Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) was a French surrealist painter who specialized in strange osseous and vegetal formations placed in a barren, lunarlike landscape or an eerie underwater setting.
Born in Paris on Jan. 5, 1900, to Breton parents, Yves Tanguy spent his childhood vacations in Finistère, an area of Brittany that contained many prehistoric menhirs and dolmens. His memories of this terrain may have gone into the fashioning of his fantastic landscapes. In 1918 he shipped out on cargo boats to Africa and South America. Drafted into the French army in 1920, he served in Tunis. After 1922 he was closely associated in Paris with the surrealist writers Jacques Prévert and Marcel Duhamel.
In 1923, upon seeing a painting of the "metaphysical" Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, Tanguy decided to become a painter. He met André Breton in 1925, and the following year, some of his work having appeared in the magazine La Révolution surréaliste, Tanguy officially joined the surrealist movement. His works of 1926 are marked by a certain whimsical, naive quality, sometimes showing the influence of De Chirico. In 1927 he matured abruptly. His Mama, Papa Is Wounded! (1927), a title taken from a psychiatric case history, contains in the foreground a great hairy stalk and in the background a green cactuslike element from which emanates a cat's cradle type of filigree binding. There is an illusion of a deep space, yet laws of geometrical perspective do not operate logically. The ambiguous organic elements—some floating, some growing out of the ground—are bathed in a cold light and are situated in an unearthly looking, barren landscape marked by a strong horizon line. In other paintings of the 1920s there is no horizon line: the bonelike and vegetal forms seem to be either airborne or floating at the bottom of the sea, as in The Lovers (1929).
As a result of a trip to Africa in 1930-1931, Tanguy painted a series of rocklike formations, monumentally conceived and harshly lighted. But this was a brief departure, and he went back to his tiny osseous conglomerations, though by the mid-1930s he usually omitted the fixed horizon line and presented a continuous floating space.
In 1939 Tanguy moved to America and settled with his wife, Kay Sage, in a farmhouse in Woodbury, Conn. His colors became richer, and his objects began to loom larger, perhaps partially as the result of a trip to Arizona. Several paintings, such as Indefinite Divisibility (1942) and Slowly toward the North (1942), contain tubular, geometrical constructions (along with the organic elements) which suggest the world of machines. He had a fine collection of guns with telescopic sights, and this interest may partially have accounted for the formal changes in his paintings. His last painting, the ambitious Multiplication of the Arcs (1954), contains a profusion of unidentifiable, shell-like elements set in great clusters. He died in Woodbury on Jan. 15, 1955.
A useful work whose text is short but well illustrated is New York Museum of Modern Art, Yves Tanguy, exhibition and catalog by James Thrall Soby (1955). Recommended for background are Marcel Jean, The History of Surrealist Painting (1959; trans. 1960); Werner Haffmann, Painting in the Twentieth Century (trans., 2 vols., 1961; rev. ed. 1965); J. H. Matthews, An Introduction to Surrealism (1965); William S. Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art (1968); and Sarane Alexandrian, Surrealist Art (1969; trans. 1970).