Czech surrealist artist Toyen’s ‘La Dame de Pique’ sells for record 3 million euros

Dražba obrazu Piková dáma od Toyen, foto: ČT24

The 1926 painting ‘La Dame de Pique’ by the Czech surrealist artist Toyen sold at auction in Prague on Sunday for nearly 3 million euros, a record high for a work by a Czech artist. She painted it whilst living in Paris, at a unique time in her development as an artist, in terms of the style – after gravitating away from the ‘Artificialism’ style she had developed with fellow Czech avant-garde painter and collaborator Jindřich Štýrský and a return to Surrealism.

Born Marie Čermínová in Prague in 1902, Toyen – a pseudonym derived from the French word for citizen – joined the Czech avant-garde group Devětsil, which had a special affinity for French culture, in 1923 and two years later moved to Paris, where she spent most of her life. I asked Vladimír Lekeš, director of the Adolf Loos Apartment and Gallery, which sold the painting in auction, what makes ‘La Dame de Pique’ (or The Queen of Spades’) so special.

Toyen - ‘La Dame de Pique’, photo: archive of Adolf Loos Apartment and Gallery

“By the end of 1925, Toyen’s work changed in character. Her paintings became more abstract and with an increasingly pronounced presence of geometric shapes, with can be traced back to the influence of the Parisian avant-garde.

“And the painting ‘La Dame de Pique’ determined the direction of Toyen’s oeuvre because it marked the beginning of her subsequent dealing with abstract forms with specific shapes, clearly demarcated by sharp lines and recognisable subject matter.”

So this painting is emblematic of a change in her style, a dramatic shift?

“Yes.”

The year before (in 1925), she and her long-time collaborator, Jindřich Štyrský, took a new artistic direction, which they called ‘artificialism’ – a kind of poetic alternative to surrealism. How many examples from the period in which she produced ‘La Dame de Pique’ are there?

Vladimír Lekeš, photo: Czech Television

“Not so many, because this painting is between the Artificialism and Surrealism styles. Also, the subject of this painting is especially attractive because the subject, ‘La Dame de Pique’, comes from the famous novella of the same name written by the Russian poet, writer and playwright Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, in 1833. And it all probability, the famous Czech poet Vítězslav Nezval was involved in the choosing of the painting’s title.”

Have you noticed a growing interest among collectors in Toyen’s work in recent years?

“I think collectors and museums started to take interest in collecting the work of Toyen at most five years ago. Next year, Toyen will have a big retrospective exhibition – in Paris, Prague and Hamburg – and we can expect great interest in the future also. I think this is one of the reasons why the painting sold for an amazing record price at auction, of nearly 3 million euros.”

Yes, I wanted to ask about that. I see that the starting price was just below 30 million crowns and sold for nearly 79 million crowns. Were you surprised at the ultimate price?

Toyen, Jindřich Heisler, Karel Teige in 1940, photo: Public Domain

“We were very surprised by the achieved price because it’s a world record for a Czech work sold in auction here and abroad. It’s a fantastic price. The buyer was a foreigner, our client from New York.”

Does your client wish to remain anonymous, or can you say whether it was a private collector or a museum?

“They surely do, so I cannot say at this moment – sorry.”

“But I believe that Toyen, together with František Kupka, is one of the most important European artists of the 20th century. She is on the same level as René Magritte or other Surrealist painters such as Salvador Dalí or Óscar Domínguez. For this reason, I believe the price was very high but (a fair market price) in future.”

The previous record price for a Czech painting in auction was set by Oskar Kokoschka’s ‘Prague - View from the Monastery of the Knights of the Cross with a Red Star’, which sold for 78.5 million crowns last October.