Yves Tanguy 1900–1955
Oil paint on canvas
987 x 810 mm
Inscribed ‘Avril 1951’ on the stretcher
Purchased at Sotheby’s (Grant-in-Aid) 1964
Purchased from Kay Sage Tanguy, the artist’s widow, Woodbury, Connecticut through the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York by Dr Dieter Keller, Stuttgart in 1956, by whom sold at Sotheby’s, London, 29 April 1964, lot 123.
The Invisibles is typical of the ambiguous landscapes that Yves Tanguy produced throughout his career, and which, according to his friend and surrealist colleague André Breton (1896–1966), function as concrete representations of the unknown.1 Painted in 1951, the work is particularly characteristic of the large-scale scenes that he produced in the last few years of his career while living in America. Tanguy’s paintings have often been interpreted as depictions of an unknown planet populated by strange living creatures or ‘Beings’. This is likely to be partly due to his painting process, in which he first created the background setting, before adding the figures on top of it. This technique changed little throughout his career, though the appearance of his ‘Beings’ did alter over time. Tanguy first of all covered the entire linen canvas in broad brushstrokes of diluted oil paint before blending it to create a smoothly gradated background, allowing it to dry before adding the figures in thicker oil paint on top. Tanguy’s artist friend Gordon Onslow Ford (1912–2003) described how he constructed his figures: ‘the most simple ones started with a wide contour stroke that ended where it began; a contrasting colour was put in the middle, and the edges between the two were deftly blended.’2 Tanguy used small brushstrokes that were blended so as to be almost undetectable, a veristic style that can be related to the enigmatic landscapes of some of Tanguy’s contemporaries including Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), René Magritte (1898–1967) and Paul Delvaux (1897–1994).
The horizon line that is clearly evident in some of Tanguy’s earlier landscapes, such as Azure Day 1937 (Tate T07080), is not present in The Invisibles nor in any other work from this stage in his career. Instead of the rocky desert-like terrain evoked by the early works, the backdrop to The Invisibles resembles a sky, or perhaps an underwater place. Both are implied by the dappled nature of the paint application, in which patches of grey and white paint have been added over the horizontal bands. Though the gradation from the dark lower part to the lighter upper part is still clear, the effect is more vaporous than the more strongly horizontal striations of Tanguy’s earlier landscapes. The Invisibles was exhibited alongside a number of other works from the 1950s in Tanguy’s retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1955, the year of the artist’s death.3
The appearance of the figures in The Invisibles display several key differences from Tanguy’s paintings of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Azure Day, both in their form and in their arrangement. Although they are positioned along the lower half of the picture plane as they are in Tanguy’s paintings of the 1930s, their truncated forms indicate a departure from those earlier works which tended to depict whole forms in a more concrete landscape setting. The sense of vertigo that is created by The Invisibles is in part a result of this cropping of forms, combined with the atmospheric nature of the backdrop, which evokes towering height. This sense of space and height represents the final phase of Tanguy’s larger, more spacious paintings that he produced during his time in America, where he had fled in 1939 to take refuge from the impending war in Europe. He stated: ‘I have a feeling of greater space and light here – more “room”. But that was why I came.’4
The slender, almost mechanical shapes of The Invisibles display a more complex inter-relationship than the more solid mineral forms of Tanguy’s earlier works. While these earlier figures indicate the strong influence of the megalithic landscape of his native Brittany, the shapes that populate his post-war paintings are metallic and reminiscent of machinery. Tanguy’s use of blue tones to depict the figures gives them a reflective quality that mirrors the colour of the backdrop. Dark shadows are balanced by cool white highlights that suggest light glinting off metal, though neither sunlight nor moonlight are explicitly indicated. The detailed blending of paint here functions to evoke smooth and impenetrable surfaces. In the upper right corner, a sharp angular form balances in a horizontal position, its outline resembling an aeroplane. Such shapes may have been informed by Tanguy’s interest in military machinery and firearms (he kept a collection of guns), or the militaristic technology and Cold War terminology that pervaded American news imagery during the 1950s. Writing in the catalogue of Tanguy’s exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1950, the art critic Nicolas Calas pointed out that the skyscrapers of Manhattan must also have influenced the iconography of Tanguy’s late works.5
The segmented nature of the figures’ shafts also suggests bones that balance and intertwine, making it difficult to distinguish one ‘Being’ from another as they tower towards the empty vaporous space at the top of the painting. The identity of the forms is typically uncertain, at once robotic and biomorphic. This is illustrated by the variety of vocabulary employed by Tanguy’s commentators. The poet John Ashbery, for example, has described the figures in Tanguy’s late paintings as ‘long and painfully attenuated thorns’ and ‘a group of prickly spires’,6 while the art historian Karin von Maur describes them as ‘pointed pallisades’ and ‘aerial roots’.7 Describing Tanguy’s iconography in 1946, André Breton commented on its deliberate ambiguity and warned against attempts to interpret concrete identities in its forms: ‘Tanguy’, he claimed, ‘is far from regretting the necessity of including some of these “direct” elements in his paintings, as it often happens that they set off the occult meanings of other elements.’8
