Czech Surrealism surfaces at Smart Museum

By Lauren Freeman

A woman’s shapely legs photographed in black and white — centered and upside down — are juxtaposed against a fleet of World War I fighter planes, ferociously pursuing their mission: “Untitled Collage.”

A woman’s breast, floating in the top right-hand corner is the beguiling moon which shines over an amateurishly photographed (in grainy tones of grey and black) bleak countryside, across which a train juts, emitting streams of black steam into a mysteriously vast, darkly frightening sky. Bisecting this image is a woman’s supine, naked, body hovering midair: “Collage #374.”

These images describe just two of the collages in Dreams and Disillusion — a diverse exhibit centered around the Czech Surrealist Karel Teige — which opened at the Smart Museum of Art on October 4 and will continue to run until December 30, 2001.

Not knowing what to expect from this show, since I had never heard of Karel Teige nor was I aware that a Czech Surrealist movement even existed, I was both engaged and engrossed by the eclectic nature of the exhibit and equally by Teige’s prolific prowess, which permeated many facets of the early twentieth-century art milieu. To call Teige (1900-1951) a graphic artist, poet, critic, theorist of art and architecture, actor, political agitator, anarchist, and Marxist ideologue would only scratch the surface of this curious bohemian intellectual. Through combining his multitudinous interests in the arts, Teige dreamed of molding the world into a poetic haven in which intellectuals and artists could become vital forces behind a society devoted toward living in an aesthetically and politically harmonious utopia.

Teige’s life was framed by two world wars, which explains his young, almost invincible optimism spurred by the newly formed Czech democracy in 1918, but also accounts for the eventual shatter of this optimism by the demonic terror which preceded, and gave birth to, World War II. In between these two historical monstrosities, Teige was impelled and inspired by grandiose themes of modernism, revolution, fascism, communism, and the illusion of Marxist progression, which led him to combine his training as graphic artist and architectural theorist with innovative skills in book design and poetry, to revolutionize artistic play in Czechoslovakia and beyond.

The Smart exhibit exemplifies Teige’s eclecticism. Presented are works typifying his innovations in typography, design, visual poetry, and collage. The early, optimistic, idealist Teige, still hopefully anticipating the promises of democracy, called for ars una, the unity among different forms of art. At the root of his artistic project is a movement, founded by Teige himself, called Poeticism. This refers to the notion that art and life are not merely related; rather, they are indistinguishable. Poeticism sought to reveal the beauty in quotidian objects and celebrated primarily optical perception. Artists who worked in this genre sought to create a language of signs that transcended all international boundaries; they sought to create typographic poems, or “international heiroglyphs,” picture poems, films, and performances infused with a union of aesthetics and politics.

Teige wrote that the “art of life, an art of living and enjoying it, must become, eventually, a natural part of every day life as delightful and accessible as sport, love, wine, and all manners of other delictations.” Poeticism is seen as the Czech avant-garde’s most important contribution to modernism writ large. Contemporaneous with these sentiments, Teige created colorful word poems, book design, and expanded his architectural theory, all of which comprise a large part of the show.

A curiously unique and imaginative part of the exhibit, which combines Teige’s interest in a manifold approach to the arts, is Abeceda, a filmed alphabetic performance of choreographed compositions. This work epitomizes Teige’s desire to visualize poetry; in so doing, he creates a dynamic performance of letters in which a dancer performs movements inspired by and coinciding with various letters of the alphabet, over which a Czech voice speaks words and phrases that begin with and incorporate these specific letters and sounds: a multi-sensual masterpiece combining body and mind. This work, however, is still part of the young, optimistic Teige.

With the impending threat of another great war, Teige’s naive idealism transmuted into nihilistic malaise. A ubiquitous pathos gave way to his interest in Surrealism and inspired collages which combine Daliesque imagery and Dadaist themes in sardonic pastiches of terror-inspired mockery, antithetical to his youthful idealistic works which focused on typography and graphic design.

During and after the War, Teige’s hope to maintain the right to free expression in the face of Socialist realism was obliterated. His immense disillusion from the noose of censorship that was ever tightened around his neck caused his growing inability to publish books and organize artistic activities. This eventually led to his untimely death of a heart attack at the age of 51.

Dreams and Disillusions is not only a unique glimpse into the multifarious personal interests and genius of Teige himself; rather, it effects a loaded promenade through a tumultuous stage in European history, balancing artistic and political movements in a multimedia tapestry which is not to be missed.