For the fourth piece in her continued series, Rochelle Roberts reflects on Dorothea Tanning’s monumental and transformative self-portrait, Birthday, 1942, and considers the prospect of the end to coronavirus.
I first saw Dorothea Tanning’s painting Birthday in the flesh at Tate Modern’s large-scale exhibition of Tanning’s work in 2019. Dorothea Tanning was very much in my mind at that time because at work we were in the process of publishing a book on her life and work, Dorothea Tanning: Transformations by Victoria Carruthers, which is an absolutely beautiful book full of illustrations and interesting, thought-provoking analysis. I found the show to be wonderful, particularly as I’d been staring at Tanning’s artwork on my computer screen in the office and it was nice to finally see the real paintings, to look at how large or small they were, to examine her brush marks.
Birthday was among the first paintings you saw walking into the gallery, and it is probably Dorothea Tanning’s best-known work. The painting is a self-portrait of the artist, completed when she was around 32 years old. In it she is standing by an open door, her left hand on its handle. Beyond, an endless series of open doors. Tanning stands looking out at the viewer, although her eyes don’t quite seem to make contact, evasively staring just above our heads. She is wearing an elaborate purple and gold jacket with frilly lace cuffs, which is open to reveal her bare chest. Her black skirt is shaped in angular folds and draped around the back of the skirt is what looks like a thorny growth of intertwined twigs, reaching out at the air around her, reaching down to the floor, encasing her right ankle. Looking closely, you can see that these twigs originate as women’s bodies, twisting and interlocking before growing into twigs from their legs. Behind her, a mirror reflecting the open door; in front, a strange winged creature with large, timid eyes, crouching low on the floor as if frightened.
This is a thought-provoking work because it symbolises Tanning’s rebirth, her transformation from the real to the surreal (see Cathy Pound’s ‘Why Dorothea Tanning’s Powerful Surrealist Art Defied Convention’, Artsy, March 2019). The title of the painting came from Max Ernst, who, when visiting her studio in New York to find work to include in the exhibition 31 Women (originally 30 Women) at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery Art of this Century, asked Tanning “What do you call it?” When Tanning confessed that she hadn’t given it a title, he said “Then you can call it Birthday” (from Tanning’s work, Birthday, and her memoir, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World). The title’s symbolism of Tanning’s rebirth is evident. Carruthers observes that the overall impression of the figure is of a chrysalis emerging from a cocoon. I agree that she looks like she is breaking out of herself, her jacket wide open, her skirt falling away. The creature on the floor, who looks so timid and frightened, seems to be a kind of incarnation of Tanning before her rebirth. I visualise the creature as all of the things she is leaving behind or ridding herself of, the wings so it can fly away. The tree branches illustrate her metamorphosis; she is growing out of her confines, being reborn into a new version of herself. She stares resolutely out at us, but I think there is an air of determination there, her pose is strong and intentional.
I find the endless openings of doors an interesting focal point. They take up one whole side of the painting and draw the eye down the long corridor. I found this sequence of doors to be even more apparent when I saw the painting at the Tate show. Somehow the doors were not so obvious when I looked at reproductions. But seeing the painting there on the wall in front of me, the sequence of open doors had a powerful presence in the painting – I was shocked that I’d never noticed their significance before then. Assistant Curator and writer, Lilias Wigan says Tanning is challenging the viewer to leave ‘the door open into the imagination’ (see Lilias Wigan, ‘In Focus: Dorothea Tanning’s ‘Birthday’, the paradoxical self-portrait that challenged and redefined Surrealism’, Country Life, April 2019). Tanning herself said she had been struck one day by a fascinating array of doors, the doors to the kitchen, bathroom and studio, crowded together. She was caught by their antic planes, light, shadows and imminent opening and shuttings. It was then easy for her to dream up countless doors (from Birthday, and Between Lives: An Artist and Her World). I am struck by the fact that Tanning has one hand on the doorknob; is she opening the door or closing it? From Lilias Wigan’s observations, it seems she is opening it, although in some ways it is as though the endless network of doors is a maze into the past and Tanning is ready to firmly close them. Equally, perhaps, she could be navigating her way into the future.
I think of the Tate show now and how inspiring it was to see her paintings and sculptures up close. The memory of being able to enjoy a space full of other people. The prospect of the end of Coronavirus seems a bit out of reach to me at the moment, especially as the lockdown has been extended for several more weeks. It feels almost as though it will be a very long time before we are able to visit art galleries, to enjoy art hanging on walls in a room that we can visit. Looking at Birthday, it feels as though the labyrinth of open doors somehow reflects this; there is no easy way out, there is no clear path to the end.
Further Reading about Dorothea Tanning
- Victoria Carruthers, Dorothea Tanning: Transformations (Lund Humphries, 2020).
- Alyce Mahon, Ann Coxon & Co., Dorothea Tanning (London: Tate Publishing, 2018).
- Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001).
- Dorothea Tanning, Birthday (Santa Monica: The Lapis Press, 1986).
About Rochelle Roberts
Rochelle Roberts is a writer based in London. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming with Visual Verse, Severine, Eye Flash Poetry, Merak magazine, Streetcake magazine and blood orange. In 2019 her poem, ‘On Being an Angel’, inspired by Francesca Woodman’s photography, was shortlisted for Streetcake magazine’s Experimental Writing Prize. By day, Rochelle works as Assistant Editor for the art publisher Lund Humphries. You can read her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @rochellerart and Instagram @rocheller.