American Painter and Poet
Watervliet, NY, USA
Woodbury, CT, USA
Summary of Kay Sage
As Sage's vision grows increasingly hopeless, glimmers of red, flowing drapery, and rolling eggs metamorphose to become complex and unstable architectural hiding places. After a privileged childhood, Sage moved to Italy, where she lived and worked in the company of a group of artists. Having married an Italian Prince however, she soon felt stifled and without artistic inspiration, so moved to Paris, where she met fellow painter Yves Tanguy, became involved with the Surrealist group, and started what she would later call, her "real life". She began to favor the geometric over the organic, and landscapes turned from natural vistas into barren psychological spaces. Constructed in mind, Sage built stage sets on canvas that typically look transitional, temporary, and unstable like scaffolding or theatre rigging. Following the unexpected death of her love, Tanguy, she suffered greatly at the end of her life. As a concluding tragedy that one wonders from the overarching tone of sadness that her paintings had already foreseen, Sage became partially blind and took her own life.
- The work of Sage differs dramatically from that of other Women Surrealists. Whilst other women involved in this movement often depicted symbolic motifs imbuing their pictures with ethereal positivity and relatively obvious meaning, Sage obscures such meaning and instead presents a typically nihilistic, cold, and impenetrable view of the world.
- Like Giorgio de Chirico, Sage is interested in constructed artifice, sharp perspective, and poetry, but where the older Italian's scenes typically suggest uncanny narrative, Sage's settings are more foreboding and sometimes even apparently dangerous. Like the English Vorticists, who made desolate wartime paintings, Sage too depicts broken, threatening, and uninhabitable terrains.
- Sage had a complex and destructive personal and working relationship with Yves Tanguy. Although it seems that Sage could not live without her partner, friends recall that they did not live together harmoniously either. Their work developed in parallel but was also markedly different. Whilst Tanguy held on to biomorphic forms and a jewel-like palette, Sage maintained a color wheel much more subdued and scenes became all the more constructed and formally abstract. The couple was very reluctant to exhibit together and did so only once close to Tanguy's death.
- The presence of the egg in Sage's work links her childhood and her autobiography. Her father had a collection of rare and unusual birds eggs that she would look at as a child and she titled her autobiography China Eggs (1955), focused on the fragile time before she moved to Paris. The egg is also perhaps the most meaningful object in her pictures. More typically Surrealist, it points to notions of alchemy and transformation and suggests hope of new life in a way that little else in her oeuvre does.
Biography of Kay Sage
Katherine Linn Sage was born on June 25, 1898 in Waterliet, NY, north of Albany. She was the second daughter of a well-established family who had made their fortune in the Northwest timber industry. Her father, Henry Sage, was president of the Sage Land and Improvement Company. He was also the director of various banking and business enterprises, and had served as a state senator from 1911 to 1921. Sage's mother, Anne Ward, married Henry when she was very young, age eighteen, in order to satisfy financial and social needs. She defied expectations and proved to be a recalcitrant wife. As historian Stephen Robeson Miller states, speaking of Sage, "the combination made for an unstable childhood". Very early on in their marriage, the artist's parents established separate lives. Henry remained in Albany while Anne traveled around multiple European cities to escape the duties of the spouse of a wealthy politician and businessman. Sage often accompanied her mother on these extended trips while her sister would only join them during the summer.
Important Art by Kay Sage
This is a relatively early work made when Sage was still experimenting with various styles, and especially with geometric abstraction. The painting is composed of tri-dimensional rectangles of different sizes that have been stacked together randomly and precariously. There is a great sense of perspective based on oblique lines converging towards a vanishing point in the upper middle of the canvas, and also the sense that the structure could topple down before our eyes. Colors mostly belong to a muted blue palette and give a cool, oceanic or sky-like atmosphere to the whole painting. Brushstrokes, precise and not visible, add a quality of stillness and clarity and highlight the artist's abilities as an incredible draughtswoman.
