It is the current intention of the Yves Tanguy Committee to include this work it the forthcoming revised catalogue raisonné of Tanguy's paintings, gouaches and objects.
'I expect nothing of my reflections, but I am sure of my reflexes'.
(Yves Tanguy quoted in Yves Tanguy, exh. cat. New York, 1955, p. 19).
'Should I seek the reasons for my painting, I would feel that it would be a self-imprisonment.' - Yves Tanguy
(‘The Creative Process’, in Art Digest, vol. 28, no. 8, 1954).
'The element of surprise in the creation of a work of art is, to me, the most important factor. The painting develops before my eyes, unfolding its surprises as it progresses. It is this which gives me the sense of complete liberty, and for this reason I am incapable of forming a plan or making a sketch beforehand.’ - Yves Tanguy
(‘The Creative Process’, in Art Digest, vol. 28, no. 8, 1954, p. 14).
L’Extinction des espèces II is a large scale and important painting by Yves Tanguy from 1938. One of the finest of the artist’s paintings, made during the last full year that he spent in Europe, this work carries the same title as a smaller and very different painting, formerly in the collection of Richard Feigen, that Tanguy had painted two years earlier, in 1936. In this earlier painting, Tanguy had presented a series of hieroglyphic-like rows of amorphous, dolmen-like forms gradually receding towards a typically empty, far-away horizon. Measuring nearly three times the size of this previous 1936 painting, Tanguy’s L’Extinction des espèces II is not only a larger, more ambitious and vibrant work, it is also one that marks a significant shift in direction. As James Thrall Soby was to write of this 1938 picture when it was exhibited at the great retrospective of Tanguy’s work, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955, L’Extinction des espèces II marks, ‘a very considerable development in his art’. It is, for example, Soby wrote, ‘completely different,’ from a picture such as Les Mouvements et les Acts (Movements and Acts), which Tanguy had painted only one year previously (J.T. Soby, Yves Tanguy, exh. cat., New York, 1955, p. 18).
What is most notable about L’Extinction des espèces II in this respect is the heightened use of colour that Tanguy has bestowed upon the painting and the picture’s complete absence of horizon. This tendency to favour brighter and more joyous colours and a completely ambiguous, horizonless space is a feature of L’Extinction des espèces II that would distinguish and characterise much of Tanguy’s work during his last years in France and would continue long after his move to America in November 1939. As André Breton wrote in admiration of this development in Tanguy’s work, it not only marked the introduction of a new element in his art but was one that effectively confirmed his pictures as uniquely original, fully-formed vistas of the mind and the processes of thought. ‘There are no landscapes. There is not even a horizon’, Breton wrote. ‘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’ (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).
Like the vast majority of Tanguy’s mental landscapes L’Extinction des espèces II is the product of an intuitive and largely unconscious method of painting that Tanguy had first developed in the late 1920s. After first delineating a background landscape whose hazy colours and forms would articulate the mood of the picture, Tanguy would instinctively begin to populate the canvas with a series of intuitively arrived-at forms. The creation of one form would both lead to and suggest another until an entire, unknown and mysterious world was created. ‘The painting’, Tanguy recalled, ‘grows before my eyes revealing its surprises as it comes together. 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’ (Tanguy, quoted in film by Fabrice Maze, Yves Tanguy – Derrière la grille des ses yeux bleus, Grenoble, 2007).
Apart from a brief period in the early 1930s when, inspired by the mountains of North Africa, the artist had created a few paintings according to a preconceived plan, Tanguy would always make use of this meditative and near mediumistic method of painting. 'I found that if I planned a picture beforehand,' Tanguy recalled, ‘it never surprised me’ (Tanguy, quoted in Yves Tanguy, exh. cat. New York, 1955, p. 17). And, as he was later to write in an article on his creative process, for Tanguy, it was this ‘element of surprise in the creation of a work of art [that] is, for me, the most important thing' (Tanguy, 'The Creative Process', Art Digest, vol. 28, no. 8, New York, January 1954, p. 14.)
As a way to encourage and focus this medium-like method of creation, in 1935 Tanguy embarked upon a new and more methodical way of painting. Working solely on one picture at a time, he began to paint in a single room that he had emptied of all its former furnishings and objects, save that of his easel and his painting tools. This intentionally austere, monastic and meditative approach to the creation of his pictures was one that he was to continue for the rest of his life. Nothing else was allowed to enter this sacred empty space or to distract the artist while he concentrated on bringing into being the unique world that slowly made itself visible on the single canvas he set upon his easel. In this way, Tanguy 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 space.
Set against a mysterious background of misty, cloudlike colours and shadows, in L’Extinction des espèces II, Tanguy has punctuated this colourful and ambiguous space with an extraordinary range of amorphous forms. Some stand like cacti in the desert. Others cluster together to create forms reminiscent of those that Alexander Calder would make a few years later under Tanguy’s influence when the two artists lived in close proximity to one another in Connecticut. Towards the top of the painting three, eye-like forms seem to gather in conversation while towards the bottom of the painting – the apparent foreground – a tower-like collation of forms casting a strong shadow is balanced on the left by eight gossamer-like threads stretching, like guitar strings in deep perspective, into the middle ground of the picture. In all these disparate concatenations of form, a surprising and apparently joyous, poetic and new universe of form is conjured.
‘Before Tanguy’, André Breton wrote, ‘the object, despite the occasional exterior attacks to which it was subjected, remained, in the final analysis, distinct and imprisoned within its own identity. With Tanguy we enter for the first time into a world of total latency…Here, the elixir of life is decanted, leaving behind all the cloudy sediment of our ephemeral individual existences. The tide ebbs, revealing an endless shore where hitherto unknown composite shapes, creep, rear up, straddle the sand, sometimes sinking below the surface or soaring into the sky. They have no immediate equivalent in nature and it must be said that they have not as yet given rise to any valid interpretation’ (Breton, ‘Yves Tanguy’, in André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, London, 1965, pp. 178-9).