No Kiss, no Tanned Guy under that Mistletoe - Yves Tanguy, Scharf Gerstenberg Collection

 

(Berlin.) Stepping through the looted Egyptian portal of Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection is an impressive experience. Placed inside the museum’s 19th Century building, it marks the transition from entry hall to exhibition area, or, to be precise: the second transition from entry hall to exhibition area – the first, modern and wooden, having already baffled you with its (very) well hidden doorknobs. It seems just natural, that SG Collection – no, that’s ambiguous, there’s that bank surely investing in art, too: that Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection is dedicated to 20th Century Surrealism.

For Christmas season, they show not their own, but another’s collection, and it’s not even a gift. Nearly all works of Yves Tanguy - In the Realm of the Mistletoe Druids are in the possession of only one man, a Western German Tanguy aficionado. It sounds almost like me, only this collector is lacking the funds for an exhibition space of his own, and  Tanguy on paper alone would probably not be enough for that, either.
Scharf-Gerstenberg is a place few Berliners know of, and even less visit, despite the impressive architecture, and the situation right opposite Charlottenburg Palace. Berlin public museums’ capo di capei, Mr Udo Kittelmann, got rather enthusiastic about the show, telling of “Xmas feelings in front of these works”, and not because small formats are such a perfect gift, or because of that collector attending the same opening, and maybe he does own more than this, after all. No, apparently he liked it. To make it short, and this article won’t be long: I cannot agree.

No doubt about it, Yves Tanguy was an eminent Surrealist. Moving in André Breton’s circle, for whom he at one point even abandoned his former close friends and housemates Jacques Prévert and Marcel Duhamel - the latter’s uncle having financed the group’s bohème lifestyle in then hip Montmarte for years, Tanguy created paintings that are marked by a peculiar fragility, fine lines, and masterly executed details.
It’s always suspicious, when an exhibition’s press release and wall texts frequently mention another, presumably more popular, artist, in this case Dali. They further call Tanguy an “artist’s artist”, meaning: If you don’t like it, it’s your fault, you just aren’t connoisseur enough (everyone wants to be an artist; or at least understand them). The most obviously Dali-esque work at Scharf-Gerstenberg is also one of the scarce paintings (/collages), Je suis venu comme j’avais promis, adieu (I’ve come as I promised, Goodbye), 1926. But Tanguy was a Surrealist in his own right, with less eye for, and interest in, self-marketing than el loco Salvador.

At Scharf Gerstenberg, there are only small formats, really small formats, really really small formats, books, catalogues and polaroids – Tanguy’s Graphic Work (the exhibition’s subtitle) was undoubtedly of minor importance for his career. It feels like an extraordinarily small show, yet you will be surprised by the length of the work list. That’s the magic not of Mistletoe Druids, but of small formats, and the downside of an impractical, thoroughly inadequate exhibition space. High walls, a cold, grey, castle hall, and small to tiny works are lost. The most impractical of Berlin museums shouts for nothing less than big canvases and large sculptures. This, of course, is just a superficial criticism, targeting outer circumstances, negligible if artworks have the power to impose themselves. Alas, they haven’t. More often than not, working on paper, Tanguy can be called “The Monochrome Surrealist”. And that doesn’t work, or not in his case. Could it be that Surrealism, with its abstract, often morbid, circles and lines, looks just old, and cold, and numb, boring and dead, where not coloured with life? Do you dream in colour, or monochrome? And which are the more memorable?
The most compelling works seemingly confirm the suspicion: From prints in different colours of Rhabdomancie, 1947, Tanguy ultimately chose the best, indeed. Also great: several Untitleds (1924, 1926/27, 1946, 1953), more or less standing for a different, minimalist, Surrealism, coloured, or black at least, and a minuscule postcard sent to Dora Maar (Bonjour Dora) in 1938. The most surprising piece however, is called Hamilton Mushroom (1947); Approach closely to discover the fine drawing in what at first sight seems (a ready)made by nature. A drawing in a tree mushroom, that’s nice (and it’s not an inscription, “Yves {heart} Kay”, his wife). Then, there’s a monochrome Dali: Figures-Meubles, 1934, and what a difference! Maybe it’s just Tanguy...

As usual, you’ll find more artists whom Tanguy influenced, and/or who influenced him, and many of these works are more interesting than the main thing. Dubuffet (Blossoming Earth, 1959), Arp (Dada Relief, 1917/23), Calder, Redon, Klee, Grosz, Wols, Miro, Masson – not in every case, it’s immediately obvious, why they’re here, but who cares? Just don’t go Christmas shopping with a sledgehammer...
Film close ups of mad eyes, that’s not Un chien andalou, and a lot of books designed by, or including illustrations of, Yves Tanguy, among them Max Ernst’s The Seven - not Samurai but: Microbes Seen Through a Temper, and other ‘Surrealia’.

To sum it up: If you’re already a hard core fan of Tanguy’s, happy even to see photos of the artist fooling around with friends – and, it’s admittedly refreshing to see, people in black and white were living just like us -, this is the show for you. The peer group also invented “surrealist”, or only silly d̶r̶i̶n̶k̶i̶n̶g̶games. But if you’re more of a beginner eager to discover Yves Tanguy, and why he’s an important artist, you might be disappointed.
Finally, a word on the side: It’s more than annoying when translation adds censorship, it’s stupid. No: Les couilles enragées (book title by Benjamin Péret) is not “The enraged Testicles.” That’s just “balls”. You can easily imagine the spectacled bureaucrats in black and grey, so stereotypical for regional savings banks, insurance agencies, and German public museums, blushing, and thinking, “No, but I cannot write this”. Yes, you can, and you even have to: It’s your putain de job.

And forget about the exhibition title, there’s not a single mistletoe around, “Tourist Guide from the Realm of the Mistletoe Druids” was Tanguy’s nickname, not just in holiday season.

In the Realm of the Mistletoe Druids – The Graphic Work of Yves Tanguy, 8 December 2017-8 April 2018, Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection
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