Important Art by Kay Sage
This is a relatively early work made when Sage was still experimenting with various styles, and especially with geometric abstraction. The painting is composed of tri-dimensional rectangles of different sizes that have been stacked together randomly and precariously. There is a great sense of perspective based on oblique lines converging towards a vanishing point in the upper middle of the canvas, and also the sense that the structure could topple down before our eyes. Colors mostly belong to a muted blue palette and give a cool, oceanic or sky-like atmosphere to the whole painting. Brushstrokes, precise and not visible, add a quality of stillness and clarity and highlight the artist's abilities as an incredible draughtswoman.
With the use of geometric forms, the artist paints an enigmatic scene and invites the viewer to imagine the story behind it. The title gives a hint that we as the viewers are the onlookers to the remnants of some past events. Typically in the work of Sage, we never, or very rarely, 'see' a human, but we are given subtle clues to the presence of something softer than the surrounding dominant and harsh constructions. Here, the presence of emotion and hope comes in the form of the white curve in the upper part of the painting, as though placed there as a celestial pathway for escape from a less forgiving setting at large. Made in Paris, this painting was exhibited at the Salon des Surindependants and was among the works that first attracted Breton and Tanguy's attention.
This is an early surrealist work that shows de Chirico's strong influence on Sage and also introduces the artist's recurrent motif of the egg. The artist borrows several elements from the older Italian, including the stairwell and open archway, and in turn builds in her own distinctive voice. The egg is at the very center of the canvas and seems to lean against a curved wall that divides the space in two. Like de Chirico, by using objects from daily life and setting up uncanny juxtapositions, Sage creates a "metaphysical space". The shadows suggest further spaces invisible to the viewer, while the horizon line extends the space further into the background as well. This work is one of a cluster made at the time, all of which depict a variant combination of eggs, drapery, arches and stairways.
Many other Surrealist women artists working simultaneous to Sage, including Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, and Remedios Varo used the image of the egg. Whitney Chadwick points out, that there is an "alchemical identification of the egg with the woman's creative powers". This motif does indeed appear many times in Sage's early canvases, but there is a point when it disappears completely, along with the punctuating color of red. Chadwick observes that in the case of Sage, the egg remains ambiguous and serves both as a formal device to relieve the strict geometry of her compositions and as a momentary bearer of mystery "implying life and landscapes otherwise devoid of human presence." Sage quite unusually always puts the egg in a precarious position, as though about to roll away, perhaps there is a sense that it represents something grasped for but never reached.
The work is associated with a poem written by Sage and given the same title. One cannot help but extract a conflict and division at work here in both the painting and in the psyche of the artist. It is as though the 'red door' signifies the hope of new life, but this is the door that 'cannot be opened' and the grayness that remains brings nothing. An overall feeling of isolation and entrapment seems to be underlined in the poem. The author sees no escape and looks outside at the infinity.
As she wrote:
My room has two doors
And one window.
One door is red and the other is gray.
I cannot open the red door;
The gray door does not interest me.
Having no choice,
I shall lock them both
And look out of the window.
This painting is a desolate, geometric landscape dominated by a tall, cloaked guardian in the foreground. The human looking figure is composed of a central pole and swirling drapery. The fluid and animated drapery is well rendered. As a critic noted in 1947, "Sage paints draperies like the masters did". The feeling of movement and blowing wind through the cloth made the figure contrast with the extreme stillness of the landscape. Surrounding the figure, a 'building block' landscape is depicted with simple shapes, mainly triangles and rectangles. An interesting perspective is created and underlined by the various sizes of the shapes and by the horizon line in the background. Colors are soft and similar all across the canvas. Only the partially visible pole stands out with its red tone, as though at this point Sage still has an internal core of red; there is life inside.
In typical Surrealist style, Sage puts in place a set of oppositions in this painting. The animated drapery contrasts with the inanimate setting and there is a parallel to be made in the opposition between the verticality of the pole and the horizontality of the landscape. These contrasts create a disorienting effect. The guardian humanized only by her drapery seems to preside over a city once inhabited. The cloth recalls that of the victorious Greek statue, Nike of Samothrace that the artist probably saw at the Louvre. One wonders though, as war rages in Europe and cities fall, that this is an image of defeat rather than one of victory. The title adds a further clue to the fact this is a painting made in mourning. Like the Louvre statue that survives through history, the guardian here bears witness to tragic current events but lives on. At this point in her career, Sage depicts the egg less and drapery and the color red more. Indeed, if the egg is an obvious symbol of womanhood and the urge to bring forth new life, drapery is a subtler motif and can be easily related to death as well as life. The cloth could become a shroud and the color red expresses the feeling of pain. Also arguably freer than the closed space of the egg and, especially in this painting, drapery poetically recalls the flowing hair of a woman.