Kay Sage: Tomorrow is Never

Kay Sage, Danger, Construction Ahead, 1940. Source
Women got short shrift during Surrealism’s heyday, when they were either relegated to the role of muse, or, if they were an artist, seriously under-recognized compared to their male colleagues.

Kay Sage, Le Passage, 1956. Source
As history rewrites itself the importance of the many interesting women who participated in the Surrealist project is coming to light. A key text in this vein is Whitney Chadwick’s 1985 survey, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, which featured Kay Sage’s 1956, Le Passage, on the cover.

Painted one year after Sage’s husband, Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, died unexpectedly from a stroke, it is unusual within the artist’s oeuvre, in which clearly rendered figures rarely appear. The figure’s setting, a barren landscape comprised of jagged forms, is, by contrast, a staple of Sage’s strange world.

Kay Sage, In the Third Sleep, 1944. Source

Sage’s style aligns with Veristic Surrealism, which featured illusionistic images of impossible, dream-inspired places, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Paul Delveaux and Yves Tanguy being among the best known examples of this tendency.

Kay Sage, Tomorrow is Never, 1955. Source

Sage came to Surrealism in her late thirties, a point in her life when she was ready to fully commit to being an artist. Born in Albany, New York in 1898, her life until that point had veered from peripatetic international travels with her mother to a ten year lull when she became a princess (I’m not making this up!) through marriage to an Italian noble.

Kay Sage, I Saw Three Cities, 1944. Source

Discovering that being a princess was actually rather boring, Sage left her husband in 1935 and returned to painting, which she’d previously studied at the Corcoran Art School in Washington, D.C., in her early twenties, as well as in Rome.

Giorgio de Chirico, Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. 1914. Source

Perhaps the Italian connection is what drew to her the work of Giorgio de Chirico, the Turin-based painter whose haunting images of deserted piazzas so enchanted Surrealist founder, André Breton. Shortly after moving to Paris in 1937, Sage purchased a painting by de Chirico, then in 1938 exhibited her own works, which brought her to the attention of Breton and lead to her meeting his close friend, painter Yves Tanguy.

Yves Tanguy, Mama, Papa is Wounded!,1927. Source. Tanguy and Sage. Source.

Sage and Tanguy quickly became an item, and a comparison of their work illustrates their shared interest in the creation of eerie realms in which illusion and fantasy play tug-of-war within desolate, overcast landscapes.

Kay Sage, title and date unknown.
But whereas Tanguy shares the biomorphic vocabulary of fellow Surrealists Jean Arp and Joan Miró, Sage’s vision is singular, characterized by a mysterious austerity that is both forbidding and compelling. Titles such as In the Third Sleep or I Saw Three Cities hint at, but never reveal, meaning, and Sage herself rarely chose not to elaborate. Draperies stand erect, like sentinels in a world outside of time. Sharply rendered geometric structures appear incomplete, yet are not ruined, as if an alien civilization’s building project had been halted and left in suspended animation.

Kay Sage, Tomorrow Mr Silver. Source

Although Sage exhibited nationally and sold work to prestigious museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, her reputation was overshadowed by that of her husband Tanguy, who had the advantage of being male, and being championed by his close friend, Breton. Sage’s personality didn’t aid her cause. Although she was generous in her support of her fellow Surrealists who, like herself and Tanguy, moved to the United States to escape WWII, her biographer, Judith Suther, notes that Sage was frequently described as aloof, moody, and forbidding, adjectives that could just as easily apply to her work.

Kay Sage, The Answer is No, 1958. Source
Tanguy was apparently more congenial, but was jealous of her talent, and became violent and abusive when drunk. But Sage was by all accounts devastated when he died. That woman in Le Passage who looks out over a broken, arid land perhaps represents the artist herself, seeing only a bleak future, without the love of her life. Cataracts and health problems brought on by too much hard living set in and in 1963, at age 64, Sage took the quick way out, shooting herself in the heart.

More details on Sage's life and work are available here and here.