Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art acquires rare Czech Surrealist painting

Toyen’s haunting The Message of the Forest will go on public display for the first time in Edinburgh, after being acquired with our support.

A major painting by one of the legendary figures of Surrealist art has been acquired by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, following support from the Walton Fund and Art Fund. It will go on public display for the first time this week.

The Message of the Forest, which was painted in 1936, is widely acknowledged to be the greatest work by the Czech artist known as Toyen, and is the first of her paintings to enter a UK public collection. The picture depicts a huge blue bird, which stands against a dark, mysterious, wooded background. One of the bird’s feet has been cut off; the talons of the other foot clutch the severed head of a girl. The bird and forest have been built up with thick, textured paint, contrasting with the pale complexion and more realistic treatment of the head.

The subject embodies a recurring theme in Toyen’s work: that of the power of nature over the human world. Her work repeatedly centres on barren, dream-like landscapes, featuring lone girls, fragmentary female figures and birds. Her interest in these themes originates in illustrations she made for children’s books, but her work soon took on a more bizarre and sinister appearance. She was careful not to ‘explain’ her work, but instead left the viewer to explore the symbolic meaning. Her works seem to respond to dreams and nightmares and suggest a world of intense anxiety.

Born Marie Cermínova in 1902, Toyen was the most celebrated member of the group of Surrealist artists based in Prague, a major centre of Surrealist activity in the 1930s. Famously, she cut her hair short and cross-dressed, often wearing coarse working men’s clothes. Her androgyny and exploration of gender stereotypes have made her a cult figure in recent years. She was supported in particular by Andre Breton, the leading figure in the Surrealist movement. Through trips to Paris, Toyen also became friendly with many of the leading figures in the French Surrealist group, including Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dalí.

Stephen Deuchar, director of Art Fund, said: ‘This haunting work is an excellent addition to the SNGMA’s exceptional collection of Surrealist art. There are no other paintings by Toyen or the Czech Surrealists in any other UK public collection, so we are very pleased to be supporting such an important acquisition, for both the museum and its visitors.’

The painting is on display from 17 January 2017.

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