Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Internal Beyonds of Yves Tanguy

All art contains an element of mysticism. Reality remains unexplained, hence, all creative acts inside it push against the boundary of being, probe the possibilities of transcendence. Most art prior to the emergence of Impressionism was, consciously or unconsciously, a form of religious expression. Even portraiture had a religious dimension: those subjects depicted on canvas were emblematic of the human intersection with the divine, ego as implied vessel of eternal spirit.

Then, Impressionism. The religious receded (Darwinism was gaining traction), but the mystical survived. Nature's moods and energies, though “scientifically” rendered, still impacted human consciousness according to sublime criteria. The essence of things – their concealed but felt actuality – stimulated a spiritual nerve in the souls of artists, even if an unacknowledged Pantheistic one.

Then, Expressionism (and variants of Modernist art). As the pathology of industrialization increased, leading to industrial slaughter during the First World War, forms of artistic consciousness erupted to stake out territory in which a semblance of metaphysical meaning might be preserved. Oddly (or perhaps understandably), these preserves of wounded spirit were paradoxical spaces. The immemorial desire for transcendence lived on, but with God gone, meaning was sought in the irrational. Transcendence became an obsessive move away from bourgeois normality and scientific hubris. Paradoxical because meaning was derived from the meaningless. As nature was subsumed into system and humanity became more dangerous and repugnant, actuality – Being, as such – pressed in more mysteriously, insinuating itself as the ambiguous theme for artists, composers, and writers.

Sartre experienced Being as nausea. The Modern artist transformed it into the fantastic, distorted it into the grotesque or the uncanny. The mystical, or spiritual, had taken on a more urgent aspect than what had hovered blithely in the Impressionist background. Wittgenstein's dictum – “Whereof one can not speak, thereof one must remain silent” – is profound. It established the parameters for what would become analytic philosophy. Language that strayed beyond the truly sayable was illicit and absurd. But there are other kinds of language, other ways of saying. Heidegger pointed to the poetry of Hölderlin. Music is another mode of intelligibility beyond the analyzable. Still another kind of transcendental semantics takes place through form and color on the canvas.

Yves Tanguy (1900 – 1955) was a Surrealist. He is my favorite artist from the Modernist era. When the term “Surrealism” is mentioned, most people think of wild juxtapositions of familiar objects, whether animate or inanimate. Tanguy is subtler, much more enigmatic. His canvases teem with objects, but those things have only a passing similarity to known forms. Those equivocal thingy forms are more like reified mental or spiritual intuition. And the “landscapes” in which they are placed are less like space-time milieus than volumes of void, theaters of dream.

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Owing to intellectual property rights, I'm unable to reproduce Tanguy images here. So, below are links to two of his paintings. Beneath each link, I provide my impression of the images. See if you don't agree that the mystical, the spiritual, and the transcendent pulse as ambiguous energies in these works.

A blue-cream journey. Upright creaturing into cartilaginous form. Inexplicable paraphenalias. Conceptlessness symbolized. Hopefulness elementalizing itself into a blue-cream quest.

Stasis. Rootedness. Under the bouillon of an alchemical sky. Emptiness becoming a heavy tangibility. The miracle of number, yet the torture of separation.

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