Bridging the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, landscape and still-life, Surrealist dreamscape and automatist form, Je me faisais semblant (I was pretending to myself) is a large and important painting that Yves Tanguy made in America in 1948. It is one of a series of extraordinary and ever-more ambitious works that Tanguy executed with increasing confidence and grandeur during his American years, and conjures a powerful and persuasive image of a brave new world, using only the strange poetry established by Tanguy's unique pictorial language of bizarre and partially abstract forms.
Although Tanguy altered neither his painterly style nor his working method after moving to America in 1939, continuing to painstakingly build the forms of his mysterious landscapes intuitively piece by piece, it was there that his visions were to grow in scope, stature and complexity. The strict and dominant horizontality of his intimate psychological landscapes of the 1930s continued, but these archetypal, dolmen-like monoliths and hieroglyphic constructions either grew more dense and complex or gave way, as here in this work, to more angular modern-looking forms that often seemed to have been mechanically-produced by some alien intelligence or civilization.
The most dramatic change that America was to produce in Tanguy's work however, as he himself observed, was in that of his palette. Richer, warmer colours and a predisposition towards the use of red in particular - perhaps prompted by his friend and Connecticut neighbour Alexander Calder who encouraged him to include it in his work - came to predominate in his 'skies' and also many of his forms. In an interview Tanguy gave to James Johnson Sweeney of New York's Museum of Modern Art 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).
After originally living in New York, Tanguy and his wife, the painter Kay Sage, had moved to Woodbury Connecticut, where, alongside many other artist friends in the neighbourhood including Alexander Calder, André Masson, David Hare and Arshille Gorky, they settled into a more rural and peaceful existence. Tanguy's former schoolfriend Pierre Matisse, who now ran an important gallery of avant-garde art in New York, gave Tanguy a contract with his gallery and a monthly stipend in return for one painting a month. This position of relative security, along with Tanguy's sense of rural isolation in Woodbury, may have led to the expansion and change in his art during this time. Far less erratic than the Tanguy of old, who had often patrolled the streets and cafés of Paris with a reckless sense of wild abandon, and painted only when it appealed to him, in America he settled into a consolidated routine of creativity that involved a daily practice of painting.
In conjunction with his wife, Tanguy began a practice of working from each morning to the early afternoon when they would round off the day with a review of each other's work and, what was for Tanguy, an almost obligatory series of martinis. Indeed, the new crystal clear, light and sharp definition of form that begins to appear in Tanguy's art in the mid-1940s may in fact, reflect the strong clear and often sharply angular forms of Kay Sage's art.
Je me faisais semblant is one of the first of Tanguy's works of the late 1940s in which such forms, reminiscent of some of Sage's paintings, begin to appear. In 1949, in such paintings as the vast La Peur II (Fear II) - which, to Tanguy's delight, was immediately bought by the Whitney Museum of American Art when it, like Je me faisais semblant, was shown at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1950 - these forms developed into mysterious cut-out shapes grasped like strange shards of glass or mirror by Tanguy's amorphous constructions. Sharp and angular, these forms, as perhaps the title of the Whitney's painting attests, invested Tanguy's work with a distinctly modern sense of angst and discomfort that many observers have equated with the rise of the Cold War. Another characteristic of Tanguy's late-1940s landscapes that is very distinctive in both Je me faisais semblant and works like La Peur II, is Tanguy's tendency to push his forms and constructions to the edge of the canvas. Throughout the 1940s, and perhaps again as a result of working in close conjunction with his wife, Tanguy had begun to push the painted matter toward the boundaries of the canvas, now presenting his paintings as if they were partial views of a wider vista. In addition to this, many of his forms are set horizontally across the bottom edge of his canvas allowing a greater emphasis to be placed on the strange barren horizonless landscapes existing at the centre of his paintings. This tendency is brought to an extreme in Je me faisais semblant and La Peur II where Tanguy's towering constructions of form are cropped by the sides of the picture, in a way that encourages the eye to drift into the hazy sunset colours of the reddish sky at the heart of each picture.
In Je me faisais semblant in particular, the jagged shard-like peaks of the sheet-metal-like form situated centre-right and the twin antenna-like poles extending into the sky on the left of the painting seem to hint, in their conjunction with the strangely unnatural colouring of the sky, that this is indeed a scene belonging to the mysteries of a new atomic age. The strange clustering conglomeration of smaller and more animate forms in the foreground also appears to reiterate this sense of otherworldly laws of nature being present. On the whole though, as this painting also attests, Tanguy here seems to be exploring a new language of abstraction. Made at the height of the Surrealist versus Abstraction tendencies in avant-garde American art and the emergence from this of what would became the Abstract Expressionist or New York School of painting, this painting too seems to hover on the borderlines between Surrealism and Abstraction while pushing back the boundaries of both.
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 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, his titles were often deliberately left open-ended, being, as one must assume here with the mysterious Je me faisais semblant, evocative but ultimately enigmatic phrases serving solely as verbal points of conclusion to the mysterious pictorial journey of discovery that he had embarked on in each work.
There are no landscapes. There is not even a horizon', André Breton wrote of Tanguy's hypnotic mental landscapes. '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)