Dorothea Tanning – Tate Modern, London

In 1936 the twenty-six year old American artist Dorothea Tanning visited an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York entitled Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. This proved to be a life-changing encounter, the starting point for her experiments with Surrealism for the next sixty years. Three years later she travelled to Paris, the city where Surrealism had emerged in the 1920’s and the acknowledged centre of new thinking in the visual arts. The outbreak of the second world war forced her return to New York where in 1942 she met Max Ernst, one of the Surrealist painters who had fled Europe for the USA. They were married in 1946. Later she worked in France as well as Arizona and New York.

I had seen only one piece by Tanning (as well as a few illustrations) before visiting this exhibition so just about every work was a new experience. Those I had seen prepared me for a treat. The early paintings are powerful examples of the figurative wing of surrealism – Freudian explorations of the subconscious – unsettling, thought-provoking – confounding reason and the established laws of reality. Birthday from 1942 is a prime example. A woman (probably a self portrait) stands in the foreground, her exotic blouse opened to reveal her breasts. A drape hangs from her waist along with some sort of vegetal encumbrance which looks as though it might be a form of seaweed, but on closer inspection seems to partly consist of tiny humanoid figures. Close by a winged creature of indeterminate provenance crouches on the bare boards of the room. The rest of the composition is taken up with a cacophony of open doors, a common motif throughout her life stemming in part from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland – a key text for the Surrealists.


Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

The open door plays a part in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – at least the slightly ajar door. Two young female figures inhabit the landing of a cheap hotel. The long hair of one of the figures defies gravity extending upwards as though she has received an electrical shock. It has been suggested that she might be a doll. The other young girl seems to have succumbed to a faint. Along the airless hallway, past the freakish giant sunflower and the three closed doors, a fourth door lies slightly open emitting an unnaturally bright light. What menace lies within? One can’t help thinking that things will not end well.


More doors appear in Maternity. A woman, dressed in a shredded nightdress holds a baby surrounded by a desolate Dali-esque desert. She is accompanied by a dog which sports the face of a human child. A half opened door to the right may have enabled her entrance to the scene but the other door is devoid of purpose being supported only by a door frame, the open wilderness extending on both sides.

Tango Lives

In the sixties and seventies Tanning’s style turned towards an amorphous abstraction. In Tango Lives from 1977 two naked figures dance in a nebulous, airless space. Their rapturous embrace may mask a calamitous ecstasy.

At the same time, Tanning was experimenting with soft sculpture using stuffed textiles to produce unsettling anthropoid forms which morph into indeterminate, sometimes animalistic adjuncts. These sculptures are memorably used in a reconstruction of her installation entitled Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot in which soft excrescences invade the room, puncturing (violating) the walls, ooze from the fireplace and fuse with lumpen chairs. It is a tableau fit for any horror film.

This exhibition surely cements Tannings reputation as a distinctive and individual voice fully deserving a place the pantheon of the great Surrealist masters.

Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot

Link to Tate