Yves Tanguy: Decoding Surrealism


On the 5th of January 1900, the French surrealist painter Yves Tanguy was born in Paris. The journey that led him to his eventual profession as a painter can be described as one worthy of any decent surrealist. In 1918, Tanguy started working for the merchant navy; he was then drafted into the Army, but in 1922, he decided to return to Paris, where he did various odd jobs, until his life-transforming epiphany. According to the artist’s recollections, the major impulse to start drawing came after seeing one of de Chirico’s paintings. This sudden urge to become an artist came then as much from Tanguy’s unconscious as the subjects of his later works, making of him one of the greatest representatives of Surrealism. “In that his art relies above all on ‘surprise’, blind chance, involuntary memory and stream-of-unconsciousness…” whilst on the other hand there is “a single-minded devotion to belle peinture and nostalgia for a world of ideal, if irrational beauty reflect isolated inner experiences that are timeless.” (Stuart Preston, Paris, Beaubourg. Yves Tanguy, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 124, No. 954, Special Issue Devoted to Twentieth-Century Art, September, 1982). In 1924, Tanguy was introduced into the circle of surrealist artists around André Breton, whose First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) became the credo of the group. Breton wrote: “Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality… Among all the many misfortunes to which we are heir, it is only fair to admit that we are allowed the greatest degree of freedom of thought. It is up to us not to misuse it.” (Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Art in Theory 1900-2000, An Anthology of Changing Ideas).

41VXNZS7VQLIt seems that Tanguy, despite his subsequent falling out with Breton, used the power of imagination to its limits, provoking the viewer to experiment with complex mental processes. One of his most interesting paintings is probably the one known nowadays under the title Noyer Indifférent (see the cover of Jung on Art). The painting in its mysterious atmosphere and incomprehensible symbolism denotes a profound experience of the artist’s unconscious. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that this particular work of art attracted the attention of psychologist Carl Jung. Referring to Tanguy’s painting, he said:  “He [Tanguy] has undoubtedly succeeded in expressing the bleakness, coldness, lifelessness, the cosmic ‘inhumanness’ and infinite desolation of the horizontal, despite the association ‘city’. He thus confirms the tendency of this kind of modern art to make the object unrecognisable and to cut off the sympathy and understanding of the beholder, who, rebuffed and confused, feels thrown back on himself.” (Tjeu van den Berk, Jung on Art: The Autonomy of the Creative Drive).

Jung used Tanguy’s painting in his study on collective unconscious. He believed that all great art derives from it and that the artist serves merely as a medium or a link to its original source. To support his presupposition, Jung asked various people about their spontaneous impressions about the painting. And here is what he got: “Most of them took the black and white background, which combines a minimum of intelligibility with a maximum of abstraction, to be a plane surface. This is supported by the fact that the light causes the five central forms to cast shadows. It can be seen that these shadows fall on a plane. The interpretation of this varies considerably; some thought it was a sea covered with drift ice in the Polar night, others a sea of fog at night time, others the bleak surface of a distant planet like Uranus or Neptune, and others a great city illuminated at night, situated along the edge of bays, like San Francisco or New York. The strange quincunx suspended over the ‘city’ left most of them puzzled. Some interpreted it at once as falling bombs and explosions.The form in the middle was taken to be a sea-creature (sea-anemone, octopus, etc.) or a flower, or else a demonic face with tangled hair (looking down to the left); others saw it as the swirling smoke of a great fire.

51LRqRM3BYLThe four figures surrounding it were understood as sea animals, puffs of smoke, fungi, or, because of the horns, as devils. The one at the top left, whose vivid yellow-green contrasts with the dull, indeterminate tones of the others, was interpreted as poisonous smoke, a water-plant, flame, a house on fire, etc. I must admit that for me the comparison with a city at night by the sea, viewed from a considerable height as from an aeroplane, was the most convincing. The artist is said to have been a sailor originally, and would thus have had plenty of opportunities for such impressions.” (Tjeu van den Berk). Did any of these match your personal impressions on Tanguy’s painting?