The pale triangular forms to the left and lower right of the canvas are also characteristic of Tanguy’s later works. Indeed, such flattened, two-dimensional shapes only appear in paintings that were produced in the last six years of his life. They introduce a level of tension between two- and three-dimensional representation. Gordon Onslow Ford described the contrapuntal function of such forms in his 1983 tribute Yves Tanguy and Automatism:
In 1949 a new phenomenon appeared in the form of angular off-white shapes that usually were painted before the Beings. They often stretched up to the sky and were pointed, and could be called ANTE-shadows. The off-white ante-shadows and black shadows attended the Beings on the light and dark sides. Together they were heralds suggesting preparations for a metamorphosis, perhaps towards a black and white world that exists deeper in the mind, a place that Tanguy did not have time to encounter.9
The terminology with which Onslow Ford discusses this formal aspect of the painting reflects the influence of myth and legend on Tanguy’s work. Though Tanguy never referred specifically to his formative experiences or influences, his work was no doubt much influenced by the landscape of Finistère, in the north-west of France, where his family village of Locranan was situated. While the direct influence of the ‘menhirs’ (prehistoric, figurative stone sculptures) that filled that landscape is more evident in Tanguy’s earlier paintings, the ‘Beings’ that populate The Invisibles recall the immaterial, wandering ‘Beings of the Otherworld’ that dominate the Celtic legends that are associated with the area. Tanguy was shown manuscripts that retold these legends by his bibliophile father, who also researched Celtic megalithic culture and conducted archaeological excavations in the area.10 In his publication on Tanguy in 1946, André Breton made reference to this Celtic heritage, hailing his friend as ‘the guide of the time of the mistletoe Druids’, and this notion of a legendary ‘otherworld’ still informed Tanguy’s work at the end of his life.11
The title of the work, The Invisibles, seems to contradict the appearance of the forms depicted, which, though slender, are rendered solid by the dark shadows and strong highlights that Tanguy employs. Rather it is the background that appears ethereal and intangible. However, the title makes more sense when considered not as a description but as a pointer to the thematic ideas expressed by the picture. It may hint at the ‘Beings’ described by Onslow Ford that appear throughout Tanguy’s oeuvre. It is probable, however, that this title also makes more specific allusions, most likely to Breton’s text ‘The Great Invisibles’ (‘Les Grands Transparents’), a part of his article ‘Prolegomena to a Third Manifesto of Surrealism or Else’. The text was published in June 1942 in the first volume of the journal VVV, which had succeeded the publication Minotaur and which became the central organ of the surrealist group during their period of exile in America. Breton’s prologue highlights the physical and social constraints of the human body, and proposes the existence of higher beings. Breton’s prose finds resonance in the ambiguous nature of Tanguy’s beings, simultaneously concrete and ethereal, seemingly from some other world yet imbued with familiar forms and textures:
Man is perhaps not the centre, the cynosure of the universe. One can go so far as to believe that there exists above him, on the animal scale, beings whose behaviour is as strange to him as his may be to the mayfly or the whale. Nothing necessarily stands in the way of these creatures’ being able to completely escape man’s sensory system of references through a camouflage of whatever sort one cares to imagine … Must these beings be convinced that they result from a mirage or must they be given a chance to show themselves?12
It is not known whether the painting was named at the point of its conception, or whether the title was assigned after its completion. Certainly the latter had been the case with many of Tanguy’s previous works (most notably those included in the 1927 Galerie Surréaliste exhibition, to which he had attached titles in collaboration with André Breton according to the principles of ‘guided chance’.13) Tanguy’s claims to spontaneous automatic creation, though belied by the pencil outlines that are evident in this work, as in many of his other paintings, would seem to support the argument that his titles were applied after the painting was at least almost finished. It is perhaps significant that in 1951, the same year that Tanguy created The Invisibles, he put an end to his friendship with Breton, a relationship that had long been marked by tensions provoked by the surrealist spokesman. They had met in December 1925 (though Tanguy was already familiar with Breton’s writings) and became close friends and allies; it would be one of Breton’s longer lasting relationships. Having visited Tanguy in 1937, Peggy Guggenheim would recall that at that time ‘he adored Breton … and seemed to think his whole life depended on being a Surrealist’.14 During the last years of Tanguy’s life, letters to his long-time friend Marcel Jean reveal that the relationship had become subject to growing tensions. He stated ominously that ‘there are personal matters involved that I can neither forget nor excuse’.15 It is possible that the termination of such an important friendship in the last years of Tanguy’s life in part influenced Tanguy to make reference to Breton’s manifesto in the title of this work. Perhaps tellingly though, the titles of Breton’s work is truncated and in Tanguy’s hands The Invisibles are no longer ‘great’.
The Invisibles was among Tanguy’s last paintings. The two years after it was produced were spent mainly drawing, due partly to Tanguy’s ill health, and partly to the overseas travel that he and his wife, Kay Sage, undertook in order to attend the openings of their solo exhibitions in Paris and Rome.16 Though he would return to painting in 1954, the year before his death, and would produce one of the largest pictures of his career, The Invisibles remains one of the key paintings of his late period.
Supported by The AHRC Research Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies.