The career of Kay Sage demonstrates the near impossibility, for any woman painter before the 1970s, of being acknowledged as a significant artist in her own right. This was even though she was part of the Surrealist movement, which was ostensibly enthusiastic about female involvement. Her paintings are true surrealist landscapes, emerging from deep in her psyche, painted with precision and secret desperation. They have been compared with the work of Yves Tanguy or Giorgio de Chirico and are often dismissed as merely derivative, which is totally undeserved.
Katherine's mother soon arrived in Rome and for a while, her sister Anne stayed, though she was ill and soon moved to Switzerland. Katherine remained, to play dutiful daughter in her mother’s court, only finding freedom during her art during classes. This pattern of subservience to her mother and to the social demands of an upper class life continued throughout her first marriage. In 1925 she married Prince Ranieri di San Faustino. Katherine was given a studio in their Rapallo villa, but artistic ambitions vanished beneath her life in the shadow of her husband’s family and her mother. Although it began as a love match, she later described her marriage to Ranieri as empty years and admitted that she gave up, nobody took her seriously, or her desire to paint. Loneliness had pursued her throughout her youth, as an adult she hid it behind a reserved air of sophistication
By 1935 Katherine was 37 and despaired at the prospect of continuing to be Princess Katherine di San Faustino, who was expected to do nothing, with elegance. She fell out of love with her husband, then her sister and father both died, leaving her an independently wealthy woman. These factors pushed her towards a certainty that something had to change. She moved to Milan and in 1936 had her first exhibition, of abstract compositions. On a visit to Paris, she met painter Kurt and Arlette Seligman, her first Surrealists. This began a long friendship and 1937 saw the completion of Katherine’s break with her former life.
She knew at last that she was an artist and moved to Paris to build her career. She retrieved her maiden name, shortened her first name and as Kay Sage began painting striking abstractions with architectural motifs. When she visited the International Surrealist Exhibition in January 1938 her eyes were opened further. This was the last major statement in Europe of the pre-war surrealists and displayed the movement at its peak. Sage was moved by the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and purchased one, La Surprise, a painting so rigorously geometric as to be apparently abstract. De Chirico’s hard edged, semi-classical imagery and distortions of perspective fed immediately into her abstract work, his vistas and air of mystery had later effects when she began to paint the wide, desolate landscapes for which she would become known. Like so many of the women artists involved with Surrealism, she took from it what she needed and ignored the rest.
In October 1938 Sage showed six paintings at the Salon des Surindépendents, four of them painted since her ‘discovery’ of the surrealists and so she was in her turn discovered by them. Andre Breton was so impressed by Sage’s canvases that he was convinced the artist was a man, being unable to equate such precise, disquieting compositions with his set ideas of what women could or should create. However, as an already mature woman who knew her own mind, Kay Sage never attempted to fit in with the surrealists in the way younger women had. She was nobody’s muse and associated herself with the men, especially Tanguy, as an equal. She had no interest in Surrealist theory, her reaction to Surrealism was instinctive, even visionary. Kay Sage became a true Surrealist painter at the age of forty and embraced the label. She wanted to belong to the movement, if not the mind-set.
Her love for Tanguy has been down-played but was real, her commitment to him was complete. Exactly when they first met is not clear, different accounts exist, probably the least reliable is by a jealous Peggy Guggenheim who had recently had an affair with Tanguy. Whenever the origin of their relationship, Kay Sage decided the charming, volatile Tanguy was the man for her and by 1939 they were an item, though both were still married to others.
Sage gained the reputation of being haughty and standoffish, the ice queen to Tanguy’s rough Breton seaman, but this simplistic contrast does justice to neither artist. They shared a dislike of intellectualism and a sometimes raucous sense of humour. Neither was highly educated, although Sage’s knowledge of everyday French enabled them to communicate easily. As well as a lover, Tanguy was a discovery for her, like discovering the surrealist foundation for her art. Her painting and her man bound her to surrealism and initially she wanted to be bound; she failed to recognise that her art would inevitably be considered subservient to Tanguy’s, just as she failed to see that women involved with the surrealist group were, although idealised, subservient to the men.
Sage’s cold reputation stemmed partly from her former life, the influence of which she found impossible to completely escape. She remained an improbable surrealist, joining their ranks late and never quite fitting in, except with Tanguy, though she did try to participate. During the summer of 1939 she took the Surrealist group out to restaurants and joined them for surrealist activities including games, discussions & excursions. She wrote a humorous sketch directly based on conversations she heard, which poked wry fun at the participants, however she did not have the courage to share this affectionate satire with anyone but Tanguy.
Two months later the French government declared war on Germany and Kay Sage left for the USA, having lived in Europe all of her adult life. Tanguy was declared medically unfit for the French army and joined her in New York. Sage helped a number of her friends to leave Europe for the safety of New York, including Breton, Lamba and Matta.
In 1940 Kay Sage married Yves Tanguy, to the displeasure of Andre Breton, recently arrived from Fance. Sage was tri-lingual, in English, Italian and French, while Breton only spoke the latter, refusing to ‘contaminate’ the purity of the French language by learning another. This could have helped Sage stand up to Breton’s disparagement, but only if she had been able to overcome her debilitating reserve. Kay Sage’s main offence in Breton’s eyes, apart from ‘entrapping’ Tanguy, was her class. Although he was not averse to accepting funding from Sage, Breton despised her on principle. That this rich ‘princess’ could not only steal Tanguy from the surrealist brotherhood, but would subsequently try to turn him into a country gentleman was more than Breton could stand.
