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.
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.
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?
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.