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Issue 201

How Paint and Perception Collide in the Work of Late Surrealist Dorothea Tanning

Tanning gives full expression to her childhood imagination and its innately eclectic catalogue of fears, fantasies and domestic psychodramas

BY Claire-Louise Bennett in Features | 25 FEB 19

In my favourite novel by Javier Marías, an opera singer recounts a dream – a dream that is very similar to a fateful episode that occurred during his waking hours some four years previously. In order to recall what happened and the dream of what happened, the two versions must remain indistinguishable from each other and, to this end, he selects to forgo breakfast. Our entranced narrator has read somewhere that by avoiding food we can delay contact with the day and its diminishing effect on our reveries. ‘It is only through the second awakening, that of the stomach, that you can entirely leave behind you the darkness and the nocturnal realm,’1 he writes. Here in Madrid, Marías’s birthplace, I have, night after night, been set upon by rancorous dreams, brought on no doubt by the passionate hatred I feel almost immediately towards anything I manage to write. I wake at 6:37am with the feeling my skin has come loose, is sliding down my stark, undulating limbs, and my hair is a nasty wig, wayward with static. The leering visitations continue needling me from head to toe, even as I lie there with cold, wide-open eyes, like an exemplary surrealist decomposition.

I will go to her today, I think, one morning, still dark, spat out again at 6:37am. The night detests me and the day is mostly disdainful. There is nothing else for it. I will go to her just like this, haunted and scant. My etiolated mind nothing more than a rattled, thin disc, butting fruitlessly against my cranium. Remembering the tormented opera singer’s considered abstinence, I too eschew my morning repast to stay close to the caliginous carousel of bone-picking phantoms. Let us all go together dammit, my gnarly shades and I, to the one place in this city where we might find some peace. I dress carefully, of course – mustn’t look slipshod; she has a keen eye for fabric, for folds, after all. Well-turned-out, perhaps, but far from pulled together. Beneath that pristine white shirt and boutique animal-print skirt it is a capsizing, self-defeating body that lopes down the streets of Madrid towards Dorothea Tanning. A motley flock of sniping night revilers vexing its heels.

Dorothea Tanning, Birthday, 1942, oil on canvas, 102 × 64 cm. Courtesy: Philadelphia Museum of Art © DACS, 2019

And there she is, right away. The first thing in the world. And what is she wearing, exactly? The most extraordinary cloak! Its voluminous sleeves all rippling pale gold and purple silk, trimmed with intricate lace; the skirt a languorous green-gold cascade of supple seaweed bodies. Hard breasts bared, and magnificent naked feet. And her eyes! They look all the way into me and my own body unravels, threatens to spill across the floor, all green. Startled eyes dart rapidly, hither and thither, avoiding her gaze, trying to stay above water.

This arresting self-portrait, one of Tanning’s first paintings, was spotted by Max Ernst in 1942. ‘What do you call it?’ he asked. ‘I really haven’t a title,’ she replied. ‘Then you call it Birthday,’ he said.2 He was onto something – isn’t it customary to feel a little removed from the world on one’s birthday, rather than buoyant and seminal? Doesn’t acknowledging we were born make us feel ephemeral, listless, arbitrary and essentially alone? Tanning stands in front of a receding avenue of open doors, fingers firm around the handle of the nearest one, looking as if she is about to push it closed, but can’t quite. The image upends the seasonable platitude that there is so much still to come. Here the doors are identical and heavy-looking. Instead of hinting at infinite possibility, they emphasize the apartment’s immovable emptiness. An opulent but timeworn strip of wallpaper can be glimpsed, nudging the scene into a somewhat circumscribed arena of opportunity – and bringing to mind Tanning’s summation of Galesburg, Illinois, her birthplace, where ‘nothing happened but the wallpaper’.3 In the portrait’s foreground, a winged lemur crouches at the artist’s feet, a fantastical creature associated with nighttime and the spirit world. Its arched and tinted open wings extend a far more beguiling invitation. The pack of phantasms inside me lurch and ruffle excitedly – she is looking at me, and evidently the lemur has spotted them. We have found our familiars. Onwards, then.

