Between Comfort and Horror: Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)

Dorothea Tanning - Nue couchée 1969-70 (The Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive)

I’ve spent the day writing an article on Surrealism generally and in particular the work of the male artists of the movement. I should point out that since the subject of the piece is my old friend the Minotaur, the gender bias involved was driven by the subject rather than a sin of omission. In fact if I was to write a more generalised piece on the movement  I think the balance would definitely be tilted in the other direction, as it’s the work of artists such as Lee Miller, Louise Bourgeoise, Meret Openheim and Leonora Carrington that really fascinates me. It’s not that I find the work of the male artists uninteresting, just that, perhaps as a function of my own gender I find them easier to pin down, less challenging.

It’s therefore a touch ironic that it was only when I called it a day today and pulled my head out of the books on Man Ray, Dali, Picasso and Masson that I learned of the death of Dorothea Tanning, and it seemed only right to put down a few words of appreciation for this often overlooked artist.

I vividly remember seeing  Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at the age of about 13. Then as now themes of dreams and fantasy fascinated me and it pulled me in far more than Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus that was hanging nearby. Looking at it now with hindsight I think I can see why  – of the two dream images it is Tanning’s image of a girl venturing out onto a landing to be confronted by an apparently animated giant sunflower that speaks honestly of childhood nocturnal fears. The sparse composition, the empty corridor disappearing into the distance, the multiple doors and the apparently innocent object made threatening by its monstrous scale all come together to create a landscape that seem genuinely dream-like, by comparison Dali’s painting seems like a junk-shop arrangement of ideas – one painting looks like a child’s nightmare, the other seems like a painting of an adult thinking about what a nightmare should look like.

However, as much as her paintings continue to intrigue me , it is the series of soft sculptures that Tanning produced in the 1970s that really pull me in. These strange fabric constructions of female bodies merging, stretching, grasping, bulging out of items of furniture and climbing up walls occupy a space between comfort and horror. Like the work of her contemporary Louise Bourgeoise, these works are simultaneously attractive and repellant, speaking of both the joys and fears of the relationship between mother and child; when confronted by them in a gallery you’re not quite sure whether you want to hug them or run away very quickly to avoid being swallowed up and smothered by the plush folds.

Both her paintings and sculptures have clearly been an influence on more recent generations of artists,  Helen Chadwick, Sarah Lucas and Cathy De Monchaux all spring to mind and perhaps less obviously, comic artist Jill Thompson (her work on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series in particular.)

It is sad that her work is not as widely known as most of her male counterparts from the movement, and that contemporary surveys and exhibitions still tend to focus on her position within the movement as one of a number of romantic partners to the male artists. (Apart from one boxed out text discussing the 1942 painting Birthday, the catalogue of the 2001 Tate show Surrealism: Desire Unbound spills as much ink on the subject of Tanning’s marriage to Max Ernst as it does to her work).  Hopefully her death will lead to a long overdue reappraisal of her work.

(To learn more about Tanning’s life and work, please visit the Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive.)

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