Yves Tanguy
Biography of French Abstract Surrealist Painter.

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Yves Tanguy (1900-55)


Inspired by Giorgio de Chirico
Settles in America with Kay Sage
Tanguy's Painting

Paintings by Yves Tanguy
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

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An important contributor to French painting, the self-taught Paris-born artist Yves Tanguy was an active member of the Surrealism movement and one of the most recognizable of modern artists. He took part in all the major Surrealist exhibitions, and developed an eerie, illogical style of abstract art, characterized by marine or lunar-type landscape imagery. In 1940 he settled in the United States with the wealthy American Surrealist painter Kay Sage (1898-1963), where he influenced members of the New York School of abstract expressionism. During the post-war period he built up an international reputation, becoming one of the more successful surrealist artists with shows in Paris, Rome and Milan. He became a US citizen in 1948. His best-known abstract paintings include: Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Extinction of Useless Lights (1927, Museum of Modern Art, New Work); Tomorrow (Demain) (1938, Kunsthaus, Zurich); The Furniture of Time (1939, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Infinite Divisibility (1942, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo); Le Palais aux rochers de Fenetres (1942, National Museum For Modern Art, Pompidou Centre, Paris); The Rapidity of Sleep (1945, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago); and The Invisibles (1951) (Tate Collection, London).



Inspired by Giorgio de Chirico

Born Raymond Georges Yves Tanguy in Paris, the son of a former captain in the French Navy. Unfortunately, in 1908 his father died, his mother moved back to her native Breton area around Locronan, Finistere, and Tanguy spent a good deal of his youth being looked after by relatives. In 1918 he joined the Merchant Navy before being drafted into the army, returning finally in 1922 to Paris where he led something of a Bohemian life. In 1923 - despite a complete lack of formal training - he was inspired to take up painting after seeing The Child's Brain (1914) by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) in the window of a Paris gallery. The following year he joined the Surrealist group after stumbling across their manifesto in a bookshop.


Tanguy developed his own signature style of surrealist art, holding his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1927 - the same year he married his first wife. Although a highly reserved individual, he became an important figure in the Paris group, producing works that embodied the idea of Andre Breton that art was an expression of the unconscious. He always professed to adhere to the surrealist method of automatism in art, eschewing planning and preparation. As a result, Breton - the leader and chief-theorist of Surrealism - commissioned Tanguy to paint 12 works - a commision that Tanquy only partly fulfilled.

His paintings of this time conjure the realm of the unconscious in brooding landscapes populated by biomorphic forms, rendered in tiny, meticulous brushstrokes. They recall the megalithic culture of the Finistere region, where he spent his childhood holidays, returning there as a young man, accompanied from Paris by friends like the writer Jacques Prevert and the musician Maurice Duhamel. A trip to North Africa in 1930 further inspired this facination with unusual rock formations.

Settles in America with Kay Sage

Although highly active during the 1930s, his bohemian lifestyle and absorption in art, coupled with a lack of financial success, led to the collapse of his marriage. In 1937 he exhibited in a group show at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels with Man Ray (1890-1976) and Rene Magritte (1898-1967). In 1938 he began a relationship with the talented American painter Kay Sage. When she returned to her native New York, after the outbreak of World War II, he followed. They married in Reno, in August 1940, shortly after France surrendered to German forces. In New Your, he joined the influential group of exiled surrealists, but later found a better setting in Woodbury, Connecticut, where, he said: "I have a feeling of greater space and light here - more room". He produced larger paintings that included increasingly metallic forms, influenced perhaps by his interest in firearms (he kept a collection of guns) as well as the militaristic imagery that pervaded the US media. Tanguy remained in the United States after the war, although he travelled to Europe frequently. He died unexpectedly from a stroke in 1955, just as New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was in the final stages of preparations for his retrospective exhibition. His death cast a pall over Sage's final years and she committed suicide in 1963.

Tanguy's Painting

One of the few self-taught abstract painters to achieve success on both sides of the Atlantic, Yves Tanguy's oil painting falls squarely into the category of non-objective surrealism. Characterized by underwater settings populated by strange biomorphic shapes resembling marine invertebrates or sculpted rock formations, as well as metallic forms. These vast, dream-like landscapes, with their limitless horizons, are painted in smooth, meticulous detail in a limited palette of colours. In company with painters like the unsuppressable Salvador Dali (1904-89), the versatile Joan Miro (1893-1983), and the innovative Max Ernst (1891-1976), Tanguy's art exemplifies the fundamental illogicality and hallucinatory nature of pure surrealism. His works can be seen in many of the best art museums in Europe and America.


• For biographies of other Surrealist artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more details of abstract painting, see: Homepage.

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