Tate Modern, London
On until 9th June 2019 (£13 admission - worth every penny)
Dorothea Tanning’s exhibition at Tate Modern doesn’t seem to be as popular as Pierre Bonnard’s. I can’t help but speculate that this is due to the disturbing quality of the paintings being used as promotional material for the show.
Tanning was born in the USA in 1910 to Swedish parents. She lived to 101 and married German artist Max Ernst in 1946. At the beginning of her career she was an advertising illustrator but she is mostly known for her surrealist paintings. In her autobiography she writes, referring to surrealists in New York: “For me it brought a kind of relief to see my aberrant pictures find not only tolerance but enthusiasm among these seminal exotics whom I had admired for so many reasons”. She used realist techniques to depict dream-like themes and from the mid-1950s her works became more abstract favouring colour and light. She also designed costumes and produced soft sculptures. And let’s not forget that she was also a writer. Dorothea Tanning’s variation of style is truly extraordinary whether you appreciate the subject of her works or not.
The current exhibition at Tate surveys the entirety of Dorothea Tanning long career focusing on important themes such as the symbolism of doors in the artist’s practice, family, maternity (Tanning never had kids) and abstraction.
My favourite works were probably the creepiest. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943 was in my top three. The title doesn’t give much away specially if you, like me, can’t read German. And the English translation, A Little Night Music, doesn’t help much either. This is a painting of two girls that look like sleep walkers. They both have very long hair and are walking in opposite directions. One of them has her hair standing on end. The other has her eyes closed and wears an open red cardigan showing the middle of her chest and her protuberant belly, her hairline is out of place in a way that it looks like it is off of her skull so her face looks like a mask. There is also something odd happening to her legs, they are parallel to one another and in a diagonal to her torso which, in real life, it would make it impossible for her to walk so she is most likely floating (because an air floating girl makes soooo much more sense). Then there is this gigantic sunflower laying on the landing at the top of the stairs. There are a couple of petals missing from the flower: I think one of them is being held by the floating girl and the other is laying on the stairs in the bottom right corner, almost off of the painting. I love the disturbing-dream-like nature of this painting. I could go on and on about the four doors out of which I am pretty sure at least one of the girls came out of (one of the doors is ajar and there is some light coming out of it – Alice in Wonderland, anyone?). All of this appears in a painting much smaller than I imagined it was (about 1.5 times the size of the screen of a MacBook Pro).
"My favourite works were probably the creepiest."
Another fascinatingly unsettling painting in the same room was The Guest Room, 1950-2, a much larger work where children and doors are once again portrayed. In the foreground a naked child looks at the viewer with a worried if scared look. There is a door slightly open just behind the girl and on the other side of the door her shadow appears blind folded. In front of her there is a dwarf wearing cowboy boots and an orange long-sleeved top with his head enveloped by silvery-grey drapes. He holds his belt with his left hand and his right hand is gripping a side table where four boiled eggs (my favourite part of the painting!) seem to have been served for breakfast. The eggs were consumed; the shells are cracked and are scattered all over the floor. In the background, there is another child sleeping on a bed holding what looks like a life-sized doll (I really do hope that is a doll...). Further in the background a hooded figure with its face hidden holds a barbell.
About half way through the exhibition in a small red-walled room you find a large painting – Maternity, 1946-7 – of a woman standing holding a baby in the middle of the desert. The mother stares into nothingness, while the baby seems to be looking at the viewer sideways. There is a blanket on the floor where the woman stands on; also on the blanket there is a dog. But this is no ordinary dog. This dog has a human baby’s face. And this, my friend, is not all. Diagonally to the woman and further into the background there is an open door (yes a door, probably on hinges, in the middle of the desert) that frames an object that is made of what looks like sails of a boat. The shape of this thing resembles a woman’s uterus (if that hadn’t been pointed out to me by the interpretative label next to the painting I certainly wouldn’t have guessed it).
The only two things these three paintings have in common are their maker and the fact that all three make absolutely no sense. No matter how hard you try it’s impossible to understand them. In the artist’s own words “just don’t ask me to explain them”.
From mid-1950s Tanning’s paintings became more abstract. As she described it “In the first years, I was painting on our side of the mirror – the mirror for me is a door – but I think I have gone over, to a place where one no longer faces identities at all”. In the abstraction, disjointed limbs are clearly depicted. And her disfigured dog features in several of the works. Dorothea painted a most intriguing abstracted family portrait in 1977 with a life-size derrière right in the middle of the canvas that reminded me of The Three Graces by Rubens. At closer inspection I am amused to find her dog’s face at the bottom of the painting.
The exhibition goes on to explore her fabric sculptures. There is an installation of these sculptures in the show – Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202, 1970-3 – where body parts explode out of the imaginary hotel room’s walls and even the chimney in the room is a soft sculpture. The story behind those sculptures fascinates me even more than the objects themselves. While listening to Hymnen (it is a 114-minute-long electronic and concrete music that combines a variety of national anthems) being conducted by its composer, Karlheintz Stockhausen, in a concert in Paris in 1969 Dorothea had an epiphany: "Spinning among the unearthly sounds of Hymnen were the earthy, even organic shapes that I would make, had to make, out of cloth and wool".
In the last room of the exhibition there is a 14-minute documentary film by German director Peter Schamoni shot in 1978. Here you can really see Dorothea at work. It is a delight that she narrates the film. There is an aggression to the way she paints and stuffs her fabric sculptures and then throws the sculptures down the stairs. There is also something rather mundane about her and the way she dresses. At the same time she exudes confidence through her voice and mannerism.
I don’t just like Dorothea Tanning’s work, I also like her very much. I didn’t know much about her before this exhibition. I got to know her through her paintings, sculptures and writing. Her paintings and sculptures made me silently question her sanity while her autobiography made me admire her – she is an ordinary woman who has the courage to allow the unknown inside of her to come out through her work. And secretly (well, maybe not so secretly…) she longed to be mad – “I wanted, ah, how deeply, that superb indifference to reason, to the a fortiori and the therefore. It was an insouciance that was never to be mine. It was a tragedy that I, foolish woman, would be spared.”