The motifs that Tanguy paints in his compositions are prolific cellular forms--part organic, part weirdly engineered constructions--that inhabit the vast landscape of no known place. Rendered in meticulous, modeled detail, these bizarre things, or perhaps creatures, manifest the illusion of possessing real substance and their own kind of living existence-ostensibly static, they give the impression of being capable of evolution, growth and even movement, albeit at an imperceptibly glacial pace. In Entends-tu ("Do your hear?") a trio of oddly amalgamated beings have assembled and appear to engage in some sort of subliminal discourse--the form at far left is appropriately ear-shaped. Their otherworldly reality--that is, their pictorial reality--is such that they bridge the divide between the abstract and the figurative. Their convincingly modeled volumes cast dark shadows across the landscape, even if they may appear translucent and only barely corporeal, as if at any second they might suddenly come apart, collapse and melt away into the vast landscape which they inhabit.
This strange world is implausible and absurd, and fortunately not devoid of an idiosyncratic sense of humor. Tanguy's clamorous forms are irrepressibly gregarious and are generally inclined to cluster and socialize in the foreground of available space, where they may even adhere to the protocols of sensible spatial relationships and even the laws of pictorial perspective. In true surrealist fashion, the stuff of these compositions seems at first strange and unbelievable, but they manage to insinuate themselves into the viewer's consciousness and take on an uncanny familiarity, even a kind of humanity, while remaining utterly inexplicable and unfathomable, resolutely defiant to any normal sense of logic or understanding.
The serendipitous moment of recognition that led Tanguy to become a painter, and not long afterward commence his creation of these fantastical mental spaces, may sound like a surrealist fable, but it actually happened this way... Having served as a cadet in the merchant marine, Tanguy returned to Paris, but without recourse to any useful trade he drifted from one job to another. It was indeed a fateful day for him at the end of 1922, when standing on the platform of a moving bus, Tanguy caught a glance of two unusual looking paintings in the storefront window of Paul Guillaume's gallery on the rue du Faubourg-St. Honoré. He jumped off the vehicle to get a closer look--the pictures were by Giorgio de Chirico. Only a few years before, Andre Breton had discovered the art of "il grande metafisico" in the same gallery. Tanguy was enthralled. Not long after, he began to draw and paint. He had no interest in proper training--his efforts were entirely self-taught.
Having seen their landmark exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in 1925, Tanguy sought out the surrealists. He met André Breton at the end of that year, and participated in surrealist events the following spring. He flourished in this company, while remaining true and fast to an inner vision of things: he quickly developed his own distinctive style and subject matter, which owe something to the biomorphic abstraction of Jean Arp and Joan Miró, but more importantly stem from childhood memories of Brittany and his experiences at sea. While he was growing up in Paris, his family made frequent visits to Locronan, the town in coastal Finistère province from which his mother hailed. There he encountered the rude but imposing rock structures, the dolmens and menhirs (fig. 1) that prehistoric people had erected for purposes now lost to us in time. Tanguy enjoyed exploring the marine life in tide pools along the rocky coast, and was fascinated with local legends of the mysterious city of Ys, submerged Atlantis-like beneath the waves offshore.
Tanguy admired the great 15th century Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch, sharing a taste for bizarre and inexplicable symbol-laden imagery, alchemical references, clusters of jostling figures as well as a neatly articulated and careful rendering of form. A slow and meticulous craftsman, Tanguy loved objects that were beautifully made, and he imparted to the elements in his paintings the same care and convincing presence that a realist painter gives to a figure, a still-life object or specific features in a landscape.
The evocation of landscape, filtered through memory and imagination, is the defining constant in Tanguy's art (fig. 2). In this respect Tanguy's work is unique among the Surrealist painters, who more typically displayed a multiplicity of subjects and styles. James Thrall Soby wrote: "Once he found his direction--and he found it with a startling abruptness--he followed it with devotion and purity, secret in his quest and oblivious of the pressures of fashion and commerce" (Yves Tanguy, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955, p. 9). Tanguy's conception of a bare, featureless inner landscape was so compelling that it influenced Salvador Dalí, who had the advantage of academic training, to treat his trompe l'oeil landscapes in a similar way. In Tanguy's painted world, the land is vast and empty as far as the eye can see, and the ether above even more expansive, but ominously weighty, bearing down on the creatures that dwell below. His pictures usually possess only one reliably familiar reference point--the horizon--by which one can relate them to a conventional landscape, and even this notion is relative. A Tanguy horizon may appear as a hard dividing line between space above and space below, or it may dissolve in a haze, leaving the impression not so much of a place, desolate at it may be, but as of a world bordering on an inchoate void. Soby has noted Tanguy's "dual manipulation of perspective, from far to near and from high to low. Naturally conventional perspective presupposes both depth and height, but perhaps no other modern painter has so insistently dramatized an opposition between these two dimensions" (ibid., p. 15). In the present painting, a darkening tempest appears to gather menacingly in the distance, perhaps a reference to the worsening political situation in Europe during the late 1930s, which gave the artist cause to ask "Do you hear?"
By 1927, the year of Tanguy's first one-man exhibition at the Galerie Surrréaliste in Paris, his mature style had emerged, and would change little over the course of the next several decades, except by way of subtlety and refinement, especially in the cultivation of his particular inhabitant forms, in which he exercised an astonishing variety of invention. "Surprises are my pleasure in painting," Tanguy declared (quoted in ibid., p. 17). What interested the painter most was the generation of an unpredictable and spontaneous profusion of motifs (fig. 3), the accretion of forms, the evolution from one to the next, with each finding its niche within the expanse of the canvas. Entends-tu, painted a decade after the artist's gallery debut, mingle the various elements of this singular syntax in his most characteristic manner. Across an enigmatic, panoramic void, a desert, a sea-floor, or simply call it a visual allegory for the strange world in which we find ourselves, Tanguy's crypto-organisms signal to each other, approach at a snail's-pace and mingle in their peculiar fashion--this remains, after all, a world driven by desire, a form of society in which there is an aching need to connect, but with what results we will never know.
Unnumbered artist photo:
Yves Tanguy painting in his studio, 1938.
(fig. 1) The Ménec alignment of megalithic stones near Carnac, Brittany.
fig. 2) The "White Cliffs" on the Bay of Douarnenez, Brittany, where Tanguy spent several months painting in 1927. Photograph by Wolf Eiermann.
(fig. 3) Coral forms from the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, photographed by Brassaï with text by André Breton, published in Minotaure (Paris, no. 5, 1934).