Mention surrealism to someone, and they'll probably think of Salvador Dali's melting clocks. Or they might recall René Magritte's bowler-hatted businessmen raining from the sky. These images, reproduced over and over in magazines, on note cards and posters, and in advertising campaigns, have become so familiar that they have long since ceased to be strange. But these are only two images from a group of artists and writers who revolutionized -- not that tired word! -- 20th-century Western art.
Once upon a time, the word "surreal" signified something more than "weird." Principally, surrealism was to be a way of living, an approach (and reproach) to the world of appearances and convention, intellect and reason. Inspired by Freud's work with dreams as well as his own experience ministering to shell-shocked soldiers during World War I, André Breton, the movement's prime mover, wanted a human experience that reflected and included the unconscious life; in a sense, he called for dreams to permeate the wall that separates them from our waking life to create a new understanding of reality, a total reality.
The surrealists considered the dream the supreme expression of the imagination because of its freedom from the rational mind, and they wanted the mundane everyday to be as startling and strange as dreams can be. In a word, they sought the marvelous -- that which exists for no other reason than to incite wonder, for no other purpose than to astonish. As Breton wrote in the First Surrealist Manifesto: "The marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful."
"Yves Tanguy: Retrospective," an exhibit organized by the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in Germany and now at the Menil Collection, gives Houstonians a chance to marvel at the work of one of the lesser-known but arguably more important surrealist painters. Tanguy was born in Paris in 1900 and spent many of his formative years in his mother's native Brittany, in northwestern France, an area of grassy plains and ancient rock formations. He began his career as a painter at the age of 23; completely self-taught, within a decade he was a master of the oil medium.
Like the other surrealists, he came to America to escape the war; unlike the majority, he remained, becoming a citizen in 1948. He died suddenly, in January 1955, just nine months before his first major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. During his career, landscapes were his principal motif -- the landscapes of his childhood, northern Africa and the American West -- fractured through the prism of the surrealist imagination.
Which means these landscapes are unlike any you've ever seen. They are like pictures from the ocean floor or the topographies of alien worlds, visions that would beggar the imagination of any Hollywood special-effects designer. The paintings of the late '20s are populated by lumpy biomorphs and wispy phantasms. They have enigmatic titles, most taken from a study of psychic phenomena owned by Breton. Mama, Papa Is Wounded! (1927), for example, takes its title from the story of a boy who so informed his mother at the precise moment that his father was lying on a battlefield in France. And you can just heart the words Finish What I Have Begun (1927) emanating from some ethereal cloud at a séance.
Later, in the '30s and '40s, as the horizons in Tanguy's paintings disappear into the distance and join the skies, the foregrounds are occupied by figures composed of rocklike shapes piling up like cairns or dolmens, anthropomorphic and architectonic at the same time. In I Am Waiting for You (1934), these figures are grouped in a way that implies a procession of some sort (the title would suggest a funeral). Other titles are even more enigmatic: Ennui and Tranquility (1938), The Palace of Windowed Rocks (1942), Indefinite Divisibility (1942). The subtle shadings of colors in these alien skies draw you in, while the painstaking fidelity of Tanguy's rendering of these imagined forms is utterly convincing.
Fidelity to imagined forms? These vistas are flooded with a strong light, usually coming from some source over the viewer's right shoulder, as evidenced by the shadows these figures cast. They are not insubstantial figments of imagination, yours or the artist's. These figures and landscapes exist, because the imagination exists. They cast shadows because they are real. Tanguy situates the products of his imagination in a place that, for all its strangeness, still adheres to the laws of physics -- horizons recede, objects cast shadows. The gulf between the intense experience of the dream and the insubstantial quotidian is vast, but of all the surrealist painters, Tanguy comes closest to bridging it.
The paintings from Tanguy's last years break decidedly from the vast, lonely spaces and stark, crystalline skies of the previous decades. Composed of gray metallic forms, the figures in these works are pushed so far into the foreground that they threaten to invade the viewer's space. A new element is the appearance of pale, hard-edged shapes that, in some of these paintings, suggest weapons. In Unlimited Sequences (1951) and Rose of the Four Winds (1950), those shapes thrust toward the soft skies like swords or missiles. In paintings like Fear II (1949) and The Hunted Sky (1951), they suggest handheld weapons, and these works convey a palpable tension, while The Transparent Ones (1951) bristles with anxious hostility. These chilly paintings, with their icy blues and cold grays, are startling and confounding after the strange beauty of the earlier works -- until you remember that the cold war was heating up at this time. The imagination is not always a place of comfort.
It's tempting to read the paintings from 1954, the last year of Tanguy's life, as brooding premonitions. In The Saltimbanques, night finally has fallen on the light-flooded plains of the earlier years, while in Imaginary Numbers and Multiplication of the Arcs, one gets the impression of stormy skies over rocky beaches and headlands. The indistinct horizon in the earlier paintings is now sharply demarcated, especially in the latter two -- these landscapes have a limit. And they are desolate as well; there are no figures here, and in Multiplication, those pale shapes that in the earlier paintings pointed at the skies now lie on their sides, ruins amid the rocky rubble.
If there is melancholy in his later paintings, it's not a new element -- the melancholy has been there from the beginning. More than the other surrealist painters, Tanguy seems to have had a direct line to his unconscious. Magritte, by contrast, described himself as a thinker who used paint to express his ideas, while Dali became such a self-conscious parody of surrealism that it's shocking to remember how good he was. Because of this direct line, though, Tanguy was aware of the vast distance between the worlds of the unconscious and the conscious, between the dream and the waking, the distance the surrealists sought to bridge. In that awareness lies the melancholy. But how marvelous for us that he journeyed to those distant worlds and returned with these vistas for us to dream on.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events