Recovered and restored: the surrealist masterpiece thought destroyed after fascist raid

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Archivio Gbb/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Archivio Gbb/Alamy

Tanguy’s Fraud in the Garden was vandalised in the 1930s, but analysis confirms that painting bought in the 1980s is the real thing

A surrealist masterpiece believed destroyed when a fascist mob raided an arthouse cinema in 1930s Paris has made a triumphant return.

The thugs vandalised the theatre, which was showing a subversive, anticlerical film by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel and displaying avant-garde paintings, and took knives to artworks, including a futuristic landscape by Yves Tanguy, which was photographed with gaping scars and slashes in the aftermath of the attack.

The painting, Fraud in the Garden, painted in 1930, was thought to have been lost or destroyed. Now it is back, its wounds healed by a restorer’s surgery. Its rediscovery has been confirmed by Professor Jennifer Mass, an American conservation scientist, who told the Observer that the painting had been presumed “lost to history”.

She said: “We were able to do different types of imaging and analysis and demonstrate that it was the original work that had been put back together again.”

On 3 December 1930, two right-wing extremist groups, the League of Patriots and the Anti-Semitic League, raided the newly renovated Studio 28 in Montmartre. They were protesting at “the immorality of this Bolshevist spectacle”; L’Âge d’Or (The Age of Gold) was a savage cinematice attack on the Catholic church and sexual hypocrisy, whose controversial scenes include a sequence based on the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom in which the chief sadist appears to be Jesus.

The fascists attacked the Tanguy, along with other works by Dalí, Man Ray and Joan Miró displayed in the lobby. They smashed furniture and windows, tore up books, threw ink at the screen and ignited smoke bombs. They shouted: “We’ll show you that there are still Christians in France!” and “Death to Jews!” In the following days, pressure from rightwing newspapers led to the film being banned.

Dalí’s painting, Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion, survived the attack, having been slashed, and is in the Pompidou in Paris. Mass said: “Now we know that this Tanguy also survived. Many of the surrealist painters of the period were pro-Communist. They were really trying to question the status quo, and so this made them a target.”

She added that an anonymous French owner had acquired the Tanguy at auction in 1985: “He thought that this could be the original painting that had been attacked. People didn’t believe him because it looked like it was in perfect condition.

“We looked at it and thought it can’t be the same painting. We’ve been doing work in the lab – X-ray, ultraviolet and pigment analysis – and we found that it is the original that had been repaired.” Scientific tests revealed its scars.

The painting, which measures 92cm by 73cm, is typical of Tanguy’s timeless, barren landscapes with imaginary objects and ambiguous forms. Shortly before his death in 1955, the artist said: “The painting develops before my eyes, unfolding its surprises as it progresses.”

Mass leads the consultancy Scientific Analysis of Fine Art, which studies works through cutting-edge science, and is professor of cultural heritage science at the Bard Graduate Centre in New York. She has co-authored a study of the Tanguy painting with numerous academics, including specialists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Art historian Charles Stuckey, who has been working with researcher Stephen Mack on a Tanguy catalogue raisonné, or definitive study, described the survival of this historic painting as “very significant”.

Professor Elliott King, a Dalí expert, said that its rediscovery was “extremely exciting”, partly due to its link with a key moment for the surrealists: “In 1930, they were not really sure if surrealism had become too acceptable and this gave their movement new excitement. L’Âge d’Or was designed to shock. The attack was frightening and violent, no doubt, but in its way expected. Indeed, Dalí wrote to a friend at the time saying that tensions were rising, suggesting the surrealists anticipated some sort of eruption.”

The British Film Institute notes that, while L’Âge d’Or was vilified for many years for its subversive eroticism and furious dissection of “civilised” values, it is today considered a masterpiece.

Related: First surrealist art exhibition in England - archive, 12 June 1936

Mass said that the “terror” suffered by the painting has been completely covered up by the restorer: “It’s only in an X-ray that it’s possible to see that the painting was slashed.”

That raises a dilemma, a “tension between the painting as a historical document and an art historical document”, she said. “If you don’t study history, then you’re doomed to repeat it. It seems that we’re at a point in time when the far right might be interested in happily repeating some of our early 20th-century history and probably a lot of people don’t fully understand what fascism means at this moment.

“As a historical document, I would like to see it in its unrestored state. But for art historical purposes, it’s understandable that people want to focus on Tanguy.”

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