Dorothea Tanning's Gothic wonderland

The first UK exhibition devoted to her work has just opened at London’s Tate Modern, so we take a peek inside the Gothic wonderland of surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning

“Women artists, there is no such thing – or person,” said Dorothea Tanning in 1990 (when she was 80 years old). “It’s just as much a contradiction in terms as ‘man artist’ or ‘elephant artist’. You may be a woman and you may be an artist; but the one is a given and the other is you.” However, for me, her disturbing, creepy and striking images are inextricably tied to issues of gender. Her world is female-dominated, a contemplation of what it means to be a woman. So timeless, and yet ahead of its time and more relevant than ever. 

Tanning wrote poetry, painted, made sculptures, her career spanned 70 years yet her name is hardly ever mentioned alongside her more famous (male) counterparts (including her own husband Max Ernst). She was born in 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois and studied painting in Chicago. Her first encounter with surrealism was in the 1930s, in New York. However her surrealist heart meant that when Tanning was a child, she shocked her family by painting a naked woman with leaves for hair. “Was I a tiny surrealist? [...] Maybe surrealist painters were children with years, playing with the irrational,” wrote Tanning in her memoir Between Lives: An Artist And Her World. Tanning also escaped the boredom of her hometown – although she admits to having a happy childhood – by reading Gothic novels, she also loved Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which you can definitely see elements of in her works.

Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012),   Family Portrait,  1954 Oil paint on canvas Acquired in 1977. Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d'art modern/ Centre de création industrielle Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais /image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © DACS, 2018

Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012), Family Portrait, 1954
Oil paint on canvas
Acquired in 1977. Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d'art modern/ Centre de création industrielle
Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais /image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI
© DACS, 2018

Tanning’s artworks enchant me; they pull you in with all their layers and details – rabbit holes, if you will. They speak to my own thoughts and, for me, feminism is at the heart of that. There are endless open doors and there is chaos in domestic spaces. She subverts our expectations. Mothers reject their nurturing roles. Women escape the boredom of married life. Fathers turn into giants. Familiarities are made strange. You see this in her 1954 painting Family Portrait. Tanning plays with scale, commenting on hierarchy within the family unit. A father watches over the table, his huge body spilling off the canvas, his glasses Demon Headmaster-like look as if they are hypnotising his wife who is sitting next to him at the table. Her eyes are frozen, perhaps she is controlled by her over-bearing husband. She looks very young too, in fact like she could also be his daughter. The maid, who also looks like she could be the man’s wife, is the size of the dog. Dogs you’ll see are a recurring theme in Tanning’s work and life.

Tanning chose not to have children, a radical move for the time. “I’m very much against the arrangement of procreation,” she wrote. Her choice to not become a mother is embodied in Maternity (1946), the most famous work of a series of the same name. The first time I saw it at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, I felt a deep connection with it and my own internal debate about motherhood and whether it is something I want from my life. The mother looks worried, drawn and tired, she is dressed in a dirty nightgown, and she’s standing isolated on a grubby rug in the desert. The baby she is holding is huge and slightly grotesque with a face like an old man. Motherhood is not portrayed as a favourable choice here. The painting also features a little dog (she had many as pets) with a baby face, which is much cuter than the baby. Tanning perhaps using this figure in the way Frida Kahlo painted her pet monkeys.

Dorothea Tanning,   Stanza,  1978 Oil paint on canvas. The Byrd Collection, Arizona. © DACS, 2018

Dorothea Tanning, Stanza, 1978
Oil paint on canvas. The Byrd Collection, Arizona.
© DACS, 2018

But it was her self-portrait Birthday (1942) that really changed the course of Tanning’s life. She depicts herself with bare breasts and no shoes standing behind a monkey-like creature with wings. She’s wearing a skirt of long, