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The Open Door

The fantastic art of Dorothea Tanning, one of the last survivors of the Surrealist movement, gets a retrospective at Tate Modern.

Dorothea Tanning, Dogs of Cythera, 1963

Dorothea Tanning, Dogs of Cythera, 1963, oil paint on canvas, 1950 x 2970 mm. Credit: The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS, 2019

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A spate of recent exhibitions and books has been shedding much-needed light on the work of women Surrealists, giving them the serious attention they have always deserved but rarely received in full measure. Obviously we are living in an era of record-straightening as far as women artists in general are concerned, but in the case of Surrealism this process of re-examination is particularly welcome. That’s mainly because the contribution of women to this school of art was so important, but it is also because Surrealist women worked all too often in the dark shadows cast by Surrealist men.

To some extent, that overshadowing was due to the way in which the role of the feminine was understood within Surrealism. For many a male Surrealist, women were muses rather than creators, occasions for art rather than wellsprings. Images of women, rich with elaborate, arcane symbolism, found their way into countless canvases. Women in the Surrealist circle found themselves depicted in the works of their husbands and lovers—although the process did go both ways. But while some male Surrealists were indeed discriminatory, others, such as Man Ray and Max Ernst, did much to encourage and promote the careers of the women in their lives. Two of the greatest women Surrealists, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning, were deeply involved with Ernst, the former as a lover for a short time in the ’30s and the latter as his wife for his last 30 years, 1946–76. And as it happens, both lived past or almost past the century mark and both have received major museum retrospectives this year. Carrington, who died at 94 in 2011, was the subject of an exhibition at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Monterrey, Mexico, that closed this past February, and over 100 works by Tanning—who died in 2012 at the age of 101—are on currently on view at Tate Modern in London in “Dorothea Tanning” (through June 9).

Organized in collaboration with the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain, the Tate show is the first large exhibition of Tanning’s work in 25 years and the first ever to explore her full, seven-decade-long career. Over a third of the works on view, loaned from collections around the world, have never been seen in the U.K. Curated by Alyce Mahon, reader in modern and contemporary art history at the University of Cambridge, and Anne Coxon, curator of international art at Tate Modern, the exhibition is accompanied by an in-depth catalogue that places Tanning in the context of her time and demonstrates her significance for subsequent generations, including contemporary artists.

Tanning referred to her work from the 1940s as embodying a “gothic mood,” and in fact that phrase fits her entire oeuvre. In her paintings, people haunt barren landscapes or creepy hotel hallways, accompanied by monstrous creatures or changeling children. Doors open onto other doors. Doll-like little girls play sexualized roles amid startling shifts in scale. Human bodies interpenetrate with the tendrils of plants. Chess pieces take on a life of their own. As Ernst put it in an essay in the catalogue for Tanning’s first solo exhibition, at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1944, “The domain of the marvellous is her native country.”

In mundane terms, her native place was Galesburg, Ill., where she was born in 1910 to Swedish immigrant parents. The home atmosphere was somewhat stifling, Lutheran, reserved. In her family’s house, she recalled, “nothing happened but the wallpaper.” That may not have been as boring as it sounds, because wallpaper would become a recurring image in her paintings—cracking and peeling as if to reveal a horror lurking beneath, or seeming to absorb the human figures into itself. One is inevitably reminded of the story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which the patterns on the wallpaper take on a life of their own and an uncanny figure seems to crawl between it and the wall.

From Galesburg Tanning escaped as soon as possible, when she was 20, moving to Chicago, where she supported herself as a greeter in a restaurant while taking art classes at the Chicago Academy of Art. She stayed at the school only a short time, preferring to teach herself to draw and paint and educating her eyes by studying the works in the Art Institute of Chicago. She first showed her own work at a bookshop gallery in New Orleans in 1934, and the following year moved to New York, where she found work as a commercial artist. Through the early ’40s she would do fashion illustrations for newspapers, an activity that was reflected in some of her Surrealist works.

Her first exposure to the Surrealist movement was through the 1936 exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” at the Museum of Modern Art. Inspired by this experience, she saved her money and in July 1939 set sail for Paris, armed with letters of introduction to famous Surrealists, including Max Ernst. However, the artists had all fled to the south of France, ahead of the impending German invasion, many of them on their way to the United States. The disappointed Tanning had to scramble to get out before the war started, fleeing to Stockholm, where she stayed for a short while with relatives before getting on the last ship bound for America.

