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More Than A Muse: Female Surrealists Dorothea Tanning and Kay Sage

More Than A Muse: Female Surrealists Dorothea Tanning and Kay Sage

On Tuesday 4 February, the Impressionist, Modern & Surrealist Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s in London will include one canvas by Sage (Journal of a Conjuror). The following day the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale will include two works by Tanning (Oraculaire and Shipwreck in Blue).
On Tuesday 4 February, the Impressionist, Modern & Surrealist Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s in London will include one canvas by Sage (Journal of a Conjuror). The following day the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale will include two works by Tanning (Oraculaire and Shipwreck in Blue).

O ne of the keenest visitors to 1938’s Salon des Surindépendants exhibition in Paris was the painter, Yves Tanguy. He was bowled over by six works by a fellow Surrealist called Kay Sage.

Given her unisex name, Tanguy didn’t initially know Kay’s gender. ‘Man or woman – I just knew the paintings were great,’ he said. The pair were soon introduced, and within two years married, remaining together until Tanguy’s death.

Sage was one of a number of female artists who made a profound and important contribution to the Surrealist movement.

For these women, Surrealism opened up a new world of possibility. It offered them an identity and independence that was otherwise denied women in society. By the standard of their day many of these women lived extremely emancipated lives – Leonora Carrington ran away from home at 19 to join Max Ernst and the Paris Surrealists, Leonor Fini lived in an elaborate menage à trois, with one man her lover, and the other her friend.

"I always imagined I would have a life very different from the one that was imagined for me, but I understood from a very early time that I would have to revolt in order to make that life. Now I am convinced that in any creativity there exists this element of revolt."
Leonor Fini

Their partnerships with male Surrealist artists (Tanguy and Sage, Tanning and Ernst, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Lee Miller and Man Ray) provided them with the necessary support and protection to pursue their own careers. And these relationships went deeper than that. Sage wrote of Tanguy: ‘I do not believe there has ever been such a total and devastating love and understanding as there was between us’.

One of the ironies of Surrealism is that a movement that objectified and sexualized women can also be seen as a watershed in female liberation. The movement’s founder André Breton wrote in the second surrealist manifesto, ‘the problem of woman is the most marvellous and disturbing problem in all the world’ and it is true that for many of the male artists, exploration of the subconscious was synonymous with eroticism and sexuality. Yet it was one of the first major artistic movements to include a large group of women who were considered and celebrated on equal terms by their fellow-artists.

That said, these women were still operating in a male-dominated art world and this had a lasting impact on their commercial and critical legacy. They have often been perceived as muses and celebrated for the art they inspired rather than the art they produced.

In some cases they also deliberately sought to situate themselves outside of the movement – Fini was introduced to the Surrealist inner circle by Max Ernst but disliked Breton. She exhibited with them twice but preferred to follow her own path.

A number of them also continued to work well into the second half of the twentieth century, outgrowing their Surrealist beginnings. One of the revelations of the 2018/19 Tanning show at Tate Modern was the body of work she produced from 1950 onwards – expansive and gloriously abstract canvases that show her responding to new artistic currents.

While this led to them being sidelined from the main Surrealist narrative for many years, the advent of feminist criticism in the 1960s initiated a reappraisal of their contribution and this has gained further momentum recently.

In 2018, Tanning had a retrospective at Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum (which later transferred to London’s Tate Modern). In 2019, Maar had a retrospective at Paris’s Centre Pompidou (which also transferred to Tate Modern, where it’s still on view).

It’s also noteworthy that at the revamped MoMA – open since October 2019 – the Surrealism gallery boasts two new acquisitions, both of them by females: And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur by Carrington and The Juggler by Remedios Varo.

This renewed focus is beginning to be reflected in the market, with a significant rise in interest over the past decade or so. The record price for a painting by Sage, for example, today stands at $7.1 million; in 2007, it was $72,000.

Their contribution to the Surrealist movement is varied and complex. They were muses, but they were also artists in their own right. They produced a body of work that is distinctly female in its sensibilities and their particular intuitions allowed for an expression of the subconscious that brought a new meaning to Surrealism.

Impressionist & Modern Art
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