Dorothea Tanning: maternity, family and female adolescence

By Flora Doble


In February, Tate Modern opened a major exhibition of the work of American painter, sculptor and writer Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012). Born in Galesburg, Illinois, Tanning is too often remembered as the wife of Surrealist trailblazer Max Ernst (something that she bemoaned in an unpublished poem entitled Stain). In this exhibition, Tate Modern successfully showcases Tanning’s incredible seven-decade career as a pioneering artist in her own right.


Dorothea and Max


The exhibition consists of eight rooms which follow Tanning’s life and career from her ‘birth’ as a Surrealist artist in the early-1940s to her transition from painter to sculptor in later life. The exhibition includes both oil paintings and soft sculpture, ending with a screening of the 1978 documentary film Insomnia by Peter Scharmoni which shows Tanning at work in her studio.


Tanning rejected the term ‘woman artist’ on the grounds that ‘one is a given and the other is you’ but her art world is undeniably female. Tanning reflects on the nature of womanhood and explores themes of maternity, family and female adolescence throughout her work, while also frequently distorting and disturbing women’s traditional domestic space. For example, in the 1952 painting Some Roses and Their Phantoms, Tanning sullies the pristine image of the table cloth with strange brown creatures and transforming flowers.


Some Roses and Their Phantoms (1952)


In Portrait du famille (Family Portrait) (1954), Tanning comments on the traditional family hierarchy through the dominating presence of a huge yet ghostly father figure, while his wife sits in a white dress that matches the scene’s domestic accessories.


Portrait du famille (1954)


Even as her work became more abstract, Tanning made sure the female was always present. For instance, the kaleidoscopic effect of Insomnies (Insomnias) (1957) initially masks the presence of the female form, until a closer inspection reveals several faces, dancing bodies and a toe in the bottom left hand corner.


Insomnies (1957)


In the 1960s, Tanning began creating soft fabric sculptures. These were often bizarre, bodily forms that represented ritual or fetish objects, shown in Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1965). The female body and its sexuality are frequently distorted in this medium. Nue couchée (1969-70) is one soft sculpture that evokes the nude female body, but its jutting vertebrates and tangled limbs immediately suggest that something is wrong. The figure could well be dead, but its bent ‘legs’ make it seem as though it could spring into action at any moment. Here, the pink flesh of the reclining nude is no longer for the consumption of the male gaze but instead, it unsettles the viewer.


Nue couchée (1969-70) © DACS, 2019


Tanning’s sculptural work transforms the domestic craft of sewing into something thoroughly disturbing. Tanning also claimed that her creation of soft sculptures represented ‘the triumph of cloth as a material for high purpose’, which perhaps reflects a desire to address the trivial significance traditionally assigned to ‘womanly’ crafts. In addition, Tanning did not have children, but considered her artwork to be a sort of creative offspring. Her creation of strange anthropomorphic creatures that exist somewhere in between an inanimate object and living being, rather than a human child, thus once again subverts and upsets traditional expectations of women.


Pincusion to serve as fetish (1965) © DACS, 2019


Tanning also explored womanhood through the motif of a door, often used by Surrealists painters to represent a portal to the unconscious. During an interview in 1999, Tanning described a horrible dream she had had, where she would open a door to find another door right behind it. After this dream, doors began to appear in many of her canvases and Tanning even incorporated a door into her painting Door 84 (1984)!


Door 84 (1984)


However, the meaning of a door is not always clear in Tanning’s work, despite her own negative association. Consider Tanning’s self-portrait Birthday (1942), for example. The open doors that surround the central figure bring chaos into a domestic setting. Does this suggest new horizons and possible freedom from patriarchal expectations? Or does something even more sinister lurk beyond? The winged lemur at Tanning’s feet is associated with the spirit world. Has Tanning perhaps opened a gateway to another world? Birthday represents Tanning’s ‘birth’ as a Surrealist painter, so maybe these doors represent her new access to and understanding of her own subconscious desires.


Birthday (1942)


Tanning used doors to reflect on female adolescence and often painted figures on the threshold between childhood and adulthood. This is seen in Tanning’s 1950-52 painting The Guest Room, where a naked girl stands at a doorway amongst a confusing and frightening scene. A figure cuddles a life-size doll in bed while two masked figures lurk near the exposed child. The cracked eggs represent the female archetype and the girl’s impending fertility. The naked figure’s position on the inside of the door suggests that she too is meant to be locked away behind these doors, whilst the blindfolded silhouette remains ignorant of her tumultuous psyche.


The Guest Room (1950-52)


As a final consideration, Tanning’s soft sculpture installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970-3) combines her desire to upset the domestic, distorted bodies and the door motif. In this installation, which can be found in Room 7 of the Tate Modern exhibition, several soft sculpture ‘bodies’ burst through the wallpaper and merge into the furniture and fireplace of a hotel room. The half-open door offers a possible escape from the nightmarish scene but may also offer a means of escape for the creatures into the ‘real’ world. The furniture blends into the figures and the boundaries and humanity of the bodies is unclear. The sense of dread in this piece is palpable and essentially Tanning.


Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970-3)


The Dorothea Tanning exhibition at Tate Modern is long overdue and a must-see. Tanning’s disturbing reflections on womanhood and female space is sure to captivate visitors and challenge them to confront the cultural security invested in the domestic and the female.