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Jindrich Heisler: Surrealism under Pressure



Czech poet, photographer, and object-maker Jindřich Heisler began his creative career around 1935 and in 1938 joined Czechoslovakia’s Surrealist Group. Within months of his entrance, however, the Nazi occupation drove Surrealism underground, and Heisler, the child of a mixed-faith marriage, spent most of 1941–1945 in hiding. Sequestered at a friend’s apartment during this time of great danger for Jewish and avant-garde artists alike, Heisler created a diverse and whimsical body of work—books of poetry, photographic series, and assemblage objects—some of which appeared publicly after the war.

In 1947, having survived the German occupation and sensing the return of totalitarianism at home, Heisler, along with his close friend and fellow artist Toyen (Marie Čermínová), moved to Paris and immediately joined the French Surrealist movement. (Heisler had published an anthology of verse by Paul Éluard one year previously.) In 1948–1949, Heisler headed the editorial team of Néon, a key Surrealist journal of the early postwar years. Alone and with André Breton, Benjamin Péret, and Toyen, Heisler created more object art—including a marvelous alphabet of wooden letters, faced with glued-on xylographic montages reminiscent of Max Ernst—as well as posters, film scripts, and poems. He died suddenly of heart failure in 1953.

This exhibition, the first solo retrospective of Heisler’s work anywhere in the world, presents 70 pieces from the artist’s concise but rich oeuvre, including the Art Institute’s poetry volume From the Strongholds of Sleep (Z kasemat spánku)—one of the rarest and most important photobooks produced in the 20th century. The presentation makes a lovely companion to Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun, on display in the adjacent photography galleries; both exhibitions provide a provocative look at how artists of Jewish heritage addressed the Nazi threat and their own marginal status through art.

This 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.


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