Yves Tanguy’s “He Did What He Wanted” Formal Analysis Paper (History of Modern and Contemporary Art)

Charles Ta

Prof. Rory O’Dea

History of Modern and Contemporary Art

March 3, 2018


A Formal Analysis on Yves Tanguy’s

He Did What He Wanted, 1927.

Yves Tanguy, a self-taught French surrealist painter, painted He Did What He Wanted for his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Surréaliste in Paris in 1927, having been a pioneering figure in the Surrealist movement alongside founder André Berton at the movement’s infancy. Anticipating the bizarre, and unfortunately more recognized and famous works of Salvador Dali several years later, Tanguy set the stage for the stylistic and thematic elements of Surrealism as an almost “proto-Dali” painter, developing a unique, original, and groundbreaking art style never before seen by both art critics and mass audiences that influenced later Surrealist artists in the 1930s, and even cartoon animation today. Done with oil paints on a canvas, He Did What He Wanted, with its titular subject matter on the cognitive refusal of hypnotized patients to act on external commands, its compositional depiction of a foggy and fuzzy dream-like world above the clouds full of amorphous, borderless, undefined shapes and almost biological figures, its use of melancholic shadowy grays, blues, and blacks in its background, and its use of space and scale (by putting a heptagonal pyramidal structure in the forefront, to give the endless horizon behind it depth), embodied Tanguy’s pervasive interest in fantastical dreams and the unconscious, and thus his embracing of the emotional idealism found in the Surrealist movement, sharply contrasting the rational worldview professed in the Enlightenment, and reactionarily opposing the utilitarianism of the Modernists, Constructivists, and Suprematists.

Referencing and informing the curiosity of the Surrealists towards the unconscious, the phenomenon of dream states, and the mysteries of the cognitive mind, André Berton gave many Surrealist artworks titles inspired by the scientific ideas explored by the Nobel Prize-winning French physician Charles Richet in his 1922 book called Treatise on Metaphysics. He Did What He Wanted, in particular, was named after a cognitive phenomenon described by Richet in his book in which hypnotized patients refused to obey the commands given to them by their hypnotists, despite being supposedly under their control, suggesting some degree of free will on the part of an allegedly hypnotized person, or fraud on the part of the practitioner. In any case, Yves Tanguy’s piece by its title alone expresses the emphasis of the Surrealists on the benefits of releasing one’s individual emotions and unconscious inhibitions out into the world for the pursuit of truth (thus allowing you to “do what you want”), rather than keeping them suppressed for the pursuit of society’s rational Enlightenment-esque demands and conventions.

Like the Surrealists, Tanguy embraced absurdism and the need for people to release their unconscious selves from the tyranny of the ego, in reference to Sigmund Freud’s theories of the mind. His visionary paintings express the randomness, alien nature of the unconscious, and in He Did What He Wanted, he accomplishes this with the inclusion of misty, smoky, almost extraterrestrial tentacled creatures, which dynamically rise out of the seemingly endless gray abyss that could itself represent the unconscious— an abyss painted with the gentle dabs and smooth motions of a paintbrush that end up creating cloud-like formations which are easy on the eyes of a viewer. Unlike the Surrealists, however, Tanguy’s paintings (this one included) were very solemn in their composition— less playful and more deliberate, frequently employing the use of an ill-defined horizon, and many thundering grays and dark blue shades, giving He Did What He Wanted a morose, melancholic, and gloomy tone, with the viewer looking out into a vast, abstract landscape as if to emulate the act of “staring off into space” having become one with a truly alien world. This is especially made clear with the inclusion of an almost constellatory horse-like figure at the far right of the piece, whose net-like appearance is so strange and otherworldly, the viewer cannot help but wonder the who, what, when, where, and why of this land above the clouds.  The peculiar abstract, but protoplasmic figure near the center of this painting on top of the floating heptagonal pyramid structure particularly intrigued me, since it appeared to be wearing a red artist’s beret, which, in my interpretation, made me think of this tentacled figure as being representative of Tanguy himself, experimenting with a random set of letters each in different color and style, and a random set of numbers hanging from the floating tree at the right with its fimbrial fringelike appendages— doing, in other words, what he wants by staying true to the automatic, chaotic art making of the Surrealists of his time, and directly butting heads with the strict logic of the Modernists, who would likely see no purpose to the arbitrary letters placed near the artist, or reason to the piece’s random forms in the background.