In the next room, I discover a glass case containing a couple of letters, edged with airy, almost cartoonish, sketches, which Tanning wrote to Joseph Cornell from Arizona. Following a nasty virus that required a long period of recovery, she and Ernst moved to the desert in 1946. In her memoir, Between Lives (2001), Tanning refers, in characteristically protean fashion, to ‘the pure excitement of living in such a place of ambivalent elements’. She corresponded regularly with Cornell during the three years she lived in Sedona. It’s lovely to peer down at her handwriting, to decipher the faded, cobwebby script. ‘My dreams, my illusory impressions and my waking life are all so mixed and confusing’, she writes, ‘that I sometimes wonder if there is any reality at all.’ Born amidst a storm in 1910, Tanning’s psyche was perhaps destined to be perennially charged and overturned by ‘unknown forces’. Drawn to fairy tales and gothic literature as a child, Tanning delighted in mystery and surprise. It is small wonder that the surrealist predilection for the unconscious, dreams, irrationality, chance and startling incongruities had such a galvanizing effect on her already boundless personal and artistic vision. ‘Here is the infinitely faceted world I must have been waiting for,’ was her reaction on seeing the exhibition ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1936, ‘but here, here in the museum, is the real explosion, rocking me over my run-over heels.’

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943, oil on canvas, 41 × 61 cm. Courtesy: Tate Modern, London © DACS, 2019

In an adjoining room, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) looms. This striking and disquieting work also makes use of a series of identical doors. Here they are numbered; perhaps we are in a hotel. There on the crimson landing are two little girls. One is confronting the enormous torn and avid head of a sunflower; her serpentine hair screeches upward, tiny fists are clenched. The other rests against a door jamb as if in a swoon, the bright petal swinging in her hand, a kind of keepsake. It’s a peculiar canvas, somehow airless, yet arousing an unnerving impulse for violence. Run at that flickering seedbed, little girl, run at it and pounce on it and pummel it to an oily pulp with those determined little fists. Tanning revealed in a 1999 letter that the sunflower, a cyclopic bloom common in Galesburg, is ‘a symbol of all the things that youth has to face and to deal with’. Inspired by the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror, 1869) and his notion of beauty as the ‘chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’, the juxtaposition of deracinated and disparate symbols became a distinguishing feature of the surrealist tableau. The rich illogical dreamscapes of free association enabled Tanning to explore her treasure trove of personal icons and enduring preoccupations, thereby giving full expression to her childhood imagination and its innately eclectic catalogue of fears, fantasies and domestic psychodramas.

From an early age, Tanning felt that ‘an exceptional destiny’4 awaited her, yet she was marooned in a cosseted world of pecan pies, lazy-daisy quilts, cone-shaped paper cups, fluffy afternoon dresses, Sunday cigars and too-tight satin shoes. In her essay, ‘Dorothea Tanning and Her Gothic Imagination’ (2011), art historian Victoria Carruthers notes: ‘Motifs from childhood are never very far away from those early works. The iconography of the confined interior as a stage where events lead to a kind of liberation of the imagination is repeated over and over.’ A keen eye for quotidian detail; a restless imagination and a taste for high drama; a desperate need to peel away the wallpaper and broaden her horizons; Carruthers suggests that the tensions between these potent aspects of Tanning’s burgeoning inner world produced a gothic sensibility that brought the claustrophobic hub of everyday life and the outer edges of desire and dread into terrifying and exuberant proximity. Shortly before her death, talking to Carruthers about her penchant for gothic fantasy, Tanning said: ‘It allowed the possibility of creating a new reality, one not dependent on bourgeois values but a way of showing what was actually happening under the tedium of daily life.’

Contemplating the gothic dimension in Tanning’s work, its particular mode of disrupting the boundary between reality and fantasy, provides some insight into what drew her towards surrealism. It might also help us appreciate why she began to rub up against the paradoxical limits of its variegated techniques. Reflecting on this seismic stylistic shift, Tanning writes: ‘I began to chafe just a little at the reliance on precisely painted elements of the natural world in order to present an incongruity […] everything was collage.’5 While the surrealist meetings continued in Paris in the 1950s, where she and Ernst were living at the time, Tanning’s impatience was simmering: ‘Gradually, in looking at how many ways paint can flow onto canvas, I began to long for letting it have more freedom.’6 Something more vital was pushing at the surface: ‘Around 1955, my canvases literally splintered.’7 Loosened from the pristine motifs of surrealism, no longer bound to figurative precision, Tanning used paint to convey the flux of immediate experience. At this crucial point, Carruthers argues, ‘Tanning disbands her desire to portray the gothic as if she were illustrating a gothic tale, in favour of evoking the gothic sensibility of fracture and fragmentation through abstraction.’

Dorothea Tanning, Même les jeunes filles (Even the Young Girls), 1966, oil on canvas, 1.7 × 2 m. Courtesy: © DACS, 2019

The results are beyond sensuous – paint and perception collide, these canvases are not secretive, hypnagogic depictions of the past, they are dynamic and embodied expressions of the present. Melées nocturnes (Nocturnal Melees, 1958) is a glinting cavern of subterranean seeresses. It emanates a sanguine tenderness that is both visceral and cabbalistic. Confronting it, something slack and gaping below my last rib on the left side exalts. The eyes in my head, it seems, are hardly doing any of the seeing here. I turn again, and there is Même les jeunes filles (Even the Young Girls, 1966). My eyes struggle to bring into focus this tumult of ecstatic entities, yet some other part of me is already communing with them. They are all over each other; I am giddy and transfixed. The canvases thrum with an Artaudian liveness. ‘I wanted to lead the eye into spaces that hid, revealed, transformed all at once and where there would be some never-before-seen image, as if it had appeared with no help from me.’8 These are not so much paintings as organisms, with an intelligence of their own. When you look at one, it’s as if your glance has caught it in the middle of a calm yet seminal activity. ‘You coax the picture out of its cage’, wrote Tanning, ‘along with personae, essences, its fatidic suggestion, its insolence. Friend or enemy?’9

In a letter to Cornell in 1948, Tanning wrote that she believed there is only poetry and revulsion. What she’d like to do, she revealed, is ‘let the poetry in and keep the revulsion out’. She tells Cornell that he manages to do that in his work, and she wonders how. ‘I wish I were not so aware of what the rest of the world is doing,’ she confesses. ‘Maybe that is your secret, maybe that is what you keep out.’ What becomes clear as I move through this body of work that spans more than 70 years is that, although Tanning was very much engaged with the world and its people, her creative practice was directed by her own concerns, obsessions, instincts and pleasures. ‘It was, after all, your hand, your will, your turmoil that has produced it all, this brand-new event in a very old world.’10 I come to stand in a room of soft sculptures. The light is dim and restful in here, the languid yet attentive biomorphic forms gently picked out by diffuse spotlights. I’ve looked at each shape in turn and now I just want to be in their company, in their world, and experience their strange consoling presence. I hear them murmur: ‘How come you’ve got so hung up on what the rest of the world is doing? Why have you turned your back on what you are made of?’ Because I’ve been shaken down and emptied out by the nagging feeling that I ought to come up with something entirely different from what I’ve written before. The nauseating wrongheadedness of this notion has made itself apparent as I’ve crept and spun through this psychical hall of mirrors, which has shown me that creative energy is a naturally evolving force, giving rise, always, to ‘another of the thousand ways of saying the same thing’.11 Scornful and despairing of my treasure trove, I’ve been keeping a firm lid on it – is it any wonder then that the essences within have turned on me, and wreak havoc in the dark hours? Friend or enemy? Shade, or vital spark? This morning, I have nourished my spurned fundamentals. They fold into me, sated and aligned. Now it is time for me to eat, to awaken the stomach; it is time to face the day. 

Dorothea Tanning’s retrospective at the Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain, travelled in February to Tate Modern, London, UK, where it can be seen until 9 June. It is the first large-scale exhibition of her work in nearly three decades. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 201 with the headline ‘Eye of the Storm’

1 Javier Marías, The Man of Feeling, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2003, Vintage Books, New York, p. 32 
2 Dorothea Tanning, Birthday, 1986, The Lapis Press, Santa Monica, p.14
3 Dorothea Tanning, ‘10 Recent Paintings and a Biography’, 1979, exhibition catalogue, Gimpel-Weitzenhoffer Gallery, New York, p. 2
4 Ibid, p. 5
5-6 Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 2001, p. 213
7 Ibid, p. 178
8 Ibid, p. 214
9 Ibid, p. 325
10 Ibid, p. 326
11 Ibid, p. 178

Main image: Dorothea Tanning, Melées nocturnes (Nocturnal Melees), 1958, oil on canvas, 145 × 96 cm. Courtesy: © DACS, 2019

Claire-Louise Bennett lives in Galway, Ireland. She is the author of Pond (2015). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in publications including The White Review, gorse, Harper’s Magazine and The New York Times.