This was the phrase that was produced when the Surrealists first sat down to play the game that was to later be christened Exquisite Corpse. It was one of those happy accidents so beloved of the Surrealists and seemingly dictated by the collective unconscious mind ready to reclaim its rights.
The most celebrated of Surrealists techniques, it tied in nicely with several key tenets of Surrealism; namely artistic collaboration and the belief that was first stated by Lautreamont that “Poetry should be made by all.” Originally played with words it soon become apparent that the technique could extend to drawing and collages. The examples from the Golden Age of Surrealism are numerous and feature some of the most illustrious names in 20th Century art and letters.
Below are some of the most notable Exquisite Corpses from that era. I have also included work from the YBA artists the Chapman Brothers who have produced a number of drawings using the technique.
There always comes the moment
When you receive the confirmation
Of what you half intuited all along
No more evasions or denials
The truth is written on the wall
Writ large and quite plain to see
You are entangled within the trap
Held fast now there is no escape
It was all a set up a complete illusion
A vast conspiracy centred on you
Always and forever you alone
How can you ever begin to fathom
The depths you are plunging into
You never even knew it was a game
Until I showed you the aces in the hole
And demanded payment or satisfaction
So many questions you wanted to ask
But crumpling beneath the realisation
Of all I had in store you remained silent
Submitted docilely to my desires
However perversely strange or subtle
All your striving had come to naught
Think of this as a complete education
Now maybe you will understand
What I would sacrifice for pleasure.
I have always been intrigued by the bizarre landscapes of the French Surrealist Yves Tanguy, paintings that demand a creative response far beyond the standard art historical entry. With this in mind I approached the enigmatic Mia, aka Copper Cranes, one of the finest poets that I know, who constantly crafts verses that are elusive and hermetic, dense yet delicate, if she would compose a piece on the above painting, Je Vous Attends (I’m Waiting for You), that played such an important part in the personal mythology of Tanguy and his wife Kay Sage.
I am delighted that Miss Cranes not only agreed but produced such an outstanding and haunting poem as Last Call Before You Go, which is published below. My contribution to this collaboration is a brief essay on Tanguy, Sage and the concept of the chance encounter within Surrealist aesthetics.
Last Call Before You Go
Within a blinding sanguine flash
Escaping the unbridled muzzle of destiny
I find myself riding a scorching bullet,
The train of deliverance, to a place of remains:
Human cairns, les piles de vertèbres
Unrecognizable, yet familiar skinless parts
In this: historic, prehistoric, futuristic,
With perpetual dinner parties’
Sunsetting shadows: 7 pm
All in search of the multifaceted singular you
Chasing craggy friction, smooth from tracing
A longing desire for all your bigness:
That which fills the heat of any room,
Your fanfare flames a come-hither awareness:
Clarity: the drive for scorn:
Perfection that leads me here
I sense your startling presence
Larger than life, surrounding, smothering
A gyration of hovering stillness
With its annihilating posture: verbal trysts:
Cruelty and misunderstandings:
The heaven on earth I cannot live without:
Effortless drunken brush strokes:
Wire and bullets, forever holding us together
Alas, I have found you: a gaping hole of loss
Collecting plundered eons
And inconsequential landmarks:
The keys to nothing — home to everything
The Dictates of Chance
The concept of chance was of vital importance to Surrealist aesthetics. Taking as a starting point the beautiful chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella upon an operating table of the Comte De Lautreamont and Stephane Mallarme’s enigmatic dictum that ‘a throw of the dice will never abolish chance’, the Surrealists came to believe that chance was the force necessary to change art, life and indeed transform the world.
Maybe because they were finely attuned to its workings and therefore always on the look-out for its unexpected arrival that chance encounters do seem to have played a disproportionally large role in many a Surrealist biography, especially in the life and works of the two best exemplifiers of Surrealist scorched earth strangeness, Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage.
In 1923 Yves Tanguy was an ex-Merchant Seaman from Brittany leading a rather aimless Bohemian lifestyle in Paris. One day he passed a shop window displaying a painting by Giorgio De Chirico, Le Cerveau L’Enfant (The Child’s Brain). This random, chance encounter had an electrifying, galvanising effect upon Tanguy. He there and then decided to become a painter, despite the fact that he had no formal training whatsoever. It was an inspired decision. Tanguy was possessed of a unique, singular vision that defies all explanation and would greatly influence later Surrealists (especially Dali) and the Abstract Expressionists, notably Pollack and Rothko.
Tanguy’s great contribution was to paint irreal figures that are neither animal, vegetable or mineral, in a painstaking, precise naturalistic fashion, therefore adding to the illusionism of the extra-terrestrial landscapes with their depthless horizons. He would render this strange realm that could be interpenetrated as either a collective memory of the pre-organic origins of life or as a prophecy of the distant future or maybe a mental photograph of the unconscious, obsessively throughout the rest of his career.
In 1938, the wealthy American Kay Sage, who had recently, began to pursue an artistic career after the failure of her marriage visited the International Surrealist Exhibit in Galerie Beaux-Arts. She was so taken by another one of De Chirico paintings, La Surprise, that she brought it and it would remain in her possession until her death. Another painting she noticed and admired immensely was, ‘I’m Waiting For You’, by Yves Tanguy. This exposure to the works of De Chirico led Sage to change her artistic direction from semi-abstraction to Surrealism. This change of direction led to a solo exhibition that Tanguy attended and he was so moved by the paintings that he decided to seek Sage out. A meeting was arranged through mutual friends, the result of a series of chance encounters that led to their marriage in 1940 in Reno, Nevada.
They moved to Woodbury, Connecticut shortly afterwards. Their marriage was by all accounts difficult and tempestuous; however Tanguy’s death in 1955 from a stroke devastated Sage. She almost completely stopped painting her own eerie, dread-filled and depopulated surreal landscapes, instead making small sculptures out of wire and bullets.
In 1963 Kay Sage left this poignant and heart-rending suicide note: “The first painting by Yves that I saw, before I knew him, was called ‘I’m waiting for you.’ I’ve come. Now he’s waiting for me again-I’m on my way.” She shot herself through the heart. Tanguy’s friend, the art dealer and brother of Henri, Pierre Matisse scattered their mixed ashes on a beach in Tanguy’s beloved Brittany.
A superbly disturbing painting by De Chirico that had an immeasurable impact upon the Surrealists, The Disquieting Muses presents us with the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But is there a key? If so, do we really want to open the blue box (a version of which is at the heart of the conundrum in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, see Dreams of Desire 6 (Mulholland Dr.), for fear of what it may be contained inside?
Painted during WWI in the Italian town of Ferrara where De Chirico lived, it features a piazza bordered by the imposing medieval fortress of the Castello Estense and industrial brick chimneys. The only figures within the square are faceless mannequins; the muses of tragedy and comedy, Melpomene and Thalia with their traditional attributes scattered around, and the God Apollo on a pedestal in the shadow. The perspective and the long shadows add to the air of frozen stillness and uneasiness.
Several Surrealists were directly inspired by exposure to De Chirico’s early metaphysical work including Max Ernst (see the series of posts starting with A Week of Max Ernst: Sunday), Yves Tanguy (Time and Again), and Kay Sage (Surrealist Women: Kay Sage). Sylvia Plath also wrote a poem of the same name that was inspired (in part) by the painting and which is included below.
The Disquieting Muses
Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?
Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.
In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.
When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.
Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,
I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.
Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.
Although her work is unmistakably Surrealist in style and content, was married to the Surrealist Yves Tanguy and she always considered herself a Surrealist, Kay Sage occupies a marginal position within the history of the movement. However Sage’s disquieting vision of a hastily abandoned future set in a largely depopulated world, where the vast horizons exude a tangible atmosphere of menace and doom, places her firmly in the fore-front of New World surrealists.
This neglect maybe because of Sage’s, by most accounts, difficult personality. Born into a wealthy and powerful New York family, she grew up mainly in France and Italy and her first marriage was to an idle, dissolute Italian nobleman. In 1935 she decided to become a independent artist and left her husband, obtaining a divorce through Papal decree. In 1938 she visited the International Surrealist Exhibit at Galerie Beaux-Arts and was so struck by a work by Di Chirico, La Surprise, that she brought the painting which was to remain in her possession until her death. Sage also saw and adored a Tanguy , ‘I’m Waiting For You’. She changed her style from semi-abstraction to the surreal. In one of her first solo exhibitions Tanguy was so moved that he decided to seek Sage out. A meeting was arranged where they were immediately taken with one another. They certainly shared artistic affinities; their respective dream worlds are among the strangest envisioned by any of the Surrealists. The other members of the Surrealist group were not so taken with Sage however. They disliked her haughty and imperious manner and the relationship caused a rift between Tanguy and Breton, who had formerly been close.
With the outbreak of WWII Sage moved back to the States and arranged for Tanguy to join her. They were married in Reno in 1940. They settled in Woodbury, Connecticut where they would remain until their deaths. The relationship was an intense and troubled one. Sage’s solitary and forbidding character discouraged the many artists who visited Woodbury from returning, not helped at all by their explosive drunken arguments at parties. Regardless of any difficulties experienced Sage was devastated by Tanguy early death, caused by a stroke, in 1955. She almost completely stopped painting, the above work Le Passage being one of the few notable exceptions, also notable in that a recognizable human figure, believed to be a self-portrait, is depicted. Instead she made small sculptures made out of wire and bullets, an eerie premonition of her suicide in 1963 when she shot herself in the heart. Her poignant suicide note reads “The first painting by Yves that I saw, before I knew him, was called ‘I’m Waiting for You.’ I’ve come. Now he’s waiting for me again — I’m on my way.”