Surreal subversion: Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern

The Tate Modern’s new retrospective of surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning delights and disturbs in equal measure

Were Alfred Hitchcock, Ridley Scott and the creators of Stranger Things channelling Dorothea Tanning in an attempt to scare viewers? Ann Coxon, curator of a new retrospective of the under-the-radar Surrealist, believes these filmmakers consciously or unconsciously harnessed the potential of Tanning’s recurring macabre motifs — doors to nowhere, bodies bursting through walls, monstrous plants — to inspire terror.

‘She didn’t have a traumatic childhood or particularly difficult life, but the work is dark,’ acknowledges Coxon, curator of displays and international art at Tate Modern, who finds the domestic spaces against which much of the artist’s work is set ‘oppressive and claustrophobic’, her pubescent heroines doing their best to break out of them.

Tanning’s young girls with flying hair, menacing sunflowers, voluptuous female bodies bursting through wallpaper and endless open doors are currently haunting oxblood-darkened walls in Tate Modern, where her Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) is one of the most popular holdings. It depicts two girls in rags, one leaning against a door in a state suggesting sexual ecstasy, the other confronting a giant sunflower dripping petals, an open door leading to what seem like flames beyond.

If we perceive terror it could be down to conditioning, says Dr Alyce Mahon, reader in modern and contemporary art history at the University of Cambridge and guest curator at the Tate, who originated the show at Madrid’s Reina Sofia. ‘Because they are little girls they’re more inclined to be seen as victims, but I think Dorothea saw them as heading for the golden light, rejecting the rules and showing the reach and sprawl of the sunflower as a metaphor for herself and for females if left alone to take over, liberated from the domestic sphere.’

Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943). Image Credit: DACS, 2019Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943). Image Credit: DACS, 2019

Not that the fourth and final Mrs Max Ernst was entirely undomesticated, setting up home with him in Sedona, Arizona and throwing dinner parties between painting up a storm in the studio she retreated to — out of what Coxon believes was a sense of agoraphobia provoked by the desert beyond their back door. ‘She’s in this massive landscape with enormous spaces,’ reflects Coxon, ‘and she goes into the studio and paints these bizarre domestic interiors.’

Remarkably, Tanning flourished with her figurative visions during a postwar period dominated by abstraction. She pioneered soft sculpture as a medium, obsessively collecting, tearing and sewing cloth into strange anthropomorphic forms before dropping them after starring several in a killer installation, returning to painting and redirecting her creative drive towards prose and poetry.

Tanning’s soft sculpture installation, Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1973). Image Credit: Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, DIST. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat / DACS, 2019 Tanning’s soft sculpture installation, Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1973). Image Credit: Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, DIST. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat / DACS, 2019

Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll and other explorers of the dark side were her greatest inspiration: ‘She saw herself as a Gothic heroine,’ says Mahon, referencing Tanning’s description in her memoir Birthday (1987) of how she entered the world: ‘A day of high wind. A regular hurricane that blew down one of the three poplars in front of our house. My mother was terrified. So I was born.’

Finding her upbringing in Galesburg, Illinois constraining, Tanning headed for New York, making a living sketching commercials for Macy’s, whose director, impressed by her talent, introduced her to the influential gallerist Julien Levy, who recommended her to Max Ernst in 1942. After visiting her studio and staying, bewitched, to play chess, Ernst promoted her work to his then-wife, Peggy Guggenheim, a champion of the Surrealists.

The melancholic Maternity (1946–47). Image Credit: DACS, 2019The melancholic Maternity (1946–47). Image Credit: DACS, 2019

‘What he fell for in the beginning was the painting. I came after,’ recalled Tanning. The stylish beauty who sported frayed cut-off jeans half a century before they became standard womenswear was a full-blown Surrealist in her own right. The painting which knocked Ernst’s socks off was her self-portrait Birthday (1942), featuring a bare-breasted Tanning with a chimera at her feet, frock dripping tendrils buried with creatures, clutching an open door leading to another and another and another — imagery Hitchcock would replay in Spellbound.

In 1946 the divorcees married and fled to Sedona. ‘Tanning’s energy and drive were extraordinary,’ says Mahon. ‘Her art reveals the speed and boldness at which she travelled and made new homes across her long career, from the midwest to New York, to the desert, to France and back and forth to America until she finally settled in New York in 1980.’

Tanning’s paintings pose riddles: are the girls in Children’s Games (1942) tearing down the wallpaper to get to their future sexual selves behind? Is the melancholic Maternity (1946–47) connected to the fact Tanning did not have children? Is the high-heeled shoe squashing a bishop on a chessboard in Endgame (1944) a feminist statement? The soft sculptures are distinctly modern, presaging work by Louise Bourgeois, Sarah Lucas and this year’s UK representative at the Venice Biennale, Cathy Wilkes. They found their apotheosis in the most unsettling work of all, Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1973), its voluptuous bodies pushing through the wallpaper as terrifyingly unstoppable as Ridley Scott’s chest-bursting Alien of 1979.

Birthday (1942), Tanning’s self-portrait, knocked the socks off her husband-to-be, Max Ernst, when they met. Image Credit: DACS, 2019Birthday (1942), Tanning’s self-portrait, knocked the socks off her husband-to-be, Max Ernst, when they met. Image Credit: DACS, 2019

Wallpaper is a preoccupation for Tanning, who noted of her stifling childhood: ‘Nothing happened but the wallpaper.’ Tanning makes it perform: ‘It represents the facade of normality; she wants to chip and tear away at it and get to the interesting, subversive stuff underneath,’ says Coxon, who sees a resonance with the television series Stranger Things, its monster bursting through the wallpaper, its pubescent heroine holding the keys to the underworld.

If Tanning has been under-celebrated, it’s the fallout from refusing to be defined as a ‘woman artist’: ‘It meant she turned down a lot of opportunities to exhibit,’ says Coxon, who concedes that despite dismissing the relevance of gender in making art, Tanning was nevertheless subsumed by the conundrums. ‘She’s presenting us with a feminine imaginary which is troubling, subversive, making work from the 1940s onwards about the dawn of sexuality, quite a daring thing to tackle.’ When Tanning wrote: ‘Now the doors are open, the air is mother-of-pearl, and you know the way to tame a tiger,’ she was talking about painting — but she could just as well have been talking about navigating a long and extraordinarily productive life. She died in 2012 aged 101, making work until 1998.

Dorothea Tanning runs at Tate Modern until 9 June

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