To be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the work of Yves Tanguy being prepared by the Pierre and Gaëtana Matisse Foundation.
Painted in 1927, Sans titre is one of Yves Tanguy's first great series of mysterious mental landscapes. Conjuring a profound though murky sense of enigma, these often dark, sparse and desolate scenes, populated solely by mysterious clouds and secretions, bizarre plant- life and anonymous amorphic figures, are among the artist's finest works.
Tanguy was first inspired to become a painter and indeed a Surrealist by a chance encounter with a work by Giorgio de Chirico that he saw displayed in a Parisian gallery window while travelling past in a bus. Like André Breton who reports an identical story about the same picture, The Child's Brain, Tanguy was moved so much by what he saw of this painting that he jumped off the bus to investigate further. There, he discovered in de Chirico the 'first painter of the mind' and, so the legend goes, immediately recognised his own destiny as an artist.
Tanguy arrived at his mature and, in its own way, hyper-realist style of painting in the mid 1920s almost overnight in a remarkable transformation, that coincided with his joining the Surrealist group. Although the very first examples of his new style date from 1926, it was not until 1927, in a flood of exceptional works, often given bizarre titles coined from the mad-house, that Tanguy established his credentials as one of the foremost artists of the Surrealist imagination. The format for these paintings was deceptively simple. A high horizon line suggests an ambiguous and desolate landscape against which Tanguy let his unconscious mind roam free, creating spontaneously the first kind of images that sprang to mind. Echoing the semi-automatic painterly approach of fellow Surrealists, André Masson, Joan Miró, and Max Ernst, Tanguy created the first landscapes to evoke a sense of intermingled memory and desire. With his imagery emerging directly from the vaults of his own often feverish unconscious mind, one strange form would suggest a second and then a third, etc. while Tanguy would effectively watch at what Ernst called 'the birth' of his art. 'The element of surprise in the creation of a work of art is,' Tanguy once said, 'for me, the most important thing' (Yves Tanguy : 'The Creative Process', in Art Digest, vol. 28, no. 8, New York, January 1954, p. 14).
Influenced by the strange haunting mysteries of Arnold Böcklin and eager to emulate the autumn atmosphere of enigma that permeates so many of de Chirico's finest works, it is perhaps no surprise to find that, with their dark shadows and undefined forms, many of Tanguy's earliest works evoke a dream-like picture of an underwater world of exotic life and mystery on the ocean floor. The sea is, after all, the greatest natural metaphor for the realm of the unconscious mind and for Tanguy, an ex-sailor with the Merchant Navy, who had grown up on the north coast of Brittany, it was both an undeniable and an ever-present manifestation of the great unknown.
In developing his amorphic language of form, it is clear that Tanguy was profoundly influenced by the marine landscape of the Brittany coast of his childhood as well as by the primordial mystery of the many Neolithic stones that extend along the region's vast and rugged horizons. The nature of Tanguy's art suggests that the sight of these erect and strangely animate forms silhouetted against the sky evidently burnt itself deep into the artist's mind. Both they and the sea consequently play a key role in both Tanguy's pictorial imagination and in the development of his early paintings, which, as Marcel Jean once quite poetically pointed out, display the same 'penetrating loneliness' as that experienced by sailors alone on a seemingly infinite expanse of water (M. Jean, The History of Surrealist Painting, London, 1959, p. 198).
Not everything in Tanguy's art derives from the 'convulsive beauty' of forms to be found in nature, however. The many clouds and strange secretions or misty emanations that again seem like underwater phenomena are also indicative of an imaginary world. Tanguy also inter- mingled vaguely erotic and sexually stimulative imagery into his personal pictorial language. For example, the wisps of cloud or smoke or sperm that are often to be seen permeating and hovering around his early paintings are also thought to be suggestive of a mysterious spiritual dimension and to refer to the Theosophical belief at that time in emanations from the spirit world, leaving a vague material trace of their passage and presence.
Sans titre is one of the boldest and sparsest of all the works in Tanguy's great early series of paintings. A collation of bizarre amorphic forms hovering over a barren landscape, each shape leaving behind an ominous elongated shadow on the empty otherworldly surface of the landscape below it, it at first appears as a calm and even meditative work. But, with its lone humanoid figure seemingly fleeing in the bottom right of the canvas conjuring comparisons with the little girl with a hoop running blithely through De Chirico's Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, this work too seems to describe an unknown and perhaps even unknowable drama.
For André Breton who, like Tanguy, had spent his childhood in Brittany, Tanguy, was 'the painter of terrifying elegance in the air, in the depths of the earth and the seas'. 'I find it impossible' he wrote of Tanguy's art in 1928, 'to think of a picture save as a window, and my first concern about a window is to find out what it looks out on... and there is nothing I love so much as something which stretches away from me out of sight.' (Le Surréalisme et la peinture, Paris, 1928.)