Space and scale play an important role in the viewer’s interpretation of He Did What He Wanted— so much so, that it allowed me as a viewer to become totally immersed in the endless, contemplative, exotic horizon this piece very clearly conveyed when I first viewed it. The heptagonal pyramidal structure at the very forefront of He Did What He Wanted dominates the lower half of the piece— its inclusion of bright primary colors and size clearly drawing our attention to the events happening on this levitating, suspended structure, and sharply contrasting the grays in the background. Although it would seem like the inclusion of this well-defined, geometric shape would be catering to the rationalism of the Modernists, what seems to be its deliberate placement actually serves, in my interpretation, a different purpose in allowing the viewer to comparatively judge the scale, distance, and depth of the creatures and objects surrounding the pyramid, so that the viewer gets a sense of the majestic, grand scope of the painting’s scenery as a whole. Because the pyramid is so close to the viewer (hinted at by the fact a tentacled creature to the pyramid’s left near its tip is rising from the clouds and is traveling behind the structure) and appears to be floating far above the misty grayness below, the unearthly black tentacled mass to the lower right of the pyramid is actually gigantic by comparison, given its branching flagella-like appendages that spread out in all directions. Similarly, the humanoid smoky figure in the background near the center of the painting is also much larger than he appears to be because of the distance between the foreground and the background, and the columns of smoke on either side of the painting are, in addition, much taller and intimidating than they seem to be. The constellatory horse-like figure that I mentioned before, who is emerging out of the smoke column in the right, compared to the colorful pyramid, must be gargantuan in size and titanic in scope, since it takes up a little less than a third of the dark blue sky above the horizon it is painted on. The relative size and illusory, dream-like three-dimensional scale of the figures and objects in the background relative to the pyramid in the foreground of He Did What He Wanted, and this painting’s use of space to convey a vast infinitude, evokes Surrealism in its philosophically purest form and the borderless, ethereal nature of a land straight out of the unconscious— in contrast to the compact, concrete art style of the Modernists, and the rationale of Enlightenment proponents.  

Having explored the aspects of biomorphic, amoebic composition, subject matter, scientific and titular inspiration, form, line, color, and use of illusory scale and size in Yves Tanguy’s He Did What He Wanted, and how he as a Surrealist painter poignantly expressed the ideas and philosophies associated with Surrealism, such as a heavy focus on dream states and the exploration of the emotive, suppressed unconscious, we must now look to his influence on later artists of his day, and on even cartoon animation within the last few decades. Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, and Esteban Francés, were all influenced by Tanguy in the 1930s amidst their practice of creating Surrealist art when it was at its peak following the late 1920s, attesting to the global reach of this Surrealist painter’s strange, melancholy oeuvre. Tanguy’s influence on art would also manifest much later following his death in 1955 in the form of the 1980 French animated film Le Roi et L’oiseau, or The King and the Mockingbird, directed and animated by the great Paul Grimault. Dubbed the “first Surrealist film”, the biomorphic animation and art style of The King and the Mockingbird would take inspiration from the work of fellow Surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico, but chiefly from Yves Tanguy, and go on to become one of the greatest animated films in Europe of all time. Tanguy’s artistic influence, however, stretched beyond the work of European animators, and even laid the groundwork for some of the most heartwarming and beautifully rendered works of animation in Japan, of all places. Doing my research, I was pleased and surprised to discover that The King and the Mockingbird was a direct influence on Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, the two founders of Studio Ghibli— the animation studio responsible for some of the most emotional and recognized animated films in Japan and around the world, such My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, and, of course, Spirited Away. Much like Tanguy’s He Did What He Wanted evokes ideas of the unconscious and of magical, alien dream states, so do the animated works of Studio Ghibli themselves show young and old audiences the magic to be found in otherworldly realms with bubbly, amorphous styles of animation, while managing to elicit strong emotional responses from these same audiences, usually involving many tears of sadness and joy.

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