French painter. Recognized by the late 1930s as a representative of the purest strain of Surrealism in painting, he was the only one of the great painters of that movement to be entirely self-taught. Although he was a fellow pupil at the Lycée Montaigne in Paris of Pierre Matisse, who later became his dealer, he came to painting comparatively late in life, after spending two years with the Merchant Navy. While doing his military service at Lunéville he was deeply affected by his meeting with Jacques Prévert (1900–77), the French poet later associated with Surrealism, who was also a stranger to the joys of life in the barracks. After a long period spent with the African Chasseurs in the south of Tunisia, Tanguy returned to Paris in 1922 and renewed contact with Prévert, also meeting the French writer Marcel Duhamel (1900–66), who provided accommodation for them at 54 Rue du Château. This address later became an important meeting-place for the Surrealists; it was there, for example, that the Surrealist game of the ‘exquisite corpse’ was invented.
Tanguy was profoundly shaken by his discovery in 1923 of a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, Child’s Skull (1914; Stockholm, Mod. Mus.), in a gallery window. This encounter spurred him to produce his own first works, which were executed in a fairly naive Expressionist style but in which flashes of fantasy could also be glimpsed (Fantômas, 1925–6; ex-Pierre Matisse priv. col., New York, see 1982 exh. cat., pp. 70–71). In December 1925, however, he joined the Surrealist movement, together with Prévert and Duhamel, a decision that had a powerful and irreversible effect on his painting. He abandoned his previous efforts at synthesizing the influence of Chaïm Soutine and Henri Rousseau in order to devote himself unreservedly to a fundamental tenet of Surrealism, Automatism, through which he soon became a leading figure of the movement worthy of comparison with Hans Arp, Max Ernst, André Masson, Joan Miró and even Picasso.
Tanguy’s first exhibition, held in May–June 1927 at the Galerie Surréaliste in Paris, suggested that he was struggling to combine, with an attractive awkwardness, strange, graceful and witty figurative references with the smoke, fogs and clouds so characteristic of the period. In some of his works, however, such as Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927), he already showed signs of the assurance that became a consistent feature of his art. He had found a certainty in his adoption of an automatism founded on thought and wit (rather than on muscle and gesture, as in the work produced by American artists in the 1940s). Using a mixture of fluid colours as a base, he allowed enigmatic forms to emerge that had only the most tenuous links with the real world; once determined, they were given credibility by the addition of cast shadows. Apart from his very brief ‘free-flow’ period (1930–31), he never executed preliminary sketches, since he felt there was little room for adventure and pleasure if the painter’s task was limited to colouring in outlines already drawn on the canvas.
Tanguy’s predilection for sombre backgrounds heavy with apprehension and threat, traversed by mysterious and possibly prophetic signs, may have been linked to his Breton origins. His disquieting and shadowy pictures were the setting for apparitions such as no religion had yet recorded, but whose light was nevertheless beyond doubt that of ecstasy. In this way Tanguy’s world, together with that of Max Ernst, was among the most disturbing imagined by the Surrealists. After his ‘free-flow’ paintings, such as Promontory Palace (1930; Venice, Guggenheim), evoking the memory of the high North African plateaux that he had just visited, Tanguy evolved what might be referred to as his ‘beach’ pictures, except that such a description would reduce his truly metaphysical spaces to the banality of immediate experience. He began to concentrate his attention not on the space but on the figures emerging from it and on the links between them. The Ribbon of Excess (1932; ex-Roland Penrose priv. col., London, see 1982 exh. cat., p. 107) was the prototype for these contemplative works, sometimes unfairly criticized as monotonous.
Although the sensationalist overstatement of Salvador Dalí created a greater impact on the general public, Tanguy’s work proved more influential on the young painters who came to Surrealism on the eve of World War II, such as Wolfgang Paalen, Roberto Matta, the Englishman Gordon Max Onslow-Ford (b 1912) and the Spaniard Esteban Francés (b 1914), and on the development of ‘absolute’ automatism. Nevertheless the exhibition of his works organized by Pierre Matisse shortly after Tanguy’s arrival in New York in late 1939 did not meet the expectations of young American painters; American collectors, moreover, preferred Dalí. Although his financial circumstances were improved by his marriage in 1940 to the American painter Kay Sage, herself an exponent of Surrealism, Tanguy did not experience instant fame and glory in his adopted country, where he took American citizenship in 1948. In addition, his close links with André Breton, indicated by the publication of Breton’s monograph on him in 1946, gradually grew weaker.
Breton conceived of Tanguy as the quintessential Surrealist painter and as the only one whose moral position remained exemplary and free from compromise. He was sceptical, however, of the effect on his work of the tranquillity of Woodbury, CT, where he settled in 1942. Tanguy’s first American pictures inspired a certain unease: they became more gaudy, with garish or sugary colours, as in Woman with Absence (1942; Düsseldorf, Kstsamml. Nordrhein–Westfalen). Gradually, however, especially after 1950, the atmosphere of Tanguy’s pictures became steeped in a sense of anguish even more penetrating than before, with cathedrals and obelisk-like shapes in desolate expanses beneath storm-threatened skies. An inexorable sea of stones invaded everything in his final paintings, Multiplication of Arches (1954; New York, MOMA) and Imaginary Numbers (1954; Madrid, Mus. Thyssen-Bornemisza), which were endowed with a sublime and funereal beauty. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage soon after their completion. A film about him, Esquisse Tanguy, was made in Paris in 1982 by José Pierre and Fabrice Maze.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press