bouda
Producers: Jan Němec, Iva Ruszeláková
Production: Jan NĚMEC – FILM/ArtCam International i/o postproduction

Works Cited

Chadwick, Whitney. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.
Hames, Peter. “The Sound of Silents: an interview with film composer Jan Klusák.” Central Europe Review 2.33 (2 October 2000).
Košuličová, Ivana. “The Free Expression of Spirit: Jan Němec’s conception of ‘pure film’ in his post-1989 works.” Central Europe Review 3.17 (14 May 2001).
Škapová, Zdena. “Toyen.” In Catalogue: 41st Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2006. Ed. Marie Grofová. Prague: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, 2006.
Srp, Karel. Toyen. Trans. Karolina Vočadlo. Prague: Argo/City Gallery Prague, 2000.

Jan Němec: Toyen (2005)

reviewed by Peter Hames © 2006