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The Art Story Homepage Artists Yves Tanguy
Yves Tanguy Photo

Yves Tanguy

French Painter

Movements and Styles: Surrealism, Biomorphism

Born: Jan 5, 1900 - Paris, France

Died: January 15, 1955 - Woodbury, Connecticut

Yves Tanguy Timeline

"I cannot, nor, consequently, want to try to give a definition, even a simple one, to what I paint. If I did try, I would risk very much closing myself in a definition that would later become like a prison for me."

Yves Tanguy Signature

Summary of Yves Tanguy

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 Gustav Jung used a canvas by Tanguy to illustrate his theory of the collective unconscious.

Key Ideas

Tanguy's symbolism is personal, reflecting his obsession with childhood memory, dreams, hallucinations and psychotic episodes. It defies explicit interpretation, and evokes a range of associations that engage the viewer's imagination and emotions.
Tanguy's landscapes strike a balance between realism and fantasy. Naturalistically-depicted objects hover in midair, or drift toward the sky. Masterful manipulations of scale and perspective, and keen observations of the natural world contribute to the hallucinatory effect of his scenes. His bizarre rock formations were most likely inspired by the terrain of Brittany, where his mother lived.
Like other Surrealists, Tanguy was preoccupied with dreams and the unconscious. What set him apart was the naturalistic precision with which he depicted the mind and its contents. This was his key contribution. More vividly than any artist before him, Tanguy imagined and depicted the unconscious as a place.
Yves Tanguy Photo

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.

Important Art by Yves Tanguy

The below artworks are the most important by Yves Tanguy - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927)
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Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927)

Artwork description & Analysis: The vast space, wan palette, and unearthly light in this picture evoke a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Airborne objects cast dark shadows, echoing the work of the earlier Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. The cactus-like shape tethered to a geometric spider-web, and floating near the horizon, seems neither captive nor fully free. Typical of the relationship between words and images in Surrealism, the title complicates rather than clarifies the meaning of the work. With Breton (who, as a war medic, had used Sigmund Freud's methods to treat psychologically damaged soldiers) Tanguy combed psychiatric case studies of patients whose statements could be used as ideas for pictures and titles. According to Tanguy, Mama, Papa is Wounded! was among them. Various interpretations of this picture have been suggested. For example, that it references the violence of World War I and expressed the mood of heightened anxiety that followed. Or that the standing yellow figure may represent a father, the cactus a mother, and the amorphous mass a child. The work remains enigmatic, however, refusing to reveal its secrets, and reflecting the intentional ambiguity of Surrealist symbolism.

Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Noyer Indifférent (1929)
Artwork Images Google images

Noyer Indifférent (1929)

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting's fascinating provenance illustrates the reciprocal interplay between surrealism and psychoanalysis. Carl Jung, Freud's protégé and an important influence on the Surrealists, purchased this work in 1929, when Tanguy was almost unknown. Jung kept it in his study, where it influenced (and maybe even helped inspire) his theory of the collective unconscious in 1958. Against total darkness, four biomorphic forms surround a central cobweb shape and seem to levitate, casting shadows. Are these animals? Smoke? Fungi? Plastic? The faint horizontal bands stretching across the canvas create an ambiguous nocturnal atmosphere Tanguy's genius, perfectly summed up by Jung, was a "minimum of intelligibility with a maximum of abstraction." Jung interpreted the picture as an unconscious collective fantasy of the technological age, showing it to as many people as possible to test their interpretations. They saw bombs, distant planets, underwater creatures and cities lit up at night. Jung saw in the artist's bleak horizons a "cosmic inhumanness and infinite desolation" that triggered the viewer's unconscious. He concluded that the picture was an archetypal sign of the heavens, linking it to recent extraterrestrial phenomena. The feeling of empty stillness this work provokes was observed by Paul Eluard, in his poem, dedicated to Tanguy, with the following words: "From the ends of the earth to the twilight of today/Nothing can withstand my desolate images".

Oil on canvas - Privately owned

Indefinite Divisibility (1942)
Artwork Images Google images

Indefinite Divisibility (1942)

Artwork description & Analysis: From the bowls collecting water to the anthropomorphic shadow cast by the form beside it, a jumble of conflicting shapes confronts the viewer, vying for our attention. Dreams and realities merge in objects such as a pedal, a propeller, and a clamp. These are three-dimensional objects about to topple to the ground. Tanguy's intention is to express, not to communicate - to trigger sensations, not to explain. Tanguy relied upon his subconscious to supply him with ideas for paintings: "the painting develops before my eyes, unfolding its surprises as it progresses." What is reality and what is shadow? For Freud, the heightened anxiety created by his use of depaysement (the state of disorientation experienced in dreams) was a form of psychosis, delusions and illusions. For Tanguy, it was a source of power. Surrealists celebrated madness as both an inspiration and liberation, as Breton said in dreams you could: "kill, fly faster, love to your heart's content." In 1950 the Psychological Institute of Vienna displayed Tanguy's paintings beside those of schizophrenic patients to see if the public could distinguish between the two. They could not (a result that delighted the Surrealists). Breton believed that one day Tanguy's images "will be made clear with a language which is not yet understood but which people are soon going to read, which they are going to talk, and which they are going to perceive is best adapted to the new changes."

Oil on canvas - Albright - Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

More Yves Tanguy Artwork and Analysis:

Through Birds, Through Fire, But Not Through Glass (1943) Rose of the Four Winds (1950) Multiplication of the Arcs (1954)

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Yves Tanguy
Interactive chart with Yves Tanguy's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Show influences

Artists

Hieronymus BoschHieronymus Bosch
Giorgio de ChiricoGiorgio de Chirico
Hans ArpHans Arp

Personal Contacts

André BretonAndré Breton
Max ErnstMax Ernst
Joan MiróJoan Miró

Movements

DadaDada
SurrealismSurrealism
PrecisionismPrecisionism
Influences on Artist
Influences on Artist
Yves Tanguy
Yves Tanguy
Years Worked: 1923-1955
Influenced by Artist
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Salvador DalíSalvador Dalí
Roberto MattaRoberto Matta
Jackson PollockJackson Pollock

Personal Contacts

Paul EluardPaul Eluard
Peggy GuggenheimPeggy Guggenheim

Movements

SurrealismSurrealism
Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
Color Field PaintingColor Field Painting

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein
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First published on 07 Dec 2015. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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