‘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’ (Y. Tanguy, ‘Interview with James J Sweeney’, 1946, in Eleven Europeans in America, The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, vol. 13, nos. 4-5, p. 22-23).
Yves Tanguy emigrated from France to the United States in November 1939. There he joined his soon-to-be second wife, the American artist Kay Sage, to become one of the first of a wave of leading Surrealists fleeing the war in Europe for a new life in New York. One month after his arrival Tanguy held the first of what would prove to be a series of major exhibitions at the Pierre Matisse Gallery. A month later he also had his first museum exhibition at the Wadsworth Athenaeum. Painted in 1940, La lumière, la solitude is one of the first paintings that Tanguy made after moving to the United States. ‘Here I lived in the same atmosphere I knew in Paris,’ Tanguy observed. ‘I scarcely felt touched by the war. It seemed so far away from me. But there is more freedom – more room in this country. That is why I came here.’ (Yves Tanguy, quoted in exh. cat, Tanguy/Calder: Between Surrealism and Abstraction, New York, 2010, p. 8).
Settling at first into a small room in Washington Place, Greenwich Village, Tanguy’s adjustment to his new life in America was comparatively smooth and easy and he continued to work in very much the same style as he had done in France. His other-worldly visions and interior, mental landscapes full of existential mystery and invisible horizons remained apparently unaffected by any external influence of the time and place within which they were made. Indeed, Tanguy would later note that the only change in his American works that he could perceive was in their ‘intensification of colour’ and their gradual growth in scale.
As if reflective of the beginning of this developing tendency in his work, La lumière, la solitude is a comparatively large painting by Tanguy, distinctive for the rich rainbow colours of its background. With its constellation of ‘automatic’, intuitively-arrived-at forms in the foreground, all crosslinked and interconnected by a fine, taut network of gossamer-like threads, it is a particularly radiant example: a painting that through its brightness, rich colour and sharp clarity of forms seems to hint at a new beginning at the very same time that its jet black shadows point to a spectre of darkness in the background.
Hovering on the borderline between realist landscape and abstract fantasy, Tanguy’s forms inhabit a similarly morphological realm to that of fellow Surrealist painter Roberto Matta. While living in Washington Place, the Chilean-born Surrealist, who had also recently arrived in New York, was a neighbour of Tanguy’s and it is tempting to see a cross fertilisation of ideas between the two artists reflected in this painting. The radiant colour of La lumière, la solitude is close to that of Matta’s mock scientific morphologies, while the gossamer threads that stretch between each of its colourful constructions are both an intensification of the same device found in Tanguy’s paintings of the late 1930s and also something that would appear in Matta’s work of the same period distinguishing his paintings of the early 1940s. These inter-connective lines would also surface in wire form in several of the ‘Constellations’ that Tanguy’s future neighbour in Woodbury, Connecticut, Alexander Calder, would make when the two artists worked closely together between 1942 and 1943.
‘There are no landscapes. There is not even a horizon,’ André Breton wrote of Tanguy’s work in 1946. ‘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 foods Tanguy’s canvases 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’ (A. Breton, ‘At An Equal Distance’, in Yves Tanguy par André Breton’, New York, 1946, quoted in exh. cat., Tanguy/Calder: Between Surrealism and Abstraction, New York, 2010, p. 31).