Back in New York, she exhibited her work at the Julien Levy Gallery, which championed Surrealism. In 1941 Levy introduced her to Ernst, at a dinner party, although the meeting that led to their marriage didn’t happen until December of 1942. Ernst was helping Peggy Guggenheim, to whom he was married at the time, find works for an upcoming exhibition of women artists at her gallery, Art of This Century. On Levy’s recommendation, he dropped in at Tanning’s midtown Manhattan studio. The encounter was decisive—they fell in love immediately and moved in together a week later, and although they did not formally marry until 1946, they were inseparable from then on. At the time of his visit, Tanning had a magisterial self-portrait on her easel, showing her standing by a series of open doors—a recurring image in her work, suggestive of latent possibilities, passages between states of being, and the uncanniness of infinite regression. Her breasts are bare, while her skirt, which she gathers with one hand, is surrounded by green, tentacle-like vines. On the floor, crouching near her bare feet, is a furry little monster with bird’s wings, perhaps a witch’s familiar. As she depicts herself in this painting, Tanning is a magical figure of great dignity, power, and beauty, a sorceress capable of transforming herself and the world. Ernst, overwhelmed, suggested that she title the painting Birthday, which he took him up on, and indeed, that day marked the birth of many things.

At the exhibition at Art of This Century, Tanning was in very good company, sharing wall space with Frida Kahlo, Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim, and Kay Sage. The only artist who was invited to participate and declined was Georgia O’Keeffe, who quite validly objected, “I am not a woman painter.” Tanning felt much the same way, but she must have realized that her career needed this exhibition in a way that the well-established O’Keeffe no longer did. The following year, 1944, she had her first solo show, at Julien Levy. She was also included in a group show at the gallery at the end of that year, called “The Imagery of Chess.” Her contribution was Endgame, a painting that depicts a chessboard as a cloth or curtain with a tear in it that opens a view into the world beyond. Inside the game-world, a white high-heeled shoe, representing the Queen, steps on a mitre, representing the Bishop, and the decisive move is diagrammed on the board by a dotted white line. Chess was a shared passion of Tanning and Ernst; at their fateful first encounter they played a game, with a rematch the next day.

Another painting from this period, Children’s Games (1942), embodies other fascinations of Tanning’s. Two girls, seemingly quite young, peel wallpaper off a wall; underneath the paper is a pulsing, reddish-orange substratum that suggests fire or human flesh, and the hair of one of the girls is being sucked upward into it. In the foreground, another girl lies prostrate on the floor, and all that is visible of her is her legs. In the distance is a doorway, opening onto a blue sky with clouds. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943), in the Tate’s collection, shows two similar girls in a red-carpeted hotel corridor lined with doors, one of which opens to reveal a golden glow beyond. The girls appear exhausted; one leans against a doorframe with her eyes closed, her shirt open all the way to the waist, while the other stands upright, her long hair rising straight up as if lifted by an invisible hand. On the floor in front of her is an incongruously gigantic sunflower, its stem reaching toward the girl as if it were animated. The painting seems to anticipate a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining.

Tanning did not limit herself to painting. She also dedicated herself to costume and set design for the ballet, most prominently on a 1946 production of Night Shadow, a collaborative work with George Balanchine set to music by the early 19th-century Italian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini. The romantic, nocturnal, Gothic atmosphere of this ballet was a perfect fit for Tanning’s sensibilities, but the critical reception was not very favorable, and her ambitions to do bigger and better things in the ballet world were, ultimately, not to be fulfilled. Drawings illustrating costume and set designs for Night Shadow are on view in the Tate exhibition.

During the ’60s and ’70s, Tanning went in two new directions. Building on her set and costume design experiences, as well as her fashion illustration background, she moved into making soft sculptures out of fabric. These frequently represent what seem to be naked human bodies, bending and twisting in strange ways. They are all limbs and torsos, with no discernible heads—an iconography that was anticipated in some of her earlier paintings. Others look like non-human creatures or little monsters. Tanning created a large-scale installation, Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–73), in which the soft-sculpture figures are arrayed around a dark-red hotel room, penetrating the wallpaper, melting into a chair, or stuffing themselves into the fireplace. The claustrophobia and weirdness of this scene would be equally familiar to Charlotte Perkins Gilman and David Lynch.

In her painting practice, Tanning took a turn toward abstraction in the ’60s. In works such as Dogs of Cythera (1963) and Useless (1969), she takes her headless bodies, multiplies them, colors them, and entangles them together to make intricate, swirling compositions. In these works, the viewer’s sense of spatial depth and even of up and down are radically destabilized, so that even though these are almost fully abstract paintings, they remain Surrealist at the core. At every turn in Tanning’s career, another door opened.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: May 2019

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