With the use of geometric forms, the artist paints an enigmatic scene and invites the viewer to imagine the story behind it. The title gives a hint that we as the viewers are the onlookers to the remnants of some past events. Typically in the work of Sage, we never, or very rarely, 'see' a human, but we are given subtle clues to the presence of something softer than the surrounding dominant and harsh constructions. Here, the presence of emotion and hope comes in the form of the white curve in the upper part of the painting, as though placed there as a celestial pathway for escape from a less forgiving setting at large. Made in Paris, this painting was exhibited at the Salon des Surindependants and was among the works that first attracted Breton and Tanguy's attention.
This is an early surrealist work that shows de Chirico's strong influence on Sage and also introduces the artist's recurrent motif of the egg. The artist borrows several elements from the older Italian, including the stairwell and open archway, and in turn builds in her own distinctive voice. The egg is at the very center of the canvas and seems to lean against a curved wall that divides the space in two. Like de Chirico, by using objects from daily life and setting up uncanny juxtapositions, Sage creates a "metaphysical space". The shadows suggest further spaces invisible to the viewer, while the horizon line extends the space further into the background as well. This work is one of a cluster made at the time, all of which depict a variant combination of eggs, drapery, arches and stairways.
Many other Surrealist women artists working simultaneous to Sage, including Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, and Remedios Varo used the image of the egg. Whitney Chadwick points out, that there is an "alchemical identification of the egg with the woman's creative powers". This motif does indeed appear many times in Sage's early canvases, but there is a point when it disappears completely, along with the punctuating color of red. Chadwick observes that in the case of Sage, the egg remains ambiguous and serves both as a formal device to relieve the strict geometry of her compositions and as a momentary bearer of mystery "implying life and landscapes otherwise devoid of human presence." Sage quite unusually always puts the egg in a precarious position, as though about to roll away, perhaps there is a sense that it represents something grasped for but never reached.
The work is associated with a poem written by Sage and given the same title. One cannot help but extract a conflict and division at work here in both the painting and in the psyche of the artist. It is as though the 'red door' signifies the hope of new life, but this is the door that 'cannot be opened' and the grayness that remains brings nothing. An overall feeling of isolation and entrapment seems to be underlined in the poem. The author sees no escape and looks outside at the infinity.
As she wrote:
My room has two doors
And one window.
One door is red and the other is gray.
I cannot open the red door;
The gray door does not interest me.
Having no choice,
I shall lock them both
And look out of the window.
This painting is a desolate, geometric landscape dominated by a tall, cloaked guardian in the foreground. The human looking figure is composed of a central pole and swirling drapery. The fluid and animated drapery is well rendered. As a critic noted in 1947, "Sage paints draperies like the masters did". The feeling of movement and blowing wind through the cloth made the figure contrast with the extreme stillness of the landscape. Surrounding the figure, a 'building block' landscape is depicted with simple shapes, mainly triangles and rectangles. An interesting perspective is created and underlined by the various sizes of the shapes and by the horizon line in the background. Colors are soft and similar all across the canvas. Only the partially visible pole stands out with its red tone, as though at this point Sage still has an internal core of red; there is life inside.
In typical Surrealist style, Sage puts in place a set of oppositions in this painting. The animated drapery contrasts with the inanimate setting and there is a parallel to be made in the opposition between the verticality of the pole and the horizontality of the landscape. These contrasts create a disorienting effect. The guardian humanized only by her drapery seems to preside over a city once inhabited. The cloth recalls that of the victorious Greek statue, Nike of Samothrace that the artist probably saw at the Louvre. One wonders though, as war rages in Europe and cities fall, that this is an image of defeat rather than one of victory. The title adds a further clue to the fact this is a painting made in mourning. Like the Louvre statue that survives through history, the guardian here bears witness to tragic current events but lives on. At this point in her career, Sage depicts the egg less and drapery and the color red more. Indeed, if the egg is an obvious symbol of womanhood and the urge to bring forth new life, drapery is a subtler motif and can be easily related to death as well as life. The cloth could become a shroud and the color red expresses the feeling of pain. Also arguably freer than the closed space of the egg and, especially in this painting, drapery poetically recalls the flowing hair of a woman.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Kay Sage
- A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary SurrealistBy Judith D. Suther
- China EggsBy Kay Sage
- The More I WonderBy Kay Sage
- Kay Sage Catalogue RaisonneBy Jessie Sentivan, Mary Ann Caws, Stephen Robeson Miller