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Saturday, September 5, 2015

Kay Sage

Danger, Construction Ahead, 1940, Kay Sage
Yves Tanguy and wife, Kay Sage.
It's not too unusual today for two people in the same profession to meet at work, fall in love, and marry. With more women than ever before in the workplace, such office romances are probably more common now than ever before. In the past I've written about several husband and wife couples who were both artists. The de Koonings, Willem and Elaine, come to mind, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Charles and Ray Eames, Milton and Sally Avery, Bruce Nauman and Susan Rothenberg, to name just a few. Let me add to that list Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy. As the link would indicate, I've already written about him, so let me now include his "better half." As often happens when married couples paint together, their work tends to be at least somewhat similar. Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy were both Surrealists. Having said that, there are some similarities in their work, but only some, and not enough that one would guess they were married to one another for some fifteen years. Sage's paintings, in fact, bear a much stronger resemblance to the work of Giorgio de Chirico than those of her husband.

No Passing, 1954, Kay Sage (left), Indefinite Divisibility, 1942, Yves Tanguy (right)
--no more than just a passing resemblance.
Kay Sage, ca. 1940
Katherine Linn Sage was born in 1898, the daughter of a well-to-do family in the timber business. She was the younger of two daughters born to an Albany, New York, state politician and his wife, who were divorced when Kay was ten years old. Leaving Kay's older sister with her father, Kay's mother took her and moved to Europe, though the family remained close through frequent correspondence and occasional return visits to the U.S. Kay and her mother made their home in Rapallo, a small city on the Italian Rivera, but often traveled to Paris and elsewhere in Europe. Kay's father continued to support them generously. As a young girl, Kay liked to draw and write. Her first art instruction came at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., however when her mother moved back to Italy, Kay also studied in Rome, though she always claimed to be self-taught in that so little of her formal training bore any resemblance to her later work.

Young Girl in an Orange Dress,
1922, Kay Sage
Along the way, around 1923, Kay Sage met a young Italian nobleman named Prince Ranieri di San Faustino. They were married in 1925 and for ten years they lived the "good life" of upper-class Italians. Her husband was content with their lifestyle, but Sage was not, referring to it later as a "stagnant swamp." In 1933 Kay's father died, followed by the death of her sister a year later. The following year, Kay left her wealthy husband while having her first exhibition of six "experimental abstractions" at a gallery in Milan. In 1937 she moved with her mother to a luxurious apartment in Paris, intent upon building a life for herself as an artist. The portrait, Young Girl in an Orange Dress (left) dates from Sage's days as an art student around 1922. Quite apart from any abstract experimentation, the Surrealism for which Sage is best known seems to have been well-grounded in the basics.

Afterwards, 1937, Kay Sage
Early in 1938, Sage saw the International Surrealist Exhibit at Galerie Beaux-Arts--299 pieces by sixty artists from fourteen countries. There, for the first time, Sage encountered Surrealism and was especially fascinated by the work of de Chirico. it was a "first impression," as it were, which was to stick with her, defining her style, for the rest of her career. She even bought one of his paintings. Excited and inspired by what she saw of Surrealism, Sage began to paint semi-abstract, somewhat Surrealistic works which she displayed in the 1938 Salon des Surindépendants show at the Porte de Versailles. Her paintings, such as Afterwards (right) at this show, so impressed the Surrealism godfather, Andre Breton, that he thought they'd been done by a man. (From that point on Kay began including her first name when signing her work.) It was through Breton that Sage initially met her future second husband, Yves Tanguy.

In the Third Sleep, 1944, Kay Sage
I Saw Three Cities, 1944, Kay Sage
With the onslaught of hostilities in Poland in September, 1939, Sage and her mother thought it best to return to the United States where Kay used her money and the influence of her father's old friends to arrange for other Surrealists to do likewise. Those included the recently divorced Tanguy, whom she married in 1940. Friends of the couple say it was an abusive, alcoholic marriage, but a lasting one nonetheless. Whether influenced by her new husband, or of her own accord, most of Sage's important work was done after her marriage and before the sudden death of Tanguy from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1955. By that time, as witnessed by her Danger, Construction Ahead (top), and I Saw Three Cities (left), Sage’s art had gained a respectable following among critics. However, is often the case in such marriages, Sage found it difficult to emerge from the shadow of the better-known husband. By all accounts, Sage was devastated by his death. Aside from the touching  No Passage (bottom) from 1956, she did little new painting after Tanguy's death. This was due partially to her depression, but also the onset of poor eyesight resulting from cataracts. Instead she worked promoting her husband's art legacy and writing slangy French poetry. In late 1958 and early 1959 Sage filed her will, finished a massive catalogue of Tanguy's works, then tried to commit suicide with an overdoes of sleeping pills. Her housekeeper found her and managed to revive her.

Unusual Thursday, 1951, Kay Sage
Men Working, 1951, Kay Sage
For a time, Sage seemed to recover from her depression. She turned to wire sculpture, had partially successful cataract surgery, and was honored with a major retrospective show of her work in 1960. However, in August, 1961, Sage wrote in her journal, “I have said all that I have to say. There is nothing left for me to do but scream.” Less than two years later, in January, 1963, she put a fatal bullet through her heart. As instructed in her will, her friend, Pierre Matisse, buried urns containing Sage’s and Tanguy’s ashes in the waters off the coast of Tanguy’s native Brittany.

Tomorrow is Never, 1955, Kay Sage

Painted shortly after her husband's death.


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