‘Poetism’ is a purely Czech artistic movement that synthesizes and translates knowledge of the world’s artistic movements such as cubism, futurism and constructivism. It can also be understood as a specific version of European dadaism, with inspiration from primitive and naive art. Poetism developed in the Czech environment during the inter-war period, when European art was largely influenced by Russian and western European avant-garde movements. Czech poetism lacks a clear definition, although several manifestos and theoretical studies have been published. The Devětsil art association (1920-31) played an important role, projecting new avant-garde ideas through its members. Under the unifying motto of painter František Muzika, ‘painting is a painted poem’, the Poetry 1932 exhibition summarised the trends and work of poetic figures, including the green shoots of surrealism. Subsequent influences of poetism can even be found among the creators united in Group 42. Czech poetism loosely oscillated between dadaism and constructivism, and can be considered a precursor to surrealism in the Czech Republic.

The theoretical backbone of poetism was mainly formulated by art theorist Karel Teige (1990-51) and poet Vítězslav Nezval (1900-1950). The title of one of Teig’s studies, Building and Poem (1927) clearly indicates the premise of poetism: linking constructivist clarity in the visual (literary, architectural) construction of work with poetic content. The proximity of picture and poem was described thus: ‘the poem should be seen as a picture, and the picture should be read as a poem’. The title can be interpreted as a more widely understood term of poetry, or as ‘the art of living and enjoying’ (Karel Teige).

Poetism was most prominent in literature (the modern inter-war poetry of Nezvalov, Seifert, Biebl) and in the fine arts. Its influences can also be found in scenography and theatre (Liberated Theater), film and a little in sculpture. Lyrical neoplasms (a play with words in poetry, photomontage and collage of various elements in the fine arts, even caricatures, etc.) arose in all affected artistic disciplines, based on a particular moment, gesture or mood.

Karel Teige, Toyen (real name Marie Čermínová, 1902-81) and Henry Styrsky (1898-1942) enriched Czech art with a new form – the picture poem: combining poetry, assemblage and collage. It applied techniques used by the European dadaists (see Merzbau) and Russian constructivists (e.g. El Lisicki) on a reduced scale. Influenced by photomontages from magazine and book covers, advertising materials, posters by Russian typographers and teachers and students from the German Bauhaus movement, they created new compositions based on free association. They combined parts of pictures with postcards, newspaper cuttings and maps. Image poems were often practically used in book culture: as envelopes or illustrations of avant-garde poetry and prose. The tone was defined by the contrast between image and textual fragment – lending the composition a degree of tension. These elements link such work to the emerging surrealism movement: Jindřich Štyrský created photographic cycles inspired by the magical work of French photographer Eugen Atget (1857-1927). František Vobecký (1902-91) photographs firstly appear as a wheel or photomontage, yet are thoughtful compositions of two- and three-dimensional objects.