Tanguy was a charming, delightfully boyish character, very popular but he was a prodigious drinker. Although he would abuse Kay, she thought him a genius and was trying to save him, either from his friends or the drink, though it was rather too late for that. She even arranged for his former wife to receive a lifetime allowance. In 1944 Kay bought a home for her and Tanguy - Town Farm in Woodbury, Connecticut – almost a Surrealist joke with Kay Sage, former princess, now living on the district’s former poor farm. The house was modernised and the barn converted into two studios. Sage painted more than Tanguy did, but the arrangement seemed to work for more than a decade before Tanguy’s sudden death in 1955. Sage remained devoted, she spent part of her remaining years cataloguing all of Tanguy’s work. Her own art, however, was quite separate from Tanguy, he was jealous of her talent and they only exhibited together once.
Sage had a number of solo and joint exhibitions, though she sold few paintings and never for what she considered their true worth. Her first solo exhibition in New York was at the Matisse gallery in 1941 and from then on nobody could dispute the sound surrealist credentials of her work. This had progressed rapidly from the still-life abstractions of 1938 and by 1942 was quite distinct and immediately recognisable as the work of Kay Sage. In her paintings from this time onward the colours are not vivid, she favoured ochres, greys and khaki with just a hint of red. At the Appointed Time, the painting she showed at the Exhibition of 31 Women, is one of a series of paintings she produced featuring a monolith or sentinel figure in a receding landscape. The earliest of these from 1938, represents a smooth, polished standing stone on a pile of similarly rounded rocks, by 1942 the sentinel figure was ambiguous, neither stone nor shrouded human form but something other. Kay Sage refused to offer any explanation for her art. She wrote, “...there is no reason why anything should mean more than its own statement.”
Gallerist Julien Levy happily opened his 1944-45 season with Kay Sage’s paintings, which were on show for the whole of October. Levy was enthusiastic in his encouragement of a number of women artists. He also exhibited Sage’s work in 1945 and in 1947 again opened his autumn season with a solo exhibition of her paintings. Sadly, her ambition was often thwarted, because she found it impossible to shake off the tag of Mrs. Tanguy, her art was always compared with his. These comparisons have been extensively explored elsewhere, it is sufficient to say that while Tanguy’s biomorphic art always bore some resemblance to that of Miro or Dali, by 1943 Sage’s work was distinct from all the other surrealists including her husband. She continued to exhibit in New York and Paris throughout the 1950s and her work was championed by the Catherine Viviano Gallery.
Kay Sage was totally devastated by Tanguy’s death and her life became ever more secluded as she wished to see fewer and fewer people. After a four month break she continued working, both her paintings and the titles she gave them from then onwards seem to contain premonitions of death. Loneliness accompanied by depression in some form had followed her from her childhood, although works such as At the Appointed Time and Unusual Thursday (1951) had the expected surrealist ambiguity, from 1955 canvases such as This Silent World (1955) and the Answer is No (1958) reveal her inner world more explicitly.
Kay Sage’s output decreased from 1955 not only due to grief, but also because eye problems meant it took her much longer to complete a painting to her own perfectionist standards, however it was during these years that she painted two of her best known works. One, Le Passage (1956) is atypical, it shows a human figure looking at a bare landscape; though the figure is shown only from the back, it is sometimes considered a self-portrait. The other, Tomorrow is Never (1955), is less a landscape than a sky-scape, with four scaffold-like towers containing mysterious, draped forms, rising up through mist and cloud into a bare, grey sky. This evocative masterpiece has been described as the culmination of her career.
Catherine Viviano encouraged Kay Sage and kept her working, giving her four solo exhibitions between 1956 and 1961. A full retrospective in 1960 received very good reviews and her work was now commanding better prices than ever, which would have been important to Sage in happier times. She spent more time on her writing and gave up painting after unsuccessful eye surgery. She a wrote an incomplete autobiography, China Eggs, in the form of an internal dialogue, she produced four volumes of poetry, the last published after her death and continued compiling her catalogue of the life and works of Tanguy, working with the help of Lucy Lippard as researcher. Sage did not live to see the catalogue in print.
Her final visual works, a set of small, carefully constructed collage/assemblage pieces, were created after one suicide attempt, involving sleeping pills, and three largely unsuccessful cataract operations which left her still with limited vision. Accompanied by a poem, these pieces were exhibited in 1961 by Catherine Viviano in a show entitled Your Move, after one of the works - a blank board, set with various size empty cartridge cases and one complete bullet, all arranged like chess pieces. Even more so than her other late work, Your Move contains little ambiguity.
Kay Sage shot herself in the heart on 8th January 1963, almost exactly eight years after Tanguy’s death. This was a calculated act, she had tidied up her affairs, completed her work on Tanguy’s catalogue, made her will and left nothing unfinished. Her suicide, while shocking to her remaining friends was hardly a surprise, most were well aware of her lack of any desire to go on living. Her will dispersed her work and her art collection around US museums, she left six paintings and a large cash bequest to MOMA in New York.
Kay Sage still is not widely known, but neither is she an entirely forgotten artist. After her death there was a hiatus when even surrealism was out of favour. She was one of the women artists re-discovered in the 1970’s when her reputation for originality was finally appreciated, while with hindsight Tanguy’s work recognised as merely derivative.
Today most books on Surrealism include an illustration of at least one of her immediately recognisable paintings, although Kay Sage’s sober version of surrealism may seem unspectacular, even over tasteful to jaded modern palates. Kay Sage’s work is displayed in museums and collections in the U.S. and can be seen in Europe at London’s Tate Modern and in Paris at the Pompidou Centre. Making eye contact with her actual paintings, rather than the images reproduced, is an engrossing if sobering experience. I recommend it.
A House of Her Own; Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist by Judith Suther - 1997 University of Nebraska
You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog. Just click the 'Project 31 Women' label below to see the others.