Dorothea Tanning: an uncanny narrative of gothic dreams

Tate Modern, London

This enigmatic exhibition reveals Dorothea Tanning as so much more than just another surrealist artist. Through her inclination for the gothic and her feminist subversion of the femme-enfant figure, Tanning breaks surrealist boundaries to explore a nightmarish dream world.

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943, Tate.  © DACS.

Alyce Mahon brings together 100 works from Tanning’s extraordinary seven-decade career. The trip through her artistic oeuvre begins with mysteriously uncanny gothic interiors, and ends with her curiously creepy sculptures to create the first large-scale exhibition of Tanning’s artistic work for 25 years.

In her most famous work Eine Kleine Nachtmusik from 1943, two young girls in tattered dress wander a hotel corridor at night and confront the aggressive tangles of the monstrous sunflower. One girl slumps as if in defeat. Contrastingly, the other girl’s hair defies gravity, standing on end as if it were pushed up by a gust of wind. The sunflower creeps towards her with a tentacle-like stem, blocking her path to the open door and the stairs, yet her confident stance and electrified hair portray a newfound sense of power within her. The happenings of the image imply the occurrences of supernatural forces and the journey of the girls’ escape, which is alluded to through the light cast by the open door. Through this confrontation, Tanning disrupts the normative role of girls in surrealist painting as being simply the muse. The obsessive sexualisation of the femme-enfant figure was integral to Surrealists, such as the likes of Hans Bellmer, and Tanning too stages this figure but subverts it into an image of female defiance, bringing the femme-enfant motif a new feminist dimension.

Dorothea Tanning, Birthday, 1942, Philadelphia Museum of Art. © DACS, 2019.

Tanning’s 1942 self-portrait Birthday again exudes power, making us question if the young girl in Eine Kleine Nachmusik is a reflection of herself. She leaves us no answers; they are paintings of mysterious narratives exploring the imagination. Yet in Birthday, it is the viewer she confronts. We see Tanning opening a door in front of a space of multiple receding ajar doors. Her confident gaze stares out at the viewer; she has bare breasts, a Shakespearian dress and a mythical creature at her bare feet, creating an image of Tanning as a woman of innate power.

The idea of escapism is explored through Tanning’s continual use of the motif of the door, making the viewer question what is it that lies beyond the door? Is it unachievable desires? Or a gleaming chance of escaping this domestic interior? Tanning explained that the open door was a ‘talisman for the things that were happening’ in her life. And how it also acted as a talisman for the power of art over the viewer too, believing we should leave ‘the door open to the imagination. You see, enigma is a very healthy thing, because it encourages the viewer to look beyond the obvious and commonplace’.

Tanning’s subversion of the domestic space is integral to her work; she transforms confined interiority into an uncanny space of other-worldly happenings. Anything is possible. Confrontation and contrast thematically appear throughout the exhibition, not just in terms of subject matter but also in her highly conscious use of technique. Tanning’s painting style is meticulously detailed and realistic, contrasting against the surreal nature of the scene to create uncanny notions. The vividness created in her images is as if it’s a scene straight out of a story, linking her literary oeuvre of her novel Chasm and her poetry, to her artwork. The imagery is intertwined, each one simultaneously developing the other.

Halfway through the exhibition, the viewer is confronted with Tanning’s sudden change in media: paint to fabric. The darkly intricate interiors are swapped for soft sculptures made of pink, white and brown cloth. There is a huge change of media and construction, yet the inherent theme of her art remains the same; it is filled with dreams of escapism. She continues the escape of conventional female roles, by replicating the constraints of marriage and motherhood. This is seen in Emma, where the woman is reduced to only her pregnancy. The simplified soft forms are also incorporated into her installation titled Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202, from 1970-73. It is an interior hotel space with a disturbing atmosphere through its gloom, lit only by a singular light bulb. The light reveals to the viewer the soft sculptural womanly forms that burst through the wallpaper, disrupting the interior space. The significance of a hotel room is notable as it immediately alienates the space away from the home. This scene is a continuation of Tanning’s exploration of a gothic nightmare. Is this a horror scene that lies behind a hotel door in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik?
Dorothea Tanning, Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202, 1970-1973. © DACS, 2018.

As I travelled through the nightmarish narrative of her art, it is revealed that all of her artwork is intrinsically linked – the motif of the door, the uncanny interior rooms and the adventurous femme-enfant. It is always a scene of mystery and an exploration of entrapment. Tanning rebels against gendered roles and her imagination explodes into her artwork, transforming the exhibition into a supernatural space.


  • Alyce Mahon, Dorothea Tanning, London 2018.
  • Dorothea Tanning, interview with John Gruen, in The Artist Observed, Pennington, GA 1991.
  • Whitney Chadwick, ‘The Muse as Artist: Women in the Surrealist Movement’, Art in America, July 1985.

How to help the environment AND save money

Reduce your waste!

1. Remember to switch things off when you’ve finished using them to save money on electricity, heating and water bills. Just the little things like turning off the lights, turning off the TV (don’t leave it on standby), unplugging your phone/laptop when it’s fully charged and having shorter showers will add up in saving your money and reducing your energy use.

2. Say no to single use plastic.

  • Don’t buy water bottles – get yourself a reusable one.
  • Bring your own bags to the supermarket.
  • Put your leftovers or lunch in food containers such as tupperware – no need to put it in plastic bags.
  • Cook meals yourself – this saves SO much money on meal deals, takeaways and ready-meals.

3. Walk or Cycle.

  • This can make a huge difference to your carbon footprint. Instead of driving to work, cycle! Save money on petrol/parking and get your fitness in.

Reduce your meat intake

The livestock sector — raising cows, pigs and chickens — generates as much greenhouse gas emissions as all cars, trucks and automobiles combined. Cattle ranchers have clear cut millions of square kilometers of forests for grazing pastures, decimating natural “carbon sinks.”
  • Try to reduce your meat and dairy consumption by a few meals per week – there are still a huge variety of meal choices out there – it does not mean you’ll be lacking in nutrients.
  • Make fresh fruits and vegetables a bigger part of your diet.
  • Buy sustainable or organic fresh produce whenever possible.


  • Sustainable brands are sadly quite expensive compared to fast fashion companies, but investing in high quality pieces means they will last longer in the future.
  • Buy clothes second-hand, swap or rent them. For example Depop, where you can also sell your own clothes. (I still need to get on this but I plan to in the future)
  • Simply researching up about how much the fashion economy affects the environment will make your more aware and conscious in your purchases.

Transitioning back to University

I often find coming home after a busy and eventful term can be quite a jolt to the system, as you suddenly don’t have people around you 24/7 with always someone to chat to or an activity to do. At the moment, I’m in the opposite position as it is just coming to the end of the Christmas holidays, and I’m due back in Brum this weekend. I’m not feeling too overwhelmingly positive about the move back up after a lovely chilled Christmas and for things to all get serious in my third year at uni (ARGH!), so I thought I’d discuss how to adjust going back to uni.

Am I living in an igloo?

My January deadlines are looming over me, and leaving the warmth of my home does not appeal. University houses are notoriously known for their icy temperatures, and so I am about to enter and live in a much colder house. I attempt to do all my work pre-dinner, so I can relax in the evenings (and not be walking home in the rain from the library at 10pm) and snuggle up on the sofa. Adjusting to uni coldness may be ever so slightly dramatic but it’s important to be cosy and it helps me chill. Key items: tea, fluffy pj’s, chocolate and housemates. Get the work done early so you aren’t stressing late.

Food: a chore, or a fun element to be creative?

Going home to full kitchen is dreamy. I enjoy cooking and baking, and so having a kitchen with all kinds of herbs and spices mean that when you want to try a new recipe or experiment it requires pretty much no planning. Having home-cooked meals is also lovely, and not having to plan or do a weekly shop. However, instead of thinking about it negatively, I am going to cook more next term. I like doing it and it’s a great activity to be creative and to de-stress.

Getting back into the routine of lectures

Or for me, who has only 6 hours per week this year, this is about getting myself into the library for solid amounts of time to read and write. No more sleepy so-called dissertation reading in front of the fire with the box of celebrations at home. What works for me is getting into a routine and getting up early, which I was a bit hit and miss with last term so this term I’m changing that. A key thing is also to plan what you need to do and learning to prioritise things. Learning to say no to social events and go get that degree.

Adjusting back to the uni lifestyle can be tricky, especially after a lot of fun at Christmas. Keep busy and motivated, do the things you love and catch up with your pals xxxx

Mastering Motivation

For me, this is still an art I have not mastered. I am a final year student, the year everyone tells you is filled with really hard work. Yet in the past week I’ve been feeling unaccomplished, and when I do something fun it often leads to feelings of guilt. I started last week full of motivation, and I feel disappointed that I’m not where I planned to be. So what happened? I got myself into a circle of feeling bad for not working but then not feeling good enough to want to work. So in turn I got nothing done, which obviously just makes me feel worse. I want to write about motivation in an attempt to find some, lol.

In the 2 weeks running up to deadlines I am motivated to work and busy; I am able to do lot’s more work due to the ever-approaching deadline that is in reach. But what other than deadlines motivates me?

Motivation is the drive that gets us to accomplish things, and it can be internal or external. Internal motivation is when we push ourselves to do things due to our own likes, wants or needs. It’s internalised within us. External motivation is receiving an outside push that drives us to do something, for example a friend or a deadline.

External motivation is good because it makes us do tasks that otherwise don’t happen. For example, running up to my January deadlines earlier this year I was reading and writing in the library for 8-10 hours a day. Without the serious deadlines that would not have happened.

Ideally, I would like to have internal motivation every day for all things. But finding your internal push all the time is unrealistic, so I need to learn that this is okay and I don’t need to self-sabotage the next day or fun activity because of it.

For now, I need to find that internal motivation. At the moment I just have huge projects that are looming over me, however distant. I am going to break them down into achievable goals. This works for me; I love a plan. With these deadlines being so important to my degree, I also think that confidence is just lacking. As I doubt myself to complete the tasks as perfectly as I want, I am making myself anxiously motivated which results in no action taking place. I’m stuck in the period between motivation and the completing of the tasks, which leads to self-sabotage. It is necessary to work out why you’re thinking this and rid self-doubt.

Through writing this I am figuring out what motivates me and what I’m going to do, so here goes: (not including deadlines and the impending thought of failure because it is not working…yet)

  • Getting up early and out of the house – weird, I know. But for me knowing I’m up and have the whole day ahead of me really makes me feel optimistic about the day. I feel lazy sleeping in and I don’t start the day in the right head space.
  • Having a plan – breaking big projects down into achievable targets.
  • Lists – checking things off, however small, makes me feel good.
  • Remembering how shit I feel when I don’t do anything.
  • Remembering feeling proud of the work I’ve done in the past and the drive to achieve that again.
  • Working hard so I can enjoy time off, and deserve it. Reward yourself.
  • Reaching out to people – nearly everyone can sympathise and/or relate with motivational issues – have a chat.
  • It’s the end of term, Christmas will be way more relaxing and enjoyable if the work is put in now.

Obviously having internal motivation all the time is the dream, but I know that for me it is unrealistic. What motivates you the most? Are you naturally internally motivated? (tell me your secret) Do you find motivation hard? What gets you motivated?

If you’re one for an inspirational quote, here’s one of the few I actually like from Dr. Seuss.

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

Dr Seuss

What Makes a Film Your Favourite?

Stepping outside these days is not a favourable option. The air feels BALTIC, the icy wind whips around my face, and darkness has taken over by 5pm. Being cold is a permanent state. I crave warmth.

I received an email today about a competition; describe your favourite film in 50 words. A writing task that isn’t uni work and can further procrastination? I’m in. Deciding on one favourite thing is tricky business, especially a film. So, I thought about films that had touched me, and Pride (2014) came to mind. It’s a favourite of mine because it combines love, history and humour, without trivialising how it is inspired by a true story. It made me laugh and made me cry.

Now how does this link to my rant about the cold?! Because, this film OOZES warmth. Maybe not in the literal sense, but it does warm my heart every time I watch it.

Here’s a short synopsis:

PRIDE is inspired by an extraordinary true story. It’s the summer of 1984, Margaret Thatcher is in power and the National Union of Mineworkers is on strike, prompting a London-based group of gay and lesbian activists to raise money to support the strikers’ families. Initially rebuffed by the Union, the group identifies a tiny mining village in Wales and sets off to make their donation in person. As the strike drags on, the two groups discover that standing together makes for the strongest union of all.

Rotten Tomatoes

The film stars Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton (aka Dolores Umbridge), Andrew Scott (the Priest from Fleabag-which if you haven’t watched, watch now!), and Dominic West…the cast is amazing. I love how the film was politically savvy, yet still comedy gold. Combining these elements, with the themes of love and loss, creates a powerfully uplifting film.

Here are my 50 words:

Heartfelt without being exhortative, Pride is a film that like its protagonists, battles with the heart to emphasise that standing together is the most powerful union of all. Incredibly poignant moments move effortlessly to scenes of hilarity. It is a film that embodies casting differences aside, to become one.

A quote from Steph, played by the actress Faye Marsay

Banksy in Amsterdam

The Moco Museum is located within the biggest cultural hub in Amsterdam, the Museumplein, neighbouring the acclaimed Stedelijk, Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum. Everyone’s heard that these are the places to visit on a trip to Amsterdam, yet after my visit to the Moco Museum of modern contemporary art, I would state that this is the museum not to be missed.

The permanent collection features the artists the curator names the Moco Masters, and it celebrates icons such as Warhol, Haring, Koons and many more. The current exhibition ‘Laugh Now’ features a collection of some of Banksy’s most iconic works, including Girl with Balloon, Flower Thrower, and Laugh Now, to name a few.

Banksy has completed more traditional works of art for hanging inside on a wall, and this exhibition allows the viewer to see this. However, the exhibition could be considered contradictory in its nature. Banksy’s fame arose from his powerful and political graffiti in the streets. Does putting his art into a museum change the impact of the original street art?

The exhibition is not authorised by Banksy, nor was it curated in collaboration with the artist. This made me question the validity of the exhibition, is it right to do so? Does it make sense for Banksy to be in a museum?

