Dorothea Tanning’s Surrealist Depictions of Women’s Pain

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Dorothea Tanning’s Surrealist Depictions of Women’s Pain

Overshadowed in her lifetime by her famous husband, Max Ernst, the American painter gets a major retrospective in Madrid.

Debra Brehmer Dec 2, 2018

 Dorothea Tanning, “Maternity” (1946-47) (all images courtesy the author for Hyperallergic)

Dorothea Tanning, “Maternity” (1946-47) (all images courtesy the author for Hyperallergic)

MADRID — In the 1960s, when the American painter Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) got sick of the smell of turpentine, she started working with fabric. She had just moved from Sedona, Arizona to Paris with her husband, Max Ernst. “It came up from a sort of rage, as if I were working blind,” she said in a filmed interview about this period of sculptural experimentation.

Midway through Behind the Door, Another Invisible Door — a new retrospective of more than 150 of Tanning’s works at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, organized in collaboration with the Tate Modern — the soft sculptures from this 1960s fury take the visitor by surprise. Tanning, who lived to be 101, is primarily known for her Surrealist paintings of the 1940s. While the sculptures seem like a radical departure, they are actually fluid adaptations of the lesser-known, loose-limbed paintings she began in the 1950s. Fleshy, primal, timeless, and odd, these fabric constructions present a head-on collision with the era’s Minimalist sculptors, such as Donald Judd and Tony Smith. They seem unprecedented: Louise Bourgeois wouldn’t start working with fabrics until decades later. The younger artist Annette Messager had just begun creating her early fiber work in Paris.

 “Reclining Nude” (1969-70)

“Reclining Nude” (1969-70)

“Reclining Nude” (1969-70) is an abstracted stuffed figure made of pink cloth. The form reclines with a bumpy spine visible amid its attenuated, truncated limbs. It feels viscerally naked and abject — part reclining nude, part root vegetable. “Embrace” (1969) is another pink body bent backwards into a circular form and hugged by a brown faux fur creature, suggesting a sublime wrestling match between the wild and tamed, a theme throughout Tanning’s career. “By What Love” (1970), a solitary standing figure made of coarse brown twill, twists toward abstraction while chained to a stanchion. It seems to ask what price we pay for attachment.

  Dorothea Tanning: Behind the Door, Another Invisible Door  (installation view)

Dorothea Tanning: Behind the Door, Another Invisible Door (installation view)

With her last major retrospectives in Paris in 1974  and in Sweden and London in 1993, it could be said that Tanning paid a heavy price for love. While historically overshadowed by her famous husband — as were many other women artists, such as Elaine De Kooning, Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, and Kay Sage — her marriage also advanced her career, providing entry into the inner circles of the avant-garde. By all accounts, she had a happy life. She showed continuously through the ‘40s and ‘50s, but, like most women, didn’t make it through the keyhole of art history. What is certain, however, is that Tanning was unstoppable long before and after her marriage.

Growing up in Galesburg, Illinois, she briefly attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New York, where Alfred Barr’s groundbreaking exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936) at the Museum of Modern Art inspired her to then sail to Paris to try to meet the Surrealists. The impending war forced a premature return to New York, where she supported herself as a freelance illustrator. Several works from this period are featured at the Reina Sofia, along with a pencil self-portrait from 1936 that reveals her nascent rendering skills.

 “Birthday” (1942)

“Birthday” (1942)

Tanning had already been signed by the prominent gallerist Julien Levy when, in 1942, Peggy Guggenheim was preparing a show of 30 women artists at her Art of This Century gallery. Max Ernst, who was then married to Guggenheim, assisted in the search for participants and visited Tanning’s studio. There, he saw a recent self-portrait that was not yet titled. Ernst suggested the name “Birthday” in reference to its surreal depiction of rebirth into new worlds. Eventually acquired by the Philadelphia Museum Art, this painting would become Tanning’s most recognizable image. “Birthday” depicts the artist wearing a lavish silk and ribbon blouse with breasts exposed and a draping skirt sheathed in tree  roots composed of small creatures. She is barefoot on a wood floor, her hand on a door knob, a winged creature before her on the floor. Multiple doorways open in hallways behind her. The bold acquiescence of this young woman entering one unknown world after another reads like a feminist paean; she seems to suggest there is no turning back now.

The exhibition is divided into eight themes that illuminate different stages of her work. In addition to painting and sculpting, Tanning wrote novels, poetry, and two autobiographies, and designed costumes and sets for George Balanchine ballets. In looking at paintings such as “Children’s Games” (1942), in which girls rip wallpaper from walls that suck their long wild hair into an abyss, or “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (1943), in which girls in ragged skirts somnambulate toward a giant sunflower in a dark hallway, one might suspect that Tanning had a difficult childhood. Later works continue thematically into dark recesses of youth and family life; her protagonists are almost always female. Tanning claims a happy childhood, though. In a 1991 interview, she said that “enigma is a very healthy thing, because it encourages the viewer to look beyond the obvious and commonplace.”

 “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (1943)

“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (1943)

After her marriage in 1946, familial discontent became a theme in her paintings. In “Family Portrait” (1954), a wall-sized patriarch looms over a blond woman seated at a dining room table. In the foreground, a much smaller-scaled aproned maid holds a platter of food toward a begging dog, creating a compositional hierarchy of servitude. In “Maternity” (1946-47), a woman in a shredded gown cradles an infant against a barren landscape with a doorframe in the middle. A small dog with a child’s face lightens the mood of despair. Tanning never had children, but she did have a Pekinese dog named Katchina, who appears in many paintings.

In the mid-1950s, Tanning started experimenting with a more fractured, abstract painting style. The paintings remain figurative, but fold into a soft cubism sometimes reminiscent of the planar prisms of Franz Marc. The dreamlike mood continues but no longer relies on Salvador Dali’s style of surrealism. Body parts bend into tumultuous folds of cloud and light. While the viewer might be disappointed by this stylistic departure, Tanning’s delight in experimentation is radically apparent. We see and celebrate her freedom. Painted objects float and careen without limitation (or the strictures of an art movement). In a 1991 interview, she said, “If I didn’t paint in a very meticulous way afterwards, maybe that was because I thought that that was not the best way. Too easy: it would have been like knitting or embroidery.”

 “Family Portrait” (1954)

“Family Portrait” (1954)

During the 1970s, while she was clearly on fire in the studio, Tanning was also constructing a room-sized installation for her upcoming 1974 retrospective at the National Center for Contemporary Art, Paris. “Room 202, Hotel du Pavot” (1970-73) compresses a thematic return to an earlier painting, “Children’s Games,” with her new formal interest in shifting spatial concerns and body parts. The installation’s life-sized cloth sculptures of female torsos are embedded in the walls, struggling to get in or out. A creature emerges from a fabric fireplace. Other beings drape over or morph into tables and chairs. A single ceiling light bulb sheds a murky twilight.

One could consider this tableaux to be Tanning’s contribution to the practice of museum period rooms, such as recreations of 18th century parlors. But here we see an artist decorating her dark chamber not with Louis XV armchairs, but with the illusory: a place where subtext, dreams, fantasy, and human struggles are the fuel of creation. This is where Tanning chose to live; she left the door open for us as well.

Dorothea Tanning: Behind the Door, Another Invisible Door is on view at the Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, through January 7, 2019. The exhibition will travel to the Tate Modern February 27 to June 9, 2019. The exhibition is curated by Alyce Mahon.

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