Guest Blog: Surrealism under Pressure

Surrealism under Pressure
Reviewed by Edith Vandervoort


Those of us who are familiar with the Art Institute of Chicago may also know of its outstanding collection of Surrealist works, thanks to its notable exhibitions on the subject. Surrealism under Pressure 1938-1953 (Yale UP, 2012) is the catalogue that accompanied an exhibition of Jindrich Heisler’s work at the AIC earlier this year.

Surrealism.jpgHeisler, who began his career as a poet, joined the Czechoslovak Surrealist Movement in 1938, a group comprised of former avant-gardists who influenced and helped him throughout his lifetime. With a fellow member, Toyen (Marie Cerminová) and other visual artists he produced several illustrated poetry books such as The Specters of the Desert (1939) and Only the Kestrels Piss Calmly on the Ten Commandments (1939), the latter originating during the suffocating existence of German occupation in Prague. The groundbreaking 1940 photobook, From the Strongholds of Sleep, innovative because it consists of photographs of text and images, is discussed in detail. Upon the publication of On the Needles of this Day (1941), Heisler, a Jew, goes into forced exile following a summons for deportation in the winter of 1941/42. Until the war’s end he lives with Toyen, relatives, and fellow Surrealists, rarely going outdoors. During his years in exile he produces much of the work reproduced in this catalog. It is believed that none of the works created in hiding were ever exhibited in his lifetime. Significantly, and perhaps emphasizing the uncertainty of his existence, they are not dated and the titles were added posthumously by Toyen. After the war, Heisler returned to Prague, but because of the threat of a Communist takeover, relocated with Toyen to Paris in March 1947, where he enjoyed close contact with other Surrealists in preparation for the exhibition Le surréalisme en 1947. There he also founded the Surrealist magazine Néon, considered by Heisler as “an important expression of a theory of friendship and love.” The difficulty of separating Surrealism from radical polemics soon became evident and the journal only lasted until March 1949. The artist died of a heart attack on January 3, 1953, a result of the long-term physical and psychological burden of the uncertain fate he had recently survived.

Surrealism under Pressure is comprised of several articles--writings, tributes, and academic articles on his poetry books--which are followed by photographs. Other sections categorize Heisler’s artwork according to their subjects or the techniques he used. Many of them are photographs of dioramas using everyday objects or images altered by organic substances, such as fish bladders, and then photographed. It is evident that he was working with limited resources while in hiding. The book also contains a chronology of his work, a selected bibliography, and an index. It is a valuable resource for any scholar or art enthusiast.

--Edith Vandervoort is a freelance writer based in California.

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