Simon Hantaï’s Cut Emerald Eye belongs to a series of single figure paintings of imaginary creatures. Painted in February 1950 in Paris, it is one of Hantaï’s “retinue of fabulous beings which breath has endowed with life and which move miraculously” as André Breton put it in his foreword to the artist’s first Parisian solo exhibition in January 1953 at L’Étoile scellée, the recently launched gallery of the Surrealist group.¹ The bird-like, heraldic character is depicted with raised arms and bears circular and half-moon shapes on its head. The artist’s prominently placed signature is scuffed into the paint appearing as graffiti. Characterized by the simultaneous use of diverse painterly procedures and a heavily textured, multilayered ground, Cut Emerald Eye explores the physicality of the gesture and the materiality of paint while expanding on the iconography of postwar Surrealism. Its lacerated surface, scratched and vividly colored details, cut-out forms and chromatic contrasts between earth tones and highly saturated blues and greens reflect Hantaï’s interest in destabilizing the unity of the pictorial plane and the relations between figure and ground. The painting merges the different artistic idioms available in postwar Paris where the Hungarian-born Hantaï arrived in September 1948, including, among others, the technical procedures of Surrealist automatism, the gestural tendencies of contemporary French abstraction, and the material practices of artists associated with Art Brut. The use of grattage and overpainting recalls Max Ernst’s work, while the stencil-like forms bring to mind Henri Matisse’s paper cutouts, which had been a lasting influence in Hantaï’s oeuvre since they were first shown in Paris in the summer of 1949.
1. André Breton, introduction to Simon Hantaï (Paris: A L’Etoile Scellée, 1953), in Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. by Simon Watson Taylor (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 237.