Hope in a strange world? An enigmatic landscape by one half of Surrealism’s ‘It couple’

Surrealism included many female artists, but few were as singleminded as the American Kay Sage. Other Answers — a quintessential Sage painting  is offered for private sale

In 1939, with clouds of war hovering over Europe, Kay Sage returned to the United States after more than two decades away. Her lover and fellow Surrealist, Yves Tanguy, soon followed her across the Atlantic, despite the fact that both of them were married to other people. In Sage’s case to an Italian prince — her official title was La principessa di San Faustino.

The couple settled initially in New York, though also took the time for a visit to Reno, Nevada. Tanguy was inspired by the landscape and geological features of the American West, but Reno was also known as ‘the divorce capital of America’ and both took the opportunity to terminate their previous marriages, before promptly marrying each other.

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Kay Sage, 1946. Photo © Lee Miller Archives, England 2020. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk. Artwork © Estate of Kay Sage  DACS, London and ARS, NY 2020
Kay Sage, 1946. Photo: © Lee Miller Archives, England 2020. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk. Artwork: © Estate of Kay Sage / DACS, London and ARS, NY 2020

Sage and Tanguy went on to become the Surrealist ‘It couple’ and — in the words of Desmond Morris in his book, The Lives of the Surrealists — ‘enjoy a highly productive period of painting together’. They had met in Paris, where Tanguy was something of a golden boy of the avant-garde and Sage largely an outsider. Now, though, it was her time to thrive.

In the summer of 1940, Sage had her first solo show, at the influential Pierre Matisse Gallery in Manhattan. Then, in early 1943, she was part of the landmark Exhibition by 31 Women, curated and staged by Peggy Guggenheim in her Art of This Century Gallery.

Sage is renowned for her empty, enigmatic, eerily lit landscapes. Human figures are markedly absent — their presence felt only by the monolithic, architectural structures and unidentifiable, draped objects they seem to have left behind. In this respect, 1945’s Other Answers  is a quintessential Sage painting.

Kay Sage (1898-1963), Other Answers, 1945. Oil on canvas. 16 x 13 in (40.6 x 33.1 cm). Offered for private sale at Christie’s. View Impressionist and Modern art currently offered for private sale at Christie’s
Kay Sage (1898-1963), Other Answers, 1945. Oil on canvas. 16 x 13 in (40.6 x 33.1 cm). Offered for private sale at Christie’s. View Impressionist and Modern art currently offered for private sale at Christie’s

Surrealism was a movement that boasted plenty of female artists. Their work varied greatly, of course, but one can spot certain shared motifs. Leonor Fini included depictions of her own body; Dorothea Tanning set her scenes in domestic interiors. The single-minded Sage did neither.

From 1941 onwards, she and Tanguy spent less and less time in their apartment in New York and more and more time in a farmhouse they rented — and later bought — in the village of Woodbury in Connecticut. They formed part of an artistic community that also included Alexander Calder, André Masson and Arshile Gorky, who all lived in the vicinity.

The couple, who never had children, settled permanently in Woodbury in the mid-1940s (only Tanguy’s premature death a decade later, aged 55, would separate them). They duly converted two outbuildings into studios and developed a routine of working apart each morning and early-afternoon, followed by a quick review of each other’s work over a martini.

Alas, there’s no record of what Tanguy thought of Other Answers. He can’t have failed to notice, though, the way a frame structure and its large shadow dominate the foreground. Above them a piece of white fabric flutters on a wire in the breeze. As in many of Sage’s best works, an unsettling element of movement has been introduced into a scene of otherwise complete motionlessness.

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Look closely, though, and a hint of positivity does seem to emerge in the distance. A band of soft blue, to be precise, representing what looks like a range of gently rolling hills but might be the lapping waves of a peaceful sea.

Either way, it offers a rare beacon of hope. It’s tempting to read this as a reflection of her recent successes professionally; of the idyllic existence she was enjoying with Tanguy; of the end that year of the Second World War — or, perhaps, a combination of all three.

For more information about the work, please contact David Kleiweg de Zwaan: dkleiwegdezwaan@christies.com