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A Hidden Jew’s Hidden Art

The Czech Surrealist Jindřich Heisler’s mystical art, on view in Chicago, reflected the Holocaust he avoided

Frances Brent
May 24, 2012

When Jindřich Heisler died of heart failure in Paris on Jan. 3, 1953, he was 38 years old, and his friends—poets and members of the French Surrealist group—chose to place his favorite book, the Czech translation of Gaspard de la Nuit, in his coffin. André Breton wrote an obituary in the journal Médium: “From his arrival in France in 1947 until the most recent days, Jindřich Heisler lived wholly for Surrealism.” His mother and sister, living in Chrast, his birthplace in East Bohemia, found out about his death when an acquaintance who listened to Radio Free Europe told them the news, “after some delay.” They were too frightened to talk about it openly, because the source of their knowledge and grief was illegal.

Surrealism Under Pressure, the current exhibition of Heisler’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago through July 1, presenting over half the artist’s small oeuvre, demonstrates the interface of Surrealism—sometimes playful or perversely psychological, sometimes macabre and ironic, often ethereal and idealistic—with 20th-century Central European history. Heisler was half-Jewish, but as the curator Jindřich Toman put it, “ ‘real life Jewishness’ started … only when he became a target of persecution during WWII.” You could say that Heisler—who was dedicated to “the magic tension between word and image”—had a Jewish fate.

Heisler came to Prague in 1936, after the death of his father, a wealthy Jewish industrialist. He had trained to be a chemist but wrote beautiful, dreamlike poems reminiscent of Rimbaud’s Illuminations. One of them is translated and reprinted in the exhibition’s excellent catalog. Like a lot of Heisler’s art, it’s tragically anticipatory:

Then the heart came gently to rest, like
a black, compact marble, on the plush
foundations of some unintelligible and
barely audible speeches, in whose sinuous
pauses it rolled until it ended in the maze
of growing plumage marbles.

Plumage marbles (also called cat’s eyes or Jubilees) are the clear marbles with a colored swirl at the center. Much of Heisler’s work employs toy props—dolls, toy soldiers, doll’s house furniture, miniature animals—taking you back to a child’s aching joy in objects. They are also reminders of how young Heisler was in 1938 when he joined the Czech Surrealist Group and began collaborating with some of its leaders—Jindřich Štyrský, Karel Teige, and Toyen (she chose this gender-neutral name for herself in the early 1920s)—artists who would eventually form a major part of his network in hiding.

Heisler’s first Surrealist collaboration, The Specters of the Desert (1939), was a privately printed book, a group of poems he wrote in response to 12 idiosyncratic drawings that Toyen had made a few years earlier—dream imaginings of desiccated phantom and totemic figures in a bare land or an open sea. The limited edition of 300 small books coincided almost exactly with the invasion of Czechoslovakia and would have identified the two as degenerate artists. They had the poems translated from Czech into French, changed Heisler’s name from Jindřich to Henri, and falsely attributed publication to Albert Skira, Paris.

It’s been pointed out that this first publication, with imagery of an abandoned and nightmare world, meticulously and secretly produced to assure the book’s survival, was a metaphor that prefigured the rest of Heisler’s adult life. With defiance and commitment, Heisler continued living in Prague and working as a Surrealist, pushing forward the concept of book art and exploring techniques of photographic montage. In 1941, with the help of two professional photographers and a bookbinder, Heisler and Toyen created From the Strongholds of Sleep: Materialized Poems, a book of great originality (31 pages in all; there are six extant copies).

As a first step, the artists placed the typeset text of Heisler’s poems on something like a tabletop and arranged cutout montage photographs and ordinary objects—candy, toys, soda bottles, a fishing lure, gravel, and twigs—into surrounding scenes (what my children used to call set-ups). As a second step they lit their dioramas with bright light and photographed from an angle that appears to be above and in front of the miniature sets—as if the photographers and holders of the light source were standing on a ladder. The poetic words, laid on the terrain of the set-up, come into focus the way they might be read in a dream: The freely associated objects combine childhood wistfulness, kitsch, violence, and macabre nightmare. When the props in two scenes of the toy theater were set on fire, the photographs became documents that appear to refer to the surrounding conflagration in Europe.

While a good deal of avant-garde art was produced in wartime Poland and Czechoslovakia, it’s unusual for it to have been produced by a Jew in hiding. Heisler ignored summons for his deportation to the concentration camps in the winter of 1941-42. Living with false papers, he moved from one apartment to another, sometimes sleeping in bathtubs lined with blankets, depending upon the courage and generosity of many people, including Teige and Toyen. There’s a moving story about a close call in 1942, when he was staying with his sister and police raided her building. Brother and sister stood on the balcony, holding hands, promising each other they’d jump together if the police entered.

The work from the later war period is harsher and more oppressive. A 1944 photograph of the staged object “Rake” pictures a wooden hand rake lying in a bed of hay with six lit candles standing in place of teeth or tines. The “fantasy object” evokes the memory of yahrzeit or votive candles, and one has to anticipate that the flame will eventually ignite a fire in the bed of hay. Yet the incendiary image is photographed with a direct, almost commercial coolness.

In a series called From the Same Dough or From the Same Cloth (1944-45), Heisler did something altogether different, drawing with Vaseline on glass photo plates and printing the results on photosensitive paper. The resulting images, scratched-up and stretching apart like pulled glue, seem to be made from the same osseous substance and set in a ravaged place that appears to be the end of the world. The skeletal, almost X-rayed-looking men and women, dogs, birds, and horses, are a testament to the artist’s despair and sense of abandonment as well as his ingenuity.

When the “pressure” was released and the war over, Heisler must have experienced a mixture of disorientation, exhaustion, and relief. In 1947, he and Toyen emigrated to Paris, rededicated to the “magical action” that Surrealism could accomplish. Heisler founded the journal Néon, a remarkable mélange of writings and drawings that included work by Breton, Roberto Matta, and Benjamin Péret.

Outside the Jewish tradition, but well within the scope of its preoccupations, Heisler continued to push the boundaries of the book, its words, and letters. His framed book objects bear resemblance to Joseph Cornell’s boxes with their collage pictures and found materials—matches, beads, and shells—though, for the most part, Heisler’s assemblages are organized in horizontal lines the way words appear on a page. Like Bruno Schulz, but coming from an entirely different direction, he created an Alphabet, 25 (leaving out W) cutout plywood characters, covered with fantastical, co-mingled xylographic engravings—images that range from a train car, to clock wheels, a Medusa head, and a melodramatic séance, some of them violent and horrifying. The letters were intended to be combined into names and words so that dark and mysterious foundation of meaning would be derived from the merging of their pictures. The alphabet is framed (and tamed) for the exhibition, but its beauty and troubling magical quality survive.


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Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.

Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.