The art of Toyen: a source of inspiration for Hungarian painter Lili Ország

Although Toyen is well known as a major artist of the Surrealism movement, her legacy in 20th century art is less known. Lili Ország (1926–1978), a leading figure in modern Hungarian painting, is one of those who was inspired by the Czech artist.

The retrospective dedicated to Lili Ország, on at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest until May 1, sheds light on her affinities with surrealism and lyrical abstraction. Arranged chronologically, the artist’s work is situated within the larger European context. More than 300 works by Lili Orszag are displayed alongside the emblematic paintings of foreign artists such as Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Delvaux, Helena Vieira da Silva and Toyen.
Shadow on the Stone, the title of the exhibition, refers to the wall, a recurrent theme in the painting of Lili Ország. A haunting image, it is suggestive of a traumatic episode in the childhood of the artist. Livia Eva Oestereicher – her birth name – was 12 years old when she was interned in a work camp. She lived through several months of hell, working in a brick factory close to the ghetto in Ungvár (Transcarpathia), before miraculously escaping, with her parents, the deportation to Auschwitz. The Oestereicher family would live out the rest of the war hiding in Budapest.
In 1945 Lili Ország entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. In the early 1950s, shortly after completing her studies, the young artist became interested in the Surrealist movement, seeing in it an aesthetic to which she felt very close. At the time, as she did not travel, Ország discovered the work of Surrealist European painters through illustrations and postcards her friends would send her from abroad. She borrowed from Surrealism a pictorial vocabulary with which she could express her own anxieties and obsessions.
The early work of Lili Ország might be described as the figurative representation of an unreal world. Her art found a home in the metaphysical school of painting. Created by Giorgio de Chirico, a precursor of Surrealism, the movement particularly influenced Belgian artists René Magritte and Paul Delvaux. Like them, Ország painted odd objects, still spaces, and classical, cold architecture in a realistic manner, creating a strange, mysterious atmosphere.
By contrast, Toyen inspired Ország less in the treatment of form as in the choice of subjects. The two women shared a keen sense of composition, combining mineral and organic elements. Both used colour palettes that were intense and deep, and both had a predilection for night settings.
Several of Lili Ország’s paintings and collages in the exhibition, such as Anxiety, Pink Dress, Mannequins, Woman with Veil and Corpus, are reminiscent of the universe of Toyen. Even their titles are comparable with those chosen by the Czech artist for her work. A single canvas by Toyen features in the retrospective. Hanging in the section dedicated to the influence of Surrealism, Dream from 1937 resonates with Ország’s Pink Dress, painted in 1956. 

Poetic and mysterious, Dream is a painting that takes us into an unfamiliar world. We see a seabed from which there emerge objects with no obvious link between them. In the foreground, a shredded pink dress is suspended that has kept the shape of the body once inhabiting it. Behind, a pair of clock weights seems to swing from the fragment of a wall. This unusual composition “illustrates Lautréamont’s statement concerning the meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella, a coincidence for sure, but brought about by an inevitable attraction”.[1]
Lili Ország painted Pink Dress on 22 October 1956, the eve of the Hungarian revolution. Alternatively called The Hanging Woman, the painting has a prophetic dimension. It can also
be interpreted as a reminder of the past: the railroad tracks bound towards infinite darkness recall the painful memory of the concentration camps.

Unlike Ország’s past, nothing is known about the childhood of Toyen, who used to say, “I have never had a family and have none now.”[2] Yet we know that the Second World War had a great impact on her. During the German occupation, she lived in Prague clandestinely, and lost her closest friend and alter ego Jindřich Štyrský. Deeply affected by these events, in 1947 Toyen left to live in exile in Paris.
The similarities between Toyen and Lili Ország are startling. Through painting they seem to have revealed their most secret and enigmatic of inner worlds. Both artists depicted timeless landscapes in which dreamlike objects float, both explored themes questioning female identity and referring to a conscious or unconscious past. The absence of a physical body, incarnated only by its shell – a dress, a corset, a veil – is a constant in the art of Toyen. These female spectres also often appear in the painting of Lili Ország.
At the end of the 1960s, Lili Ország broke away from her Surrealist models. During this period when she began traveling, and captivated by the historic sites she visited, the Hungarian painter turned to new themes. She was seduced by the Byzantine icons discovered in Bulgaria and Russia, the ruins at Pompeii and the Jewish cemetery in Prague. Collective – as opposed to individual – memory became a preoccupation for the artist. Her painting evolved towards abstraction, even though one could still make out in her complex compositions the vestiges, writings and symbols that alluded to ancient and fictional civilisations.
Toyen outlived Ország by a few years, yet remained loyal to Surrealism until the end of her days. Although the artistic paths of these key figures in Central European modern art diverged, both Toyen and Ország developed a personal artistic language that oscillated between figuration and abstraction. Each demonstrated a similar stubbornness, and exceptional independence for women of their time. They had the courage to dedicate their entire lives to artistic creation. Once artists, both women assumed pseudonyms, thus asserting their determination to free themselves from an identity that confined them.
Born in 1902, 24 years before Lili Ország, Toyen was a visionary figure whose attitudes and practices heralded the current trends in art today. Just like her celebrated contemporaries Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois, Toyen paved the way for a new generation of artists, those whose work is based on identity, emotion and the resurrection of childhood memories. Lili Ország was one of these successors, and the full extent of Toyen’s influence on Czech and European art has yet to be discovered.
 © Christelle Havranek, 2017
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Kunsthalle Praha

[1] Karel Srp, Toyen (exhibition catalogue), p. 141. 
[2] Translation from the Czech “Žádnou rodinu nikdy jsem neměla a nemám” in Vítězslav Nezval, Z mého života, Paris, 1965, p. 30.

Muzeum umění Olomouc 2011-2021