The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue

Dorothea Tanning

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

On View
Tate Modern
February 27 – June 9, 2019

On the threshold of "a dream of countless doors," Dorothea Tanning looks out towards us bare-chested and forlorn, standing behind a strange winged-lemur and wearing a theatrical jacket from which a profusion of roots descends. She gazes out at a horizon that likely doesn't exist, given that she appears within a room that opens only to reveal an infinite expanse of doors and dead-ends. One of Tanning's most iconic images, Birthday (1942), it embodies the preoccupations that wove themselves throughout her seventy-year career: an attempt to transcend stifling realities, and the tension between domesticity and burgeoning female desire.

This is a characterization of which Tanning herself might not have approved. As the co-curator of her survey at the Tate Modern Anne Coxon writes, Tanning resented the designation of "women artist" and "the feminist label," considering her status as a woman to be a biological fact less significant than her multifaceted identity as an artist. (She also saw her association with the Surrealist movement as reductive, once lamenting, "it disgusts me to be lumped in with all of these so-called Surrealist painters. Such a terrible misunderstanding."1)

Despite shunning categorisation, however, her thematic concerns are remarkably consistent. And given her work's content and our era's socio-political self-awareness, it is difficult not to extract a feminist-inflected reading, regardless of its limitations, and Tanning's own distaste for this interpretation. Her claustrophobic focus on interior scenes; the conflation of the female body with the home; and the resurrection of tropes from Gothic literature all aid to evoke the oppressive reality of imposed female social roles and a desire to transcend them.

Dorothea Tanning, Endgame, 1944. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Gertrud V. Parker. © DACS, 2019.

The motif of the tablecloth recurs, a totem of the domestic world. Recalling her childhood in Galesburg, Illinois, she notes that on Sundays her parents laid out a gleaming white sheet, particularly when the Pastor came to dinner, "smoothing out the folds that made a gentle grid from end to end." For her, the grid of the tablecloth suggested not only domestic life but imposed order and became a prominent symbol in her 1950s work. Endgame (1944) is an earlier and more veiled example of this, featuring a chess board grid of colored squares as the backdrop for the triumph of a towering high-heeled shoe over a bishop's mitre. Raised slightly in the middle and torn in the lower left-hand corner, the chess board and tablecloth prove analogous, variously suggesting power struggles and the imposition of order onto life's chaos. 34 years later Tanning explored these themes further in Notes for an Apocalypse (1978), which depicts a conglomeration of faceless forms rising up underneath a table; a torso appearing painfully arched as it struggles to become in a world of repressive patriarchal rationality.

One of the most compelling pieces of the exhibition is Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Poppy Hotel, Room 202) (1970–1973), a life-sized installation populated by Tanning's soft-sculptures. A body is shown embraced by two tentacular arms as it disappears through a wall, and the furniture appears to birth humanoid creations, for example: a chair displaying knotted, sneaking limbs. Hôtel du Pavot reiterates Birthday's feeling of entrapment and frustrated attempts to escape the domestic realm, with the pink body that exits one wall seemingly returning out of another. Organic and inanimate categories collapse here to suggest an intimate relationship between the female body and its environment.

Dorothea Tanning, Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202, 1970-1973. Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls. Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d'art modern/ Centre de création industrielle Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat © DACS, 2019.

It is arguable that the fevered imaginings of Gothic fiction had a greater impact on Tanning than Surrealism, whose early work circumvents the overtly fantastic in favour of a more realist style. Like Freud, who found material in Gothic tales for his theories of the uncanny, Tanning is noted here as finding creative fuel in their exploration of "what was really happening under the tedium of daily life." Ann Radcliffe's novels were particularly influential, evident in her homage A Mrs. Radcliffe Called Today (1944) as well as her atmospheric evocations of female oppression by patriarchal forces. Tanning's most overt comment on gendered power dynamics is Family Portrait (1954). A ghost-like figure representing the family's patriarch looms over the scene, omnipresent and inscrutable, while his wife sits demurely beneath his gaze at the dinner table.

That Tanning's oeuvre might provide a critique of biological determinism is emboldened by comparison with Charlotte Perkins-Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), a Gothic novella that Tanning read and admired. Both suggest the engrained association of women with the domestic sphere, a link exacerbated in the 19th century by the medical profession's view of women as physically feeble and mentally inferior to men. The narrator, recovering from a "temporary nervous depression," begins to perceive a woman behind the convoluted pattern of the wallpaper. Their reciprocity ("I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled") collapses in a case of over-identification when, having torn the paper from the walls, she excitedly declares to have "got out." Children's Games (1942) echoes this imagery, with two girls tearing off long swathes of wallpaper in a frenzied manner. The painting illustrates a symbiotic relationship between the home and the female body—a fleshy navel is exposed under one surface, while the other girl's bare back mimics the shorn paper's rectangular absence. Meanwhile, at the end of this corridor, a small square of blue signifying the outside suggests the distant possibility of escape.

Later rooms entitled Two Worlds and Tango Lives see Tanning employ more abstract techniques, releasing her from the exacting requirements of Realism. Paintings such as Insomnies (Insomnias) (1957) and Mêlées Nocturnes (Nocturnal Melees) (1958) present canvases that pulsate with colour in stormy evocations of flux, as much influenced by Futurism's dynamism as by abstraction, while the rich colouring of Mêlées Nocturnes—dark browns and yellows offset by splashes of bright red and blue—suggests an inextricable connection between processes of growth and decay.

Despite some repetition, this belated retrospective is an exciting revelation: presenting us with the surreal—though not explicitly Surrealist—visions of a multi-talented artist, whose work spoke of female concerns without becoming entirely limited by them.


1. Carlo McCormick, BOMB Magazine [accessed 18th March 2019]


Daniel Pateman

Daniel Pateman is a freelance writer based in the UK. He has an MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture and writes for Aesthetica magazine, Photomonitor, Eyeline, and This is Tomorrow among others.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues