Important Art by Yves Tanguy
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.
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".
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."