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Yves Tanguy Photo

Yves Tanguy

French Painter

Born: January 5, 1900 - Paris, France
Died: January 15, 1955 - Woodbury, Connecticut
Movements and Styles:
"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."
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Yves Tanguy Signature
"I believe there is little to gain by exchanging opinions with other artists concerning either the ideology of art or technical methods. Very much alone in my work, I am almost jealous of it. Geography has no bearing on it, not have the interests of the community in which I work."
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Yves Tanguy Signature
"I found that if I planned a picture beforehand, it never surprised me, and surprises are my pleasure in painting."
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Yves Tanguy Signature
"What is Surrealism? It is Yves Tanguy, crowned with the big emerald bird of Paradise."
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André Breton Signature
"From the ends of the earth to the twilight of today/Nothing can withstand my desolate images."
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Yves Tanguy Signature
"The painter of a terrible grace, in the air, below the ground and on the sea."
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André Breton Signature
"Perhaps the only true surrealist - almost like a medium."
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Kay Sage

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.


  • 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.

Important Art by Yves Tanguy

Progression of Art
Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927)

Mama, Papa is Wounded!

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 - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Noyer Indifférent

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

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


Through Birds, Through Fire, But Not Through Glass

Rock-like forms and a strange tower of balloon-shapes, wheel-spokes and stones inhabit this overcast dreamscape. The objects are solid, yet the composite form seems to be in transition. Is it molten or frozen? The palette of fiery reds and icy greys makes it impossible to tell. Joined in the illogic of the unconscious, these imposing forms cast shadows, imparting further mystery. There must be a sun behind them. It is possible that these forms were inspired by the Surrealist technique of Coulage - sculpture generated by pouring molten metal into water, generating amorphous blobs that evoked associations, somewhat like a Rorschach test. With one foot in fantasy, and one in reality, Tanguy, according to Andre Breton, "condensed ... a few pure elements of matter, meeting together and glowing suddenly like particles of dust dancing in a sunbeam." This otherworldly environment and its unknowable subject reflects a general interest among the Surrealists in mystery, ambiguity and transformation. For the Surrealists, the individual self and the external world are in a constant state of flux.

Oil on canvas - Minneapolis Institute of Arts


Rose of the Four Winds

In this late canvas, a tower of hard architecture, built from clusters of sharp, spiky objects dominates a steely gray and purple sky. The ground is covered with forbidding rubble (in 1955, the MOMA exhibition called a 'breathless congestion of boulders, pebbles and bones'). The interplay among these elements (the looming tower, threatening sky, and low heaps of pebbles) is forbidding, bordering on the apocalyptic, and the stuff of nightmares rather than dreams. Reminiscent of bombed-out cities (war was never far from Tanguy's mind) these bleak aerial views are typical of the artist's late period. These often include sharper, non-organic and apparently mechanical elements, piling up and stabbing into vast skies (as found in works like From Pale Hands to Weary Skies (1950) and The Hunted Sky (1951)). After the bomb tests and the horror of Hiroshima, Tanguy, a sensitive observer, continued to evolve in relation to his environment and other artists. The impact of his wife Sage's larger, geometric forms is visible here, as is the vastness of the American landscape. Tanguy's admiration for the work of the younger American artist, Frederick Sommer, who photographed bones in the desert, is also visible here. One further influence, no doubt, is also present: in the garden at Sedona, Tanguy's friend Ernst had built a vast metal and cement sculpture named Capricorn. The tower here is reminiscent of this monumental sculpture sitting under the bleak open skies.

Oil on canvas - Wadsworth Atheneum


Multiplication of the Arcs

Tanguy completed this large work in the months before his death - while working eight to nine hours a day in deep concentration. It is a familiar subject, one that the artist revisited in canvas after canvas since the 1920s: a dreamscape under a storm-threatened sky. Here, however, there are no towers, sculptural forms or airborne objects. Nothing rises above the horizon. Everything is tumbled and broken. Towers have crumbled into the ground. The broken tower, as Tanguy well knew, is a powerful sign, an archetypal sign of castration and death in psychoanalytic terms. Whereas Mama, Papa is Wounded! evokes a jarring claustrophobia inside a vast, empty space, this is essentially the reverse: isolation, amidst a crowd. The artist's posthumous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 positioned this work as the culmination of Tanguy's work. While the title's reference is, like all Tanguy's titles, intentionally obscure, arcs were an iconic Surrealist symbol, a symbolic bridge between the invisible and the visible, fantasy and reality, sleeping and waking.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Biography of Yves Tanguy


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 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.

Early Period

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.

Middle Period

By the mid-1930s, Tanguy had both fame and money. His reputation grew with exhibitions in Paris, Belgium, England, New York, Tenerife and the Guggenheim Jeune. Yet Tanguy saw both prestige and wealth as unimportant, even objectionable. On drunken nights in Paris, friends saw him roll banknotes into balls and throw them at bemused café patrons. He began a passionate affair with Peggy Guggenheim, once telling her that money confused him and he wished he had not got so much of it all at once. Their affair ended when he met his future wife, the surrealist painter Kay Sage. In 1939 he and Sage moved to America to paint and travel, and married in Reno, Nevada in 1940. Once in America his work still made no concession to reality, but he added vibrant reds and yellows to his chalky greys, inspired by the American landscape. Breton brilliantly summarized this new color palette as: "nasturtium, cock-of-the-rock, poplar leaf, rusty wellchain, cut sodium, slate, jellyfish and cinnamon." Tanguy continued to manipulate scale and perspective, noting that the increased light and space of America gave him a feeling of "more room." Yet he began to fill his work with clusters of subject-objects, no longer widely spaced apart. Their textures changed too, from bone and rock, to cloth, wood, resin, and plastic.

In 1942 Tanguy's painting Time and Again was featured in Matisse's famous Artists en Exil exhibition. Other artists invited to contribute were Roberto Matta, Ossip Zadkine, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Fernand Leger, Andre Breton, Piet Mondrian, Andre Masson, Amédée Ozenfant, Jacques Lipchitz, Pavel Tchelitchew, Kurt Seligmann, and Eugene Berman, all of whom had fled World War II. His iconic reputation continued to grow with 1943-1945 exhibitions at Pierre Matisse's gallery and a joint exhibition with Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of the Century (1944). He and Sage settled in Woodbury, Connecticut, painting each day and reviewing each other's work. His compositions show the influence of Sage's larger, geometric forms. He had advanced from pure automatism and now sketched his compositions first. Tension grew in his relationship with 'Papa' Breton, who tended to excommunicate Surrealists (Max Ernst, for example) with whom he was unhappy, resented Tanguy's fame and insufficiently unconscious way of working. He ultimately denounced Tanguy as 'bourgeois', and demanded that Pierre Matisse break with him. Tanguy was furious, and the mutual enmity lasted for years.

Later Work

Now an American citizen, Tanguy traveled widely in the American West and regularly visited the Arizona home of his fellow surrealists-in-exile, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. The awesome scale of the red rocks, the brilliance of the blinding sun, and the drama of Ernst's giant cement and metal sculptures inspired Tanguy. The environment of the Southwest and the reality of machine-age America are reflected in the mechanical, angular, metallic forms characteristic of his work during this period. In 1953 he visited Europe for the first time since his 1939 departure. He held exhibitions in Rome at the Galleria de l'Obelisco, in Milan at the Puis del Naviglio, and in Paris at the Galerie Renou & Poyet. Before returning to America he visited his sister and his beloved Brittany coasts.

In 1954 the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut held a joint exhibition of Tanguy and Sage's work. Despite their interconnected working practices they craved artistic independence and insisted that their work be shown in separate galleries. Tanguy offered few insights into his process, declining to discuss his ideology and technical methods. He characterized himself as "very much alone in my work, I am almost jealous of it." Friends such as Breton and Hans Richter characterized Tanguy as a loner toward the end of his life, but he still enjoyed Surrealist games. Shortly before his death, he starred in Richter's art movie 8x8. Part Lewis Carrol, part Freud, the film uses chess (where pieces can become other pieces) as a metaphor for transformation. Duchamp played the White King, Jaqueline Matisse the White Queen, and Tanguy the Black Knight. Tanguy died suddenly on 15 January 1955 after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. The months leading up to his death, however, were especially prolific. His robust final canvases are often seen as the culmination of his life's obsessions, elevating his fantastic projections to a new level, and gathering the subjects, objects, colors and themes of his life into powerful statements, such as Multiplication of the Arcs (1954) and Imaginary Numbers (1954). His ashes were scattered in Brittany. In September 1955, the first major retrospective of Tanguy's work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Legacy of Yves Tanguy

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.

Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein

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