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A haunting addition to the Surrealist paintings collection
July 25, 2017
Yves Tanguy, 1928. Man Ray (American, 1890–1976). Photograph. © 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris

William H. Robinson Curator of Modern European Art

The museum recently expanded its collection of modern European art through the acquisition of a major painting by Yves Tanguy, one of the most important and influential artists of the Surrealist movement. Drafted into the French army in 1918, Tanguy became interested in avant-garde literature through his close friendship with another soldier, the Dada poet Jacques Prévert.

In 1922 Tanguy abruptly decided to become an artist after seeing a painting by Giorgio de Chirico in the window of a Parisian gallery. Two years later, Tanguy met the poet André Breton and joined the Surrealists. Inspired by the writings of Sigmund Freud and the new science of psychoanalysis, the Surrealists sought to explore the unconscious mind through automatic associations and dream imagery. By 1925, Tanguy was working with Joan Miró and other Surrealists on the creation of collaborative drawings known as the Exquisite Corpse. Within a year Tanguy had developed his iconic Surrealist style of depicting enigmatic forms arrayed across a mysterious dreamscape. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung praised Tanguy’s paintings for their power to trigger involuntary associations and reveal hidden signs and symbols from the collective unconscious.

Title Unknown, 1928. Yves Tanguy (French, 1900–1955). Oil on canvas. John L. Severance Fund 2009.78

This newly acquired painting by Tanguy is a classic, early Surrealist composition produced during the most seminal and historically important phase of the artist’s career. It depicts a series of bizarre forms that seem to threaten one another. The ominously long shadow of the rocky, vertical shape in the lower left suggests a shrouded figure frozen in place, recalling the frustrated desire to walk or run in a dream. The softer, amoeba-like form in the lower right suggests a primordial creature with circular orifices and hair growing from its appendages. Also casting a long shadow, this form slithers forward as if to confront its counterpart on the left. Three vertical shapes in the center seem trapped inside four vertical elements connected by long white lines. Another series of wiry lines in parallel emerge from beyond the horizon to surround the vertical forms like menacing arms or claws. The brown shape in the upper left with a long handle and a tongue or liver-shaped tip floats ominously downward, as if threatening the forms below. From the top of this brown shape, wavy white strokes blow like locks of hair in the breeze.

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914. Giorgio de Chirico (Italian, 1888–1978). Oil on canvas. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome

Tanguy often gave his paintings evocative titles, such as Mama! Papa Is Wounded!, inspired by psychiatric studies of soldiers who suffered psychological trauma during World War I, but unfortunately this painting’s original title has been lost. Although the forms may suggest rocks, plants, internal organs, or menacing creatures, Tanguy deliberately left their precise nature mysterious, and it is their very ambiguity that renders them so psychologically disturbing. Similarly, while the setting may suggest the ocean floor or a lunar landscape, close inspection reveals that this “landscape” is a pure invention that could only exist in the irrational world of the unconscious mind. 

Tanguy’s method of placing strange, hallucinatory objects in an ominously deep dream space strongly influenced the other Surrealists, especially Salvador Dalí and Miró. Tanguy’s biomorphic shapes also share strong affinities with the semi-abstract sculptures of Jean Arp. The acquisition of this painting not only enriches our understanding of Surrealism, but also crucially connects early Dada works in the museum’s collection with later Surrealist paintings from the 1930s and 1940s.


Cleveland Art, December 2009