Born: Paris, France
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Yves Tanguy was in many respects the quintessential Surrealist. A sociable eccentric who ate spiders as a party trick, and a close friend of Andre Breton, Tanguy was best-known for his misshapen rocks and molten surfaces that lent definition to the Surrealist aesthetic. Self-taught but enormously skilled, Tanguy painted a hyper-real world with exacting precision. His landscapes, a high-octane blend of fact and fiction, captured the attention of important artists and thinkers from Salvador Dalí to Mark Rothko who admitted their debt to the older artist. And even Carl Gustave Jung used a canvas by Tanguy to illustrate his theory of the collective unconscious.
Tanguy was born into a maritime family. His father was a sea captain and the family lived at the Ministere de la Marine in the Place de La Concorde. The seas, skies and stones of the the Finistère coasts in Brittany, where Tanguy spent his summers as a child, appear in his mature work. His early life dealt him some hard blows – his father died in 1908 and his brother died in the First World War. His mother moved to Locronan, Finistère, but Tanguy stayed in Paris to complete his education. As a teenager, Tanguy was lucky enough to make friends with Pierre Matisse (son of Henri Matisse) whose encouragement and support would be crucial to his artistic career, which did not begin immediately. His family expected him to join the Merchant Navy and so he did, working on cargo boats between South America and Africa from 1918-1919. In 1920 he was conscripted into the French Army in Tunis, where he met the poet Jacques Prévert who delighted in Tanguy’s eccentricity and strange habits – from chewing his socks to eating live spiders. The latter became a party trick that he would often repeat.
After his release from the army disillusioned with convention, Tanguy and Prévert adopted a bohemian lifestyle in Montparnasse. They moved in with the writer Marcel Duhamel at 54 rue du Château, which became an informal gathering spot for artists and writers. This intense but aimless period of his life came to a halt in 1923, when a chance encounter changed his life. While passing by a gallery window in Paris, Tanguy saw de Chirico’s Le Cerveau de L’enfant, and the experience of the picture was so electrifying that he decided to become a painter at once. Other early sources of inspiration for the young Tanguy were Hieronymus Bosch, Lucas Cranach, and Paulo Uccello, Renaissance masters, whose luminous color and perspective he would learn to emulate.
In 1924 he was introduced to André Breton, poet and author of the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), and attended the first Surrealist exhibition in 1925. From then on, Tanguy was a passionate believer, whose startling blue eyes and proto-punk hair made him something of a Surrealist mascot. Breton wrote: “What is Surrealism? It is the appearance of Yves Tanguy, crowned with the big emerald bird of Paradise.” Tanguy, in turn, idolized Breton, and called him ‘Papa’. Tanguy was among the most loyal members of the Surrealist movement, contributing to manifestos, magazines, and exhibitions. Tanguy’s solo exhibition in 1927 was accompanied by a catalogue that praised the artist’s skillful distortions as the ultimate Surrealist expression, conveying the overall mistrust of reality that characterized the movement. Taking his cue from psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who urged his patients to begin with their dream, and work outwards, he painted backgrounds and shadows first, before adding his unique bone-like forms. Neither animal nor vegetable nor mineral, Tanguy’s creations crawl, arch, sink and fly. Breton called them ‘subject-objects’ – they are solid and have shadows, yet exist in unreal perspectives with zero gravity. They are both real and unreal – further illustrated by Tanguy’s 1931 article Poids et Couleurs (Weights and Colors) where he created hand-shaped subject-objects of pink plush, pearly celluloid, plaster, straw, wax and mercury.
The Surrealist aim was confrontation, and some early reactions to Tanguy’s work were violent. In 1930, his early works were exhibited at the Paris screening of Dalí and Buñuels’ L’Âge d’Or. The film’s sex and violence led to a riot and three of his paintings were slashed to pieces. Despite this adverse reaction, Tanguy continued to love cinema and was inspired, in particular, by its ability to capture motion. He also illustrated Surrealist works of literature, such as Louis Aragon’s La Grande Gaîté (1929) and Paul Eluard’s “La Vie Immediate” (1932). Loyal to Breton, he signed the second Manifest Surrealiste in 1930, and the collective letter in 1934 expelling Dalí from the group for his pro-Hitler comments.
In its entirety, Tanguy’s career forms a bridge between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Tanguy’s early works anticipated much of later Surrealism – perhaps most visibly in the compositions of Salvador Dalí. His pioneering work with automatism (unconscious painting) was also admired by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and other American artists who shared his fascination with the unconscious, and emulated the gestural freedom of his atmospheric backgrounds. Julien Levy noted that: “space for Dalí became terrible, for Tanguy it became both intimate and eternal, consoling and inevitable”. However, Dalí once told Tanguy’s niece Agnes: “I pinched everything from your Uncle Yves.” His influence has been noted in sculptures of Hans Arp, David Hare, and Isamu Noguchi as well as the work of Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, and Esteban Francés. In 1963 Pierre Matisse and Kay Sage published Yves Tanguy, A Summary of His Work before commencing the Yves Tanguy Catalogue Raisonné.