Some of the works appear to have been physically cut from a wall. Whereas others have been removed from the wooden doors on which they have been taken from to put into the gallery. Is it fair to remove the art from the original location chosen by the artist?

Many of Banksy’s works still emit the same original political message. However, when the art is put into the gallery and the context is changed, the effect is weakened. Banksy’s political and satirical street art combines graffiti with dark humour, and ultimately it is meant to be a subversive surprise. As you walk down the street you might not take it in immediately, but once you do, the impact is felt, arising emotions varying from shock to hope. It makes you think. It is art available to all; it costs nothing to view it.

Banksy’s post after his ‘Devolved Parliament’ was sold at Sotheby’s for a record-breaking price of £9,879,500 on 03.10.19

Despite this, the exhibition at the Moco Museum is compelling and it absorbs you into the environment, making you think of the different interpretations as Banksy pushes the viewer to question society. It highlights Banksy’s political activism, and allows a more in depth look at Banksy’s less exposed indoor pieces. The exhibition has now been extended until the 6th of January 2020; get yourself there if you can.

The Power of Journaling

People keep a journal for many different reasons. For me, journaling is my own personal space to express myself. When I was younger, I found it pretty tricky to articulate my feelings well. Pairing this with a buzzing brain full of teenage angst meant switching off at night a challenge. I remember googling ‘ways to get to sleep quicker’ and writing down how you’re feeling popped up, so I gave it a go.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I turn my light off and decide to go to sleep, my brain still decides to go PING and I overthink, plan, or come up with imaginary scenarios. I just can’t switch my brain off very easily. So before bed I began writing how I was feeling to clear my head before going to sleep. Obviously it is no miracle worker; I’m not about to claim it’s the cure for insomnia. But for me, writing down my negative thoughts on paper makes them real, and it’s the start of you facing the problems head on. The words going down were just for me, so I had no reason to hold back. I wrote with no filter, and I found that it was very beneficial in an attempt to clear my mind.

Journaling helped me to understand my own emotions better. I could process why I was feeling the way I did after writing it down. Looking back on them helped me to rationalise why I was like that. I mean, of course sometimes I have completely irrational thoughts – but scribbling it down at the time helps me to get it out.

Journaling can be a practice of mindfulness

Mindfulness is having an awareness of ourselves and the world around us. Questioning the necessity of this comes to mind, yet it is important to have as we so often lose touch from the matter in hand and our brains can easily spiral out of control. Mindfulness is an innate quality in all humans, so you don’t have to magically conjure it up. Being more mindful reduces stress and anxiety, and as well an increasing awareness of your own mind, it also helps us to notice the well-being of those around us.

How can you be mindful?

It can be obtained through creating short pauses into your everyday life. Meditation may work for some people, but I need an activity – and merging meditation practice with other activities, such as long cycles, drawing, writing and baking, is what I love to do.

How can journaling positively impact your well-being?

When you write in an unedited outpouring, the power can be immense. Sometimes we don’t need a solution or an opinion off a friend or therapist; we just need to get it out and have it accept what we have to say. Writing it down is in a way releasing all the jumbled feelings held up in our brains (think back to Dumbledore). Afterwards my mind feels calmer and more roomy – you create space for more positive feelings to grow, and stay. Try not to write in in the mindset of ‘fixing’ yourself. Simply express yourself naturally; the results will follow.

“Journaling is like whispering to one’s self and listening at the same time.”

Mina Murray in her journal in Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Writing is definitely my most direct activity of practicing mindfulness. When you spend time expressing yourself on paper, it makes you more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. In turn, you understand and accept them, and this leads to you taking action because of them. For a while, my journal was my go to when I needed a rant, or needed to figure something out. But I didn’t want it to be just a book of angst!! I was realising how much I liked having this personal space just for me, as it is so easy to get lost in technology these days.

Throughout the ages of 18 – 20 I kept a journal, filling it with doodles, poems and my scrawl of emotions. I took a diary away with me when I went travelling to Indonesia in 2017, and I wrote in it every single day, filling it with tickets, receipts and random bits and bobs. I love reading it back. It is filled with amazing memories and very extreme emotions – it’s both hilarious and nostalgic to read back on.

I don’t keep a diary as such currently, but instead I have a journal titled ‘One Line A Day’ – pretty self explanatory stuff. I’ve been keeping it for the whole of this year and the idea is to get 5 years worth all compacted in a lil book. You can get them off Amazon and places like Urban Outfitters. It inspires thoughtful daily reflections and it’s already a keepsake record – it’s pretty cool to see the changes over the months. Imagine when I’m into my fifth year of writing it!

If you want to start a form of journaling and can’t see yourself scribbling out pages of feelings, it’s a great way to get going – it takes no time at all.