A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist.
At parties, in front of other guests, Sage was not only insulted by her second husband, the artist Yves Tanguy, she was often shoved around the room and threatened by him, even with a knife. And yet she idolized him as both friend and artist, and after his death spent more time and effort on his work than her own. The usual story of internalized sexist attitudes? I agree with biographer Judith Suther's use of stronger language to describe this case: misogyny, self-loathing.
Nevertheless, Sage produced. Contact with French surrealist Tanguy stimulated her imagination and her ability to work in ways she was unable to match before or after that relationship. It seems probable to me that he accepted her as an honorary man, for she could spar with him in unladylike French. (A rich but neglected child, she had been brought up largely by servants in Europe, as her American mother roamed the continent.) Andre Breton, the pope of surrealism, was censorious in his dislike of such coarse language from a woman; Tanguy, however, apparently enjoyed the sharp, unexpected contrasts in Sage. He allowed her strength (his role was the child), whereas Breton's taste ran to the kind of beautiful child-woman who figures in his novel Nadja.
There is no way that Sage could have fulfilled Breton's pedophile fantasties, since she encountered surrealism late, in 1938, when she had turned forty. She came to it with a background in representational art and a marriage to an Italian man of leisure, both of which she bravely rejected. It seems that she learned to represent her inner world after encountering De Chirico's non-realistic paintings, which are filled with his peculiar choice of significant objects, and Tanguy's mysterious landscapes, which reveal more about his unconscious than any other terrain. These works validated her personal symbols as the subject matter for visual art. I like the way Suther expresses it: "Sage simply developed her own style - if such a process can be called simple - through the agency of the Surrealists."
Because art critics, among others, constantly compared her to her husband, Sage seems to have bent over backwardS not to imitate his work. In opposition to his organic vocabulary, she turned to architectural motifs. They do not join in conventional patterns to form complete or inhabitable buildings, but generally suggest incoherence, desolation and destruction, as after a storm or war. (A dream about burning scaffolding in Sage's 1955 narrative China Eggs suggests she saw a house as very vulnerable.)
In Suther's biography, Sage twists ambivalently, constantly approaching surrealism and turning her back on it. The title of this book, A House of Her Own, is not just a play on Virginia Woolf; it emphasizes a repeated choice in Sage's life. Her 1939 visit to the Rhone Valley was emblematic: Sage was not one of the group of surrealist artists and friends - including her then lover, Tanguy - invited to summer in a chateau there; instead, she rented a house in a nearby village. From the beginning, physical and ironic distance characterized her relationship to the surrealist camp.
When war broke out, she wisely came to New York. Like Peggy Guggenheim (and with her), Sage used her money and connections to help bring endangered surrealists to the US - including Breton, though there was no love lost between them. She also introduced her surrealist colleagues to American art circles, to the extent that she, a mostly expatriate American, could. But by 1941 she had separated herself from the exiles in the city by moving with Tanguy, by now her husband, to a house (of her own) in Woodbury, Connecticut. Bonds were not severed: "the Tanguys" still had an apartment on West 53rd Street and saw friends at parties; there were surrealist forays out to Woodbury, recorded in photographs. But it is significant that when most of the exiles moved back to France in 1945, Tanguy and Sage did not.
Looking at the surrealists from Sage's point of view, as Suther does, lends a novel perspective on that movement. We are usually inundated with nostalgia about their love for the occult and de Sade, absinthe and other exotic liberators of the unconscious. But now when I read (in Lionel Abel's 1984 book, The Intellectual Follies: A Memoir of the Literary Venture in New York and Paris, for instance) about the avant-garde's predilection for banal martinis, I see their vaunted experiments as a higher class of party games.
In Tanguy, drink clearly released hostility as well as creativity. Sage was dependent on alcohol, as her mother had been on morphine, and in the long run, its effect was probably as destructive. Yet both Tanguy and Sage refused to give up the bottle, even when told it was seriously damaging their health.
Tanguy died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1955. Alone in her house, Sage lapsed into depression. Impairment of vision due to cataracts was reportedly not set right by three operations; this deepened the overwhelming sense of loss she felt at Tanguy's death. She smoked, despite the fact that she was advised to have one lung removed; she drank in spite of the consequences (once she fell down the stairs and required hospitalization). In 1963, she shot herself.
"[T]he wonder is that she held out as long as she did," writes Suther of Sage's continuing ability to create. I would push the analysis further: the wonder is that Sage became an accomplished, significant artist and writer, considering how reticent she was about her thoughts and feelings. It seems to me that she used art and writing to explore her blocks as much as to overcome them. What she repeatedly depicted were barricades - "walls or other screen-like partitions that block access to parts of the canvas," in Suther's words.
Many people - including, unfortunately, Suther herself have found Sage's closedness off-putting. "The imagery of walls and empty vistas that she inscribed in the paintings from her maturity does not invite entry, much less intrusion," Suther writes. Perhaps because she believes this, her book is short on art and literary criticism; I wanted more speculative and engaged reflections on the possible meanings of Sage's work. For blocks intrigue me and invite me to reflect on my own. What holes do they show, which may function as a way out as well as a way in? Sage's singular iconography is full of these ambiguities.
Perhaps it would be useful to see Sage in a larger context: for instance, in the tradition of hermetic art, which has often had great trouble gaining acceptance in America - I am thinking of our unwilling and late reception of Emily Dickinson, for instance. Accessibility was - and still is - often considered an artistic virtue here. I fear our system of teaching and testing tends to inculcate the idea that there is a right answer to every question, rather than another question.
Sage also had the misfortune to create disturbing art in an America that placed a premium on optimism, in the war years and the 1950s. Suther defends her from the charge of producing depressing art, which was often leveled against her by art critics in the US. I would rather ask why they considered disquieting work depressing, rather than brave, liberating and original. Is it because painting was supposed to be decorative in order to be hung in living rooms?
As someone who contradicted stereotypes, Sage had difficulty gaining recognition in her lifetime. Breton, who considered women's art ethereal, apparently had trouble with Sage because she proved him wrong. (Rumor has it that when he first saw - and liked - a painting by Sage, he insisted that it had been made by a man.) But transcending categories is what often makes works of art endure. And I see good chances for Sage's future. In France as well as America, she is attracting attention, as demonstrated by Chantal Vieuille's recent Kay Sage ou le surrealisme americain, biographie 1898-1963 (Les Editions Complicites, 1995) which Suther doesn't discuss, though it is cited in her bibliography. (Did it appear too late to be dealt with? It is a curious omission, given that Suther devotes considerable space to Sage's reputation.)
I expect that sage's biting intelligence and ironic wit - even more evident in her writing than in her visual art - will no longer be dismissed as unfeminine in literary circles. These qualities have become the stuff of much performance art by female avant-gardists. So I would not be surprised to see China Eggs, her autobiography of her life before Tanguy - written in English and now available with a French translation in a bilingual edition - adapted for the stage, especially since much of it consists of a dialogue between two sparring partners.
This pair seems to comprise halves of Sage's ambivalence. One side tends toward negativity (denials, refusals, hopelessness). It may be her construction of the feminine, for its life-affirming opposite often plays a traditionally male role, bragging - for example - about sexual appetite and prowess. "I can only talk to men about such things and they don't seem to think many women enjoy it. Not the way I do." From the time she was little, Sage says, she preferred boys over girls, considering them more direct, amusing and fair. How much of this misogyny stems from Sage's hostility to a needy mother who clung to her possessively and selfishly, who - she says - "tried to ruin my life and very nearly succeeded"? As a child, she had to give her mother morphine injections. As a young woman engaged to be married, she had to face her mother's jealous hostility. The analysis she offers of this mother/daughter tie is surprisingly frank, and not simply for its time: "I loved my mother passionately. As to her feelings for me, they were patently abnormal and surely sexual. I have no doubts about the fact that she was in love with me," she writes in China Eggs.
A bohemian who lived apart from her husband, even before they divorced, and spent time with "odd women in masculine clothes," Sage's mother remains intriguingly mysterious in this narrative. "To this day, I do not believe that she knew the existence of lesbianism nor do I think she had any idea what was going on.... But I may be wrong because, on the other hand, I don't know what they wanted of her." I respect Sage for keeping her questions open. "I still like things I do not understand," she writes. That requires courage in adulthood, when mastery, control and knowledge are so (over)valued.
In fact, if China Eggs is about any one quality, it is courage. Sage's mother managed to live as a divorcee, when it meant being a social pariah, cut off from her husband's family or friends and other social contacts. But Sage was not satisfied with that model: "Although she was very courageous, she was not courageous enough or else she really didn't know what she wanted." What Sage demanded from herself, and achieved, was the courage to reject her dependent mother and first husband. And that plot makes China Eggs conform to one type of Bildungsroman: the story of choosing an artist's life, despite all odds.
Sage's first husband, called X here, was clearly less seductive than her mother. A man with musical talent but no discipline, with expensive tastes but no interest in work, he comes across as a rather stereotypical playboy. Yet Sage's writing about him is softer in tone than the sections on her mother. He appears in China Eggs as "a graceful reed in a stagnant swamp." His unopened business letters were "hidden behind the books in his study the way squirrels hide nuts." There is tenderness in these words, perhaps pity. But ultimately Sage had to leave him and his set to save herself from boredom. "He thought there was plenty of time to waste. In fact he thought time was made to be wasted. I didn't." In the leisure class, she was not meeting artists or becoming one.
Written toward the end of her life and never completed, China Eggs can also be read as Sage's statement of belief that it requires courage to commit suicide.
We have often heard the story of...scorpions stinging themselves to death if they are encircled by fire. It is quite true. I have put one under a glass. He tries and tries to get out. When he has decided there is absolutely no hope, he turns up his tail and stings himself in the back. I would like to have the courage of the scorpion. (p. 76)
This is the tale of an artist who achieved what she wanted, and who then stopped wanting.