Bridging the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, landscape and still-life, Surrealist dreamscape and automatist form, L'Arc volant is one of a group of stark and ever-more ambitious and visionary paintings that Tanguy made with increasing confidence and grandeur during his last years in America.
Painted in New York in 1945, this work, with its sharp, angular amorphic constructions of stone-like forms set against a vague, colourful and ultimately foreboding horizon, is one that appears to function on many levels: as both a mysterious altarpiece and a magical landscape, as a pictorial eulogy to a lost world and also, perhaps, as a kind of votive image to a new, unknown one.
Like all of Tanguy's works, it has been painstakingly crafted using a small brush and long fine strokes carefully applied to establish a crystal-clear precision and sharp sense of realism. Rich in colour, especially the radiant red hues that Tanguy adopted after moving to America in 1939, the painting's forceful, even perhaps, aggressive-looking forms and sharply contrasting colours combine to conjure a powerful and persuasive image of a strange and disturbingly visceral landscape of the mind.
Tanguy's move to America in 1939 altered neither his painterly style nor his working method. He continued the practice he had established in Europe of intuitively building a poetry of anomalous forms against a mysterious landscapes, piece by piece. But, it was in America, far from home and removed from the violence and trauma of the Second World War that his visions were to grow in scope, stature and complexity. The strict and dominant horizontality of his intimate psychological landscapes of the 1930s persisted, but these archetypal, dolmen-like monoliths and hieroglyphic constructions now grew either more dense and complex or resulted, as in this work, in starker, more monolithic and even aggressive forms that often seemed to speak of the violence of the age.
As Tanguy was always keen to point out, his paintings, and the unique visual poetry they conjure, were part of an inner vision of the mind, solely the product of his unconscious. His work was rarely influenced by external stimuli, such as the location wherein he worked, or the landscape around him. Towards this end in fact, in America Tanguy, a former seaman, worked in a Spartan studio, fastidiously arranged with no other pictures on view, save the one canvas being worked on, set up on the room sole easel. Everything in the studio was arranged around this vortex, and to assist concentration on the sole work in progress. The most dramatic change, if any, that America was to produce in Tanguy's work, as he himself observed, came in the intensification of his palette. Richer, warmer colours and a predisposition towards the kind of red apparent in L'Arc volant - perhaps prompted by his close friend Alexander Calder who encouraged him to include it in his work - came to predominate in his 'skies' and also in many of the forms in his work of this period. In an interview Tanguy gave to James Johnson Sweeney in 1946, he remarked on this recent change in his work, saying, 'Here in the United States the only change I can distinguish in my work is possibly in my palette. What the cause of this intensification of colour is I can't say. But I do recognise a considerable change. Perhaps it is due to the light. I also have a feeling of greater space here - more 'room'. But that was why I came.' (Yves Tanguy 'Interview with James J Sweeney', 1946, exh. cat., Eleven European Artists. The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 13, nos. 4-5, New York, p. 22f.)
Painted in 1945, L'Arc volant is one of a series of paintings from this period that Tanguy may have included in an important exhibition of his work held at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in May of that year. An unknown work, that may have been L'Arc volant, but which bore the similar title of L'arc tournant, was listed as number 15 in the checklist for this exhibition.
Opening on 8th May 1945 this exhibition was highly instrumental in establishing Tanguy with the American public as one of the most collected Surrealists. Indeed, its financial success prompted Matisse to give Tanguy a major 'retrospective' exhibition at his gallery the following year. It was the success of this exhibition that, along with the stability of his relationship with Kay Sage, led to an increased financial optimism for Tanguy and initiated his and Sage's move to a large new farmhouse in Woodbury Connecticut in 1946. It was also on the occasion of this exhibition however, that Breton castigated Tanguy for actively seeking a comfortable bourgeois life and financial security. Tanguy who, despite this attack, remained on good terms with Breton for the rest of his life, was eagerly defended from the officious 'Pope of Surrealism on this occasion by fellow émigré Surrealist, Max Ernst.
The majority of the usually enigmatic and often curious titles that Tanguy gave to his paintings were usually prompted by the specific ambience generated by the work in question. Tanguy's working method was such that very little in his painting was ever pre-meditated. Working intuitively from one form to the next, Tanguy actively sought to be constantly "surprised" by the forms his painting took. It was this that essentially allowed his otherwise highly restrictive language of semi-abstract form the room to develop its own organic kind of growth, that prevented it from ever repeating itself. In the same way, the titles he did choose for his paintings were often deliberately left open-ended, being, as one must assume here with the mysterious L'Arc volant, evocative but ultimately enigmatic phrases that served solely as verbal points of conclusion to the mysterious pictorial journey of discovery that Tanguy had embarked on in each work.
'There are no landscapes. There is not even a horizon', André Breton wrote in 1946 of Tanguy's paintings such as this. 'There is only, physically speaking, our immense suspicion which surrounds everything. These figures of our suspicion, lovely and miserable shadows that prowl around our cave, are really shadows. The strong subjective light that floods Tanguy's canvasses makes us feel less abandoned. Every creature he depicts participates metaphysically in the life we have chosen, corresponds to our mental expectancy, belongs to some transcendent order (superior? inferior?) whose attractiveness is felt by us all. For a man who acts only on the purest motives, the fact of living among us gives him a vista on the mystery. It also implies his refusal to make a concession. Where most observers would see only a favourite setting for obscure and magnificent metamorphoses, there is actually presented the first survey - achieved without the aid of legends - of a considerable extent of the mental world which is not in its Genesis' (André Breton, 'At an Equal Distance', Yves Tanguy par André Breton, New York, 1946, quoted in Tanguy/Calder Between Surrealism and Abstraction, exh. cat., New York, 2009, p. 31).