Raymond Georges Yves Tanguy was born in Paris on January 5th, 1900.
He attended lycée during the 1910s, which is where he would meet his future lifelong friend and dealer, Pierre Matisse. Tanguy befriended poet Jacques Prévert in 1920 during military service, and he returned to Paris in 1922.
This is when he began to sketch café scenes and progressed into painting in 1923 when he first experienced Giorgio de Chirico’s work. In 1924, he became interested in Surrealism when he saw La Révolution surréaliste, and he was welcomed into André Breton’s group in 1925.
While he possessed no formal training, he was a natural, and his talent developed quickly. He reached his mature style by 1927, and his first show was held that same year at the Galerie Surréaliste in Paris.
He was in the 1928 Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie au Sacre du Printemps with the likes of Max Ernst, André Masson, Jean Arp, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso. During the 1930s, he would be in many solo and group exhibitions all over the world.
“The painting develops before my eyes, unfolding its surprises as it progresses. It is this which gives me the sense of complete liberty, and for this reason, I am incapable of forming a plan or making a sketch beforehand.”
The Psychological Institute of Vienna contrasted the work of Tanguy against the creations of schizophrenic patients in 1950. The public could not distinguish between the two, which delighted Surrealists.
André Breton said of Tanguy’s work that one day they “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.”
Tanguy suffered a fatal stroke in January 1955 at Woodbury. He was later cremated, and his ashes were kept until his wife’s death in 1963. Matisse scattered their ashes at the Douarnenez beach in Brittany.
Tanguy was obsessed with dreams, childhood memories, psychotic episodes, and hallucinations, making his artwork exceptionally personal. His work has many interpretations that evoke strong emotions from the viewers while allowing them to use their imagination.
While many Surrealists focus on the unconscious and dreams, Tanguy stood out because of his naturalistic precision and execution of his thoughts and vividly assigned the unconscious a real space.
He likely pulled inspiration from places he’s lived, like the bizarre rock formations he utilized were probably drawn from Brittany’s terrain, where his mother once lived. He produced over 150 pieces between the 20s and 50s.
“I believe there is little to gain by exchanging opinions with other artists concerning either the ideology of art or technical methods.”
Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927)
One of his most known pieces, Mama, Papa is Wounded! has a post-apocalyptic landscape. Combined with the content, palette and light, the painting feels unsettling and uncomfortable.
“The picture is a fantastic landscape, illuminated by a grayish-violet unearthly light. Against the background of the desert space, there are several strange objects that are completely unconnected: a cactus, beans, a yellow figure and a peculiar “shaggy” stick.
A dark cloud occupying the right side of the canvas hangs menacingly over the field. The title of the work not only does not explain what is happening but, as is often the case with Surrealists, creates an even greater mystery, thereby making the audience curious.” – Sketchline.
Noyer Indifférent (1929)
The fascination that Tanguy experienced between Surrealism and psychoanalysis is illustrated in this painting. Carl Jung was the original purchaser of this piece in 1929 when Tanguy was relatively unknown.
It was kept in his study, where it helped influent his work. Jung described Tanguy’s genius as a “minimum of intelligibility with a maximum of abstraction.” The painting depicts four biomorphic forms against a totally dark background, surrounding a central cobweb image, casting shadows.
It’s unclear what exactly the objects are supposed to be in an ambiguous atmosphere. Jung’s interpretation of the work as a collective unconscious fantasy of the technological age and surveyed people he knew about what they thought the images were.
Many saw planets, creatures, cities, and bombs. He saw it as “cosmic inhumanness and infinite desolation” and an archetypal sign of the heavens. Paul Eluard spoke about the empty stillness in the piece in one of his poems dedicated to Tanguy, saying, “From the ends of the earth to the twilight of today/Nothing can withstand my desolate images.”
Indefinite Divisibility (1942)
Indefinite Divisibility has many conflicting shapes that all demand attention from the viewer. There are bowls of water, anthropomorphic shadows, and space where dreams and reality meet.
There are apparent objects like a clamp, propeller, and petal, among the other items. Tanguy explicitly intended to trigger emotions while leaving his work ambiguous.
Other notable works of Tanguy include:
Blue Bed, 1929
Death Awaiting his Family, 1927
Exquisite Corpse, 1938
Extinction of Useless Lights, 1927
I Came Like I Promised, 1926
Large Painting Representing a Landscape, 1927
Multiplication of the Arcs, 1954
Palace on windows rocks, 1942
Promontory Palace, 1931
Reply to Red, 1943
Slowly Toward The North, 1942
Storm(Black Landscape), 1926
The Hand in the Clouds, 1927
The Ribbon of Extremes, 1932
The Travelling Performers, 1926
Through Birds Through Fire But Not Through Glass, 1943
Tanguy’s work is immediately recognizable, as his style is one-of-a-kind. His style is still an essential influence for Surrealism artists, but it directly coloured the work of artists like Wolfgang Paalen, Esteban Francés, and Roberto Matta in the 30s.
His paintings directly influenced the animated movie Le Roi et l’oiseau, by Paul Grimault and Prévert. While Tanguy’s work is Surrealism, his career is essentially the bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism.
His work with automatism impressed the likes of Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock and his early works paved the way for Salvador Dalí and inspired the sculptures of David Hare, Isamu Noguchi, and Hans Arp.
“Very much alone in my work, I am almost jealous of it.”