A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist

A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist

A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist

A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist

Synopsis

A House of Her Own is the first full-length biography of the American Surrealist painter Kay Sage. Born in 1898 to wealthy American parents in upstate New York, Sage spent most of her childhood and young adult years in Italy and France. In 1937 she moved to Paris, where she became a member of the Surrealist group surrounding André Breton. She returned to the United States in 1940, settling in Woodbury, Connecticut. Her most productive years as an artist extended from roughly 1938 through the late 1950s, when her health began to deteriorate and she withdrew gradually from social contact. She stopped working on her oil paintings in 1958 but continued to forge her increasingly nihilistic poems until she shot herself in the heart in January 1963. Along with her eloquent chronicle of Sage's life, Judith D. Suther presents subtle, revelatory views of Sage's artistic accomplishments. She takes us into the artist's elegant, dreamlike paintings, connecting them to Sage's complex inner life and to the artistic and intellectual worlds in which she moved. Suther also shows how the raw language and iconoclastic themes of Sage's poetic works were related to Sage's lifelong revolt against social and artistic convention.

Excerpt

In the 1990s, to call an artist a Surrealist inevitably evokes the popular usage of surreal as a synonym for bizarre, even grotesque. Journalists routinely use the term to report incongruous news items: a fifteen-car highway accident, an infant abandoned in the doll section of a toy store, or a hunger strike by prisoners on death row becomes a “surreal” event. I can hardly claim exemption from a connotation that has entered the language. Strictly speaking, though, the term Surrealist denotes the artists and the art associated with the avant-garde movement centered in France between the two world wars and then disseminated outside Europe, especially to the United States, after 1939. I call Kay Sage a Surrealist because her painting resonates with the unsettling paradoxes and hallucinatory qualities prized by André Breton and his group, which have given rise to the trendy journalistic shorthand. More fundamentally, I call Sage a Surrealist because her allegiance to the Surrealist identity lies at the heart of her self-image as an artist.

Sage was a latecomer to the Surrealist enterprise, arriving in Paris in 1937, in the waning years of the group’s creative moment in history. She was almost forty years old, had had some traditional art training in Italy, and had begun to experiment in abstraction, but on the whole she seemed an unlikely candidate for Surrealist affiliation. She was not suited to or interested in playing the role of muse or handmaiden for the male Surrealists; she had a private income and artistic ambitions of her own. Taking initial inspiration from De Chirico, as the first generation of Surrealists had done, she painted a series of pictures adapting the motifs of his metaphysical period. In her subsequent work, in which she rapidly asserted her own authority, artistic debts are harder to pin down. Until the appearance in the early 1970s of revisionist studies of women artists and writers, it had been erroneously assumed that her major indebtedness was to her second husband, the Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, whom she married in 1940. Her admiration for him, which turned to veneration after his death, has not helped clear the record. Apart from some specific quotations in her early Surrealist-inspired work, I argue that Sage’s progress . . .

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