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Monday, July 9, 2012

Yves Tanguy

Yves Tanguy, 1928
When we think of self-taught artists, we tend to picture the American folk-art type represented by Grandma Moses or going further back than that, the nineteenth century painter of "Peaceable Kingdoms," Pennsylvania born, Edward Hicks. But in fact, self-taught artists very often bear little resemblance to these stereotypes, and their work covers just about every possible style and content area painted by all us "educated" artist types. And don't for a moment expect the work of self-taught artists to necessarily be any less technically adept than that of we who have spent years jumping through academic hoops to learn our craft. Often, in fact, it's better, perhaps because no one has ever taught them they "can't" do something in a certain way; nor told them their subject matter is too "far out" or conversely, not far enough "out." One example of this, an artists whose subjects are so far out few are even able to discuss them, including the artist who, being untrained in the art of talking about art, early on made the wise decisions not to. His name was Yves Tanguy (pronounced Eaves TAWN-gea).

Le Cerveau de l'Enfant, 1914,
Georgi De Chirico 
Yves was born in 1900 in Paris. His father was a retired naval architect who died when the boy was seven. He was sent to live with relatives near Nantes but moved back to Paris in 1911 to live with his sister and complete his education. World War I intervened and he shipped out as an officer in the merchant marines, visiting Africa and South America. After the war, he chanced upon the work of the Italian Surrealist, Georgio De Chirico and particularly, his painting, Le Cerveau de l'Enfant (The Brain of a Child).  It was to change his life.  He decided to become a painter. Already twenty-three years old and an impoverished "orphan" on his own, he had no choice but to teach himself  to paint. He fell in with the 1920s Paris bohemian lifestyle and in particular the budding Surrealist clique headed by the poet, Andre Breton. He struggled, gradually gaining acceptance and recognition during the 20s and 30s.

Multiplication of the Arcs, 1954, Yves Tanguy, a junkyard on Mars, perhaps?
Tanguy's work might be likened to Dali with a hangover. There is the "beyond realism" that is the hallmark of Surrealist painting, but it's miles beyond the Surrealism of even Dali. There is nothing earthly or recognizable in any context other than geo-anthropomorphic. They tend toward a landscapish quality though one might question what planet his landscapes portray. They are highly detailed, sometimes with reference to vague natural elements such as earth, water, and a single light source but beyond that, you're on your own. Only on very rare occasions was Tanguy persuaded to talk about his work and preferred others not to analyze it as well. He often sought the help of his fellow Surrealist of a literary bent in titling them. He even went so far as to alter dates and titles on some pieces to keep them from being placed in any chronological context (a fact that hardly endeared him to curators). He did no preliminary sketches. He sat down at a blank canvas and started drawing with his brush, adding details as he went with no external resources whatsoever, painting, he claimed, from his subconscious.

Le Palais aux Rochers de FenĂȘtres
(The Palace of Rocks and Windows),
1942, Yves Tanguy, Dali on steroids maybe?
In 1939, seeing the Nazi handwriting on the wall, Tanguy joined a whole boatload of European artists with sense enough to go while the going was good. He landed in America where he married Kay Sage, another Surrealist artist he'd met a few years before in Paris. Together, they traveled broadly across the US before settling in Woodbury, Connecticut in 1941. He became an American citizen in 1948 and died in 1955, not far from "Grandma" Anna Mary Robertson Moses's beloved New York homestead. However in terms of style and content, the work of these two self-taught American artists could hardly have been further apart.
He Did What He Wanted, 1927, Yves Tanguy, self-taught, but no Grandma Moses.

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