Jindřich Heisler: Surrealism under Pressure
Art Institute of Chicago
March 31, 2012-July 1, 2012
In the first solo retrospective of the artist in the world, the Art Institute explores the rich and concise oeuvre of Czech poet, photographer, and object-maker Jindřich Heisler in Jindřich Heisler: Surrealism under Pressure. Heisler, the child of a mixed-faith marriage, joined the Surrealist Group in Czechoslovakia in 1938, on the eve of the Nazi dismemberment of his country. Heisler produced a remarkable series of books between 1938 and 1941, including From the Strongholds of Sleep (Z kasemat spánku), one of the rarest and most important photobooks produced in the 20th century. In that book–of which only six copies are known to exist–poems appear as elements of tabletop sculpture in professionally made photographs that are tipped in alongside imaginative block-stamped titles. (The entire book, one copy of which is owned by the Art Institute, has been made available online through the museum’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries website).
For the remaining three and a half years of occupation, Heisler lived clandestinely to avoid death in the Nazi camps. While in hiding he made dozens of highly inventive photographic works, using sundry items like chicken bones or dolls, as well as working with heated vaseline on glass plates or possibly the plate glass of a photographic enlarger. In 1947, sensing the return of totalitarianism to Czechoslovakia, Heisler and his closest friend, the painter Toyen (Marie ÄŒermínová), moved to Paris and cemented a long-standing affiliation with the French Surrealist movement. Heisler founded the first postwar Surrealist journal, called Néon–which is owned complete by the Art Institute as well–and continued to make work at the intersection of sculpture, mechanically reproduced imagery, and literature. His final and greatest work was a fully functional, proportionally designed alphabet made of ornately cut wood faced with elaborate montages of 19th-century woodcuts (1952). Heisler died suddenly of heart failure in January 1953.
Jindřich Heisler: Surrealism under Pressure will feature 70 works–more than half the artist’s lifetime output–including two copies of From the Strongholds of Sleep and a complete run of Néon, along with never-before-seen drawings for that journal and other manuscripts purchased by the Art Institute from the estate of André Breton.
A beautifully illustrated 144-page exhibition catalogue, distributed by Yale University Press, accompanies Jindřich Heisler: Surrealism under Pressure . The catalogue–the first book ever published on Heisler in a language other than in Czech–is edited by Matthew S. Witkovsky, Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator, Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago; and Jindřich Toman, professor of Slavic linguistics and Czech culture at the University of Michigan. The book includes 80 color images of Heisler’s assemblage pieces and introduces English-speaking audiences to his work by translating many of his writings for the first time. The catalogue will be available April 2, 2012, in the Art Institute’s Museum Shop for $40.
Jindřich Heisler: Surrealism under Pressure is organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and curated by Matthew S. Witkovsky, Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator, Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition and publication are made possible by the generous support of Helen and Sam Zell and the Black Dog Fund. Additional support is provided by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and Roy and Mary Cullen.