Navigating a Constantly Shifting Terrain: Yves Tanguy and Surrealism

Stuhlman, Jonathan, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Affron, Matthew, Art History, University of Virginia

Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) was one of the first visual artists to join the Surrealist movement and was considered one of its core members for the majority of his career. He was also a close friend and longtime favorite of the movement’s leader, André Breton. Yet since his death, there has been surprisingly little written about his work that either adds to our understanding of why he remained in favor for so long and how he was able to do so. The aura of impenetrability that his paintings project, along with his consistent silence about them and a paucity of primary documents, has done much to limit the ways in which scholars, critics, and the public have been able (or willing) to engage with his work. As a result, Tanguy has been shuffled to the edges of recent developments in the critical discourse about Surrealism.

This dissertation argues against the narrow, limited ways in which Tanguy’s art has been discussed most frequently in the past. Such interpretations, even those penned for exhibition catalogues and monographs supporting his work, have tended to be broad, diffuse, and biographically- and chronologically-driven rather than engaged with the works of art themselves and a critical analysis of the context in which they were created. This paper seeks to re-engage Tanguy’s art with the historical debates about some of the core issues that defined Surrealism, particularly those concerning proper technical approaches, subject matter, and paths of artistic development for its members, and to do so through theoretical mechanisms utilized by recent scholars to produce rich analyses of the work of Tanguy’s colleagues.

Each of this dissertation’s three chapters is organized around an issue that was central to Surrealist ideology but that has not yet been discussed in depth in relation to its impact on Tanguy’s artistic practice and career. Each chapter will address a significant set of tensions at play in Surrealism and will explore how they influenced Tanguy’s mature work. Of particular importance to this project are the relationships between: figuration and abstraction (addressed in chapter 1); automatism and dream illusionism (explored in chapter 2); and artistic development and stagnation (discussed in chapter 3). These issues were central to the Surrealism’s development during Tanguy’s lifetime and have had an important role in shaping current writing on the movement (and his work) to this day. I will argue that with careful formal analysis, a sensitive consideration of social, political and biographical contexts, and the use of a variety of interpretive tools, his paintings can be understood as a rich and complex works of art that bear witness to Tanguy’s active engagement with the ideas that shaped the cultural landscape of his era.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Yves Tanguy, Surrealism
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