The Seventh Chant
by Vitezslav Nezval (1924)
I heard the secrets in a kiss
the words around it circling like a line of colored butterflies
saw thousands of bacteria
in a sick man's body
& every one of them looked like a spiky chestnut
like a cosmos making war
with a skin of scaly armor
I saw a human break free from his dying comrades
in the pit of history that has no bottom
Styrsky and Toyen, 1931
Jindrich Styrsky (1899-1942) was born in Dolni Cermná, a small town in Bohemia. The early death of his sister, in 1905, greatly affected his later life and artistic creation. He studied at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts. In 1922, Styrsky met Mary Cermínovou (1902-1980), who later started using the pseudonym Toyen (I have written about her earlier here). In 1923, Styrski joined Devetsil , an association of Czech avant-garde artists founded in Prague three years earlier, and participated in their group exhibitions.
Styrski and Toyen moved to Paris in 1925 where they lived lived and worked together for three years. In 1928, Styrsky became director of Devetsil's drama wing, the Liberated Theater, where he started his collaboration with the writer Vitezslav Nezval. In 1934, Styrsky, Toyen, Karel Teige, and Jindrich Heisler were the founding membes of the Czech Surrealist Group in Prague, which cooperated closely with André Breton's group in Paris. In 1935, invited by the French Surrealists, Styrsky went back to Paris. There, he fell seriously ill, probably suffering from the same bad heart condition as his sister. From this stay Styrsky would only temporarily recover.
Jindrich Styrsky, Untitled, from the series The Movable Cabinet, 1934
At the beginning of the thirties, Styrsky concentrated on the theme of eroticism. Between1930 and 1933 he edited a private publication for subscribers, Erotická Revue (The Erotic Revue), with illustrations by a wide range of well-known Czech artists. Toyen, for whom the eroticisation of the world was a life-long theme, was one of the most uninhibited. She also contributed to the erotic Edice 69 (Edition 69), which Styrsky founded in 1931. It started off with Nezval's Sexuální Nocturno (Sexual Nocturne), supplemented by Styrsky's own collages.
Edition 69 consisted of six volumes of erotic literature and illustration that followed the path marked out by Louis Aragon's Irene's Cunt and Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye. Including the first Czech translation of Sade's Justine (illustrated by Toyen), three volumes were from contemporary Czech avant-garde artists, and these were all illustrated by Styrsky himself. Because of the censorship laws Styrsky encountered with his illustrations for the first Czech publication of Lautréamont's Maldoror, the Edition 69 series was not for sale in regular retail outlets, nor was it made available to libraries. The books were exclusively for subscribers, and the original print runs numbered no more than 200.
Jindrich Styrsky, The Statue of Liberty, 1934
Influenced by Max Ernst's collage-novels, and Andre Masson's illustrations for both Aragon's and Bataille's volumes, Styrsky's Edition 69 rank among the most important of Surrealist works, representing a sustained attempt by the interwar Czech avant-garde to investigate the taboos of bourgeois culture. Edition 69 culminated with the poetic text of Styrsky's Emily Comes to Me in a Dream, accompanied by his photo-montages and a psychoanalytic interpretation by Bohuslav Brouk. By that time, dreams had already become an important source of inspiration for Styrsky.
Jindrich Styrsky, Majakowsky's Jacket, 1939
The cycle Koreny (Roots) dominated the paintings that Styrsky included in the first exhibition of the Czech Surrealist Group in 1935. The provocative erotic connotations referred back to dreams recorded in the twenties, as for example Dream of the Marten (1925):
From the top of the palm above me I suddenly heard a melody that reminded me of an old ditty. When I looked to see who was singing it, I saw a giant orangutan playing a fiddle. He had a ruby red box with an odd handle in the shape of a child’s hand hanging from a strap. On the branch of a tree standing near the palm sat a large horse, its head erect as if an illustration in an old book on natural history, as if fascinated by the singing. It had been flayed, and the skin and hairs on its neck gave way to raw meat, which was larded with bacon fat like a hare ready for roasting.
Jindrich Styrsky, Marriage, 1934
While Toyen concentrated mainly on paintings, Styrsky also focused intensively on photographs. In these, inspired by Atget, he wanted to expose the concrete irrationality of the most ordinary surroundings. He also produced a large number of collages, in which he combined psychoanalysis with Gestalt psychology. The set of collages, Stehovací Kabinet (Moving Cabinet), from 1934-35, treated variations on the theme of sentimentality and cruelty, and ironised the meaning of banal kitsch reproductions.
The activity of the Prague surrealists was concentrated around exhibitions (1935 and 1938) and debates. At their invitation, André Breton, his wife Jacqueline and Paul Eluard came to Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1935. According to Breton, they were given a triumphal welcome. The same year, Edmund Husserl delivered key lectures about the Crisis of European Sciences in Prague, and Rudolf Carnap worked at the Prague German University. Thus, disparate intellectual currents crossed in Prague in 1935 - surrealism, phenomenology, logical positivism and structuralism - which at that time were united by the attempt to diagnose the contemporary state of crisis.
Jindrich Styrsky, The Trauma of Birth, 1936
Breton urged Styrsky to investigate "objective surreality". This was confirmed by Styyrsky's monumental painting The Trauma of Birth (above), which he described as a panel of objects, which create an object-entity, which is in itself a painting. Styrsky drew on his own existential experience during his stay in Paris in 1935, when, in the grip of a serious illness, he hovered between life and death. The title refers to the popular book by the psychoanalyst Otto Rank, The Trauma of Birth, (1924). Rank was also popular among the Parisian surrealists and influenced Breton and Eluard's book The Immaculate Conception as well as Max Ernst's cycle La Femme 100 Têtes.
Jindrich Styrsky, The Portable Cabinet, 1934
During the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, Styrsky's group continued to function illegally, until his death in March 1942. Surrealism greatly expanded in Czechoslovakia during the war, when it was banned. In the stifling atmosphere of the German Protectorate, it represented, for the young generation, an alluring challenge to engage in free creative thought.
Jindrich Styski, German Cardinal, 1941
Calypsospots curates a magnificent collection of Czech avantgarde art on Flickr. You can see many more of Styrsky's works there.