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Yves Tanguy did not set out to be an artist. Born in Paris in 1900, he joined the merchant marines when he was 18, and subsequently was drafted into military service. Upon his return to Paris in 1922, he held various odd jobs (newsboy, packer, and streetcar driver, to name a few) before a chance encounter—the sight of an enigmatic painting by the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico in the window of an art gallery—prompted him to start making small-scale drawings and watercolors. In 1925 he met André Breton, spokesman for the surrealists, and soon took up painting.

Here Tanguy depicts an illusionistic space that appears as dreamlike as it does real, a no-man’s-land that suggests "a kind of absolute reality—a surreality," as Breton wrote in the Manifeste du surréalisme. Tightly executed, the work portrays a scene frozen in time, populated with biomorphic forms that look hyperreal, forsaken, and otherworldly. The sense of mystery is all the more heightened by the absence of an identifiable horizon line and the presence of elongated black shadows.

Eight paintings and five drawings by Tanguy were included in Alfred Barr’s seminal exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1936, sanctioning, in a sense, both Tanguy and the surrealist movement. Indeed, the movement secured a solid foothold in the United States that year, which was an especially active one for Tanguy. In addition to being featured in the MoMA exhibition, he enjoyed solo shows at New York and Los Angeles galleries and at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. Three years later, with war in Europe imminent, Tanguy emigrated from France to the United States, where he lived for the remainder of his career.

While the National Gallery of Art has an important painting by Tanguy, The Look of Amber (1929), this new work is the first gouache by Tanguy to enter the collection. It comes as part of a larger bequest of twenty-nine works from Mercedes Eichholz (1917–2013), including paintings and drawings by Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Wifredo Lam, André Masson, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso.

Credit: Gift of Robert and Mercedes Eichholz

Gouache on brown paper laid down on board
Image and text © National Gallery of Art, 2020

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National Gallery of Art
National Gallery of Art
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