Tate Modern opens a door into the deliciously dark, intimate and, at times, comical world of Dorothea Tanning, a surrealist for our times.
Tanning is often described as a late arrival to the Surrealist party. By the time she encountered the Surrealists in exile in early 1940s New York, the movement boasted multiple manifestos and numerous major exhibitions. However, if this much overdue retrospective demonstrates anything, it is that while Dorothea Tanning may have arrived late, she came bearing gifts. Tanning brought with her an injection of energy, creativity and vision which was to reinvigorate and redefine Surrealism, and propel it beyond its established reaches for decades to come.
Born in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1910, Tanning had traveled to Paris in 1939 with the intention of meeting the thriving avant-garde. With war immanent, she unfortunately found herself almost alone in the largely abandoned artistic capital. After her disappointing trip, she returned to New York and worked as a commercial artist for brands including Macy’s. Ultimately, it was Surrealism which sought out Tanning – Max Ernst, researching artworks for his then-wife Peggy Guggenheim’s upcoming Exhibition by 31 Women Artists, arrived on Dorothea’s doorstep and selected Tanning’s 1942 self-portrait Birthday for display. Birthday was as much an event as a painting. The title was given by Ernst, who saw it as marking her birth as a surrealist artist – a painting which just a few weeks later, Tanning recalls in her memoir, Ernst would refuse to let her sell, as it symbolised the start of their life together.
Tanning’s career went on to span seven decades; a painter, sculptor and writer, she continued to create right up to her death at the age of 101. The beauty of the Tate Modern exhibition is that, as we snake through the course of the galleries, we become aware of the dazzling variety of Tanning’s oeuvre in all of its expansive incarnations. Those familiar with Tanning may already know her dark, exact, and disquietingly nightmarish scenes, typical of her earlier work and clearly linked to the Surrealism of interwar Paris. But as we continue, we discover so much more: her enormous, abstracted and prismatic canvases of the 1960s, emitting the neon-pastels of Redon; her innovative sculptural installation work Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970-73); and her plump and darkly humorous soft sculptures.
The retrospective is sprinkled with just the right amount of context – a little introduction to each room tracking the life and movements of the artist and accompanied by a few choice quotes. But Tanning’s individual works are for the most part left to speak for themselves, through canny curation and a careful orchestration of her expansive artistic career.
Through the entrance and into the first room – not a large space, but light and welcoming. Hanging on the white walls and in a glass cabinet are a series of introductions to the artist. Young Dorothea: the pencil self-portraits, the reluctant Macy’s advertising illustrator, the reader of gothic literature, the writer, the woman who loved Max Ernst. The largest canvas is A Very Happy Picture (1947). A De Chirico-esque station serves as a backdrop to a swirling entanglement of human forms in pale, translucent fabric planes. They mirror the billowing chimney stacks depicted on a propped canvas (or portal?) in the bottom right of the frame, and the sails painted on a suitcase stacked in the lower left. From the tangle emerges a pair of bright red lips and a bunch of roses above a woman’s sex. It is a jostling, undulating, transformative explosion of pleasure, as per Tanning’s intention: ‘what I try to say about it is transformation’. The uncanny timelessness of De Chirico and the Boccioni-esque meshing of form, direction and space were to be pushed and redefined by Tanning and recur later in our encounters with Maternity (1946-47), Notes For an Apocalypse (1978), Touristes de Prague III (1961) and the Hôtel du Pavot (1970-73).
The scarred chess board of Endgame (1944) is testament to a history of triumphant victories and brutal losses. An elusive temporality suspends A Mrs Radcliffe Called Today (1944) in enigma, through the medieval castle walls, flying buttress and the horizon of green nothingness outside. A prickle of anticipation accompanies the undecipherability of this first room. Through the doorway, a glimpse of the cherry-red walls of Room 2, ‘Behind the Door’, sparks a desire to delve further into the enticingly unknown corners of Tanning’s world…
…But, before we journey forward there is another painting that catches our attention. Facing the entrance, on the far wall, a striking figure gazes out at the newly arrived visitor. She stands on the threshold of a series of open doors. She dons a ruffled silk troubadour’s jacket, vines cascade down her robe-like skirt. She is bare-breasted and accompanied by a cowering lemur-like winged beast, reminiscent of Leonora Carrington’s animal totems in her own self-portraiture, and described by Whitney Chadwick as ‘a herald of the unconscious released through the dream’. In Birthday, Tanning acknowledges our arrival from the cusp of her dream realm with a glance. Resting her lace-cuffed left hand on the handle of a large white door, she props it ajar, and with the quiet recognition of her gaze, the artist invites us to enter.
Throughout this exhibition, archways, doors, windows, curtains, rips, bulges and tears emerge and repeat. They conceal and reveal glimpses of uncanny spaces, textures and realms beyond the surfaces of the pieces, and incite a desire to clamber through the cracks, open the doors, peel back the curtains and touch the protruding fabrics. At times, in paintings such as Maternity (1946) and A Mrs Radcliffe Called Today (1944), these openings typify the surrealist concern for liminality, between conscious and unconscious, waking and dreaming. But in works such as the Hôtel du Pavot, the violence of the ripped wallpaper around the soft sculptures, which burst through the walls, is partially offset by comic effect. Entangled in scenes of sexual embrace, the body-objects invade the hotel lounge in such a way as to physically enact the intrusive amorous groans of the couple next door. Indeed, these suspended figures are far less disturbing than their anthropomorphic counterparts. The Pavot or ‘Poppy’ hotel – perhaps a reference to the poppy’s transcendental properties – is inhabited by grotesque forms, part-creature, part-furniture whose awkward angles and protrusions provoke an unsettling displacement of an otherwise familiar hotel setting.
Tanning’s work is characterised by its capacity to intimate her viewer into this detached and distressing other-dimension. Sometimes young girls, often partially or fully naked and on the cusp of sexual maturity, serve as guides through this other world (The Guest Room (1950-52), and Children’s Games (1942)). In Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943), a somehow familiar hotel corridor is inhabited by two young sleepwalking girls (see feature image above). On the landing, a giant monstrous sunflower reaches its winding tendrils menacingly towards them, and at the far end of the corridor just one door stands ajar, casting a bright light and offering the possibility (but never the guarantee) of an escape from the nightmare. And if we were to enter? In Tanning’s words: ‘Behind the invisible door (doors), another door’; more doors no doubt, new dimensions, deeper down the rabbit hole.
A new room, a bright shock of the white after the womb of the wine-stained walls; we have passed through the door to the light-filled space. Fewer, larger canvases stretch out across the naked walls in a torrent of cloudy pastels. Insomnies (1957) marks the liminal space between dream and wake where forms and figures collide indistinguishably; whilst Melées Nocturnes (1958) is like a scene played out on the inside of our eyelids. A glimpse of Tanning’s distinctive soft sculpture Étreinte (1969), you discover that the softness of the surface materials is troubled by the hard, compact carded wool stuffing. Two unhuman entities – one a plush furry brown, the other a felt pink – conjoined in an embrace which is at once penetrative and sexual and violent in its contortion.
The final room is filled with yet more soft-sculpture, alongside Tanning’s later paintings. A tension of sensuality and violence plays out across these innocently grotesque creatures in works such as Pincushion to Serve a Fetish (1979) and Nue Couchée (1969-70). The estrangement effect evoked by the inhuman forms enables Tanning to comment more freely on the fleshy vulnerability of our own bodies, our ‘wonderful envelope’ stuffed, stitched up, exposed.
The Tate retrospective offers an unprecedented breadth of Tanning’s work, which is at once dark, comical, intimate, estranging, present, absent and timeless. Would it have been nice to see a little more of Tanning’s writing? Perhaps. But as the artist herself claims, there is no complete picture when it comes to her work: ‘If it strikes you as being enigmatic, well, I suppose that’s what I wanted it to do’.
Dorothea Tanning is on at the Tate Modern until June 5th 2019. For more information or to book tickets, click here. 16-25s can get tickets for £5 with the Tate Collective initiative. See here for more information on how to sign up for your free card.