Painted in 1935, L’empalmage illustrates the captivating power of Yves Tanguy’s enigmatic Surrealist landscapes, in which he conjured a sequence of sculptural forms set against a hazy, mysterious and infinite background that slowly fades away into an impenetrable distance. Like the majority of the artist’s paintings from this period, L’empalmage is the product of a near-automatic technique that Tanguy had developed in the late 1920s and then refined over the course of the following decade. ‘I found that if I planned a picture beforehand,’ Tanguy once remarked, ‘it never surprised me, and surprises are pleasure in painting’ (quoted in Yves Tanguy, exh. cat. New York, 1955, p. 17). For the artist, what interested him most was the way in which the first motif he painted always suggested a second, beginning a sequence of spontaneous painterly impulses in which each individual shape came to serve as the prompt for the next, until the composition as a whole felt complete.
To this end, in the mid-1930s Tanguy began to paint in a single room devoid of any furnishings except his easel – nothing else was allowed to enter this sacred empty space and distract the artist while he concentrated on bringing into being this unique, otherworldly landscape. In this way, he felt all of his energy, intuition and creative imagination could best be brought into focus on the unique mental landscape he was psychically creating in the heart of this otherwise empty room. ‘The painting grows before my eyes revealing its surprises as it comes together,’ Tanguy explained. ‘That’s what gives me a sense of total freedom, and for that reason I am incapable of conceiving a plan or of doing a preliminary sketch’ (quoted in the film by Fabrice Maze, Yves Tanguy. Derrière la grille des yeux bleus, 2007). This monastic and meditative approach to the creation of his paintings was one that he would continue for the rest of his life.
In L’empalmage a collection of Tanguy’s familiar amorphic, stone-like sculptural forms are arranged across the foreground in a series of loose groupings. Set against a richly modulated ground of softly gradated golden tones, these organic structures are in places reminiscent of stony forms on the beaches of Brittany where the artist had grown up, and yet also appear as if they belong to some mysterious and as yet unknown alien language. In the right hand corner, a multi-layered monolith towers above the other elements, standing tall against the ethereal landscape. Balancing in a delicate equilibrium that seems simultaneously completely stable and ready to disintegrate at any moment, this element appears to be held in place by a strange internal gravity, while the other fragments and shards of rock appear to gravitate towards it. Precariously standing on a sharp-edged point, the entire weight of the heavy upper forms concentrated in an impossibly small area, the tall cluster appears almost as if it were floating in mid-air, or underwater, the strength of its internal tension holding them defiantly in place.
The title of the painting, L’empalmage or ‘palmage,’ refers to an act of sleight-of-hand whereby an object is hidden in the hollow curve of the palm, only to be relived in a theatrical flourish, as if conjured from air. It is a title which captures Tanguy’s uncanny ability to intrigue the mind’s eye and seduce us with a mystery that does not divulge its secret. As André Breton, one of Tanguy’s greatest admirers, wrote of his work, the artist’s paintings seem to represent ‘the words of a language which we cannot yet hear but which we shall shortly be reading and speaking, and which we shall recognise as being ideally suited to the exchange of new ideas’ (quoted in Dawn Ades, ‘Yves Tanguy's Horizons’ in Klee, Tanguy, Miro, exh. cat., Vienna, 2000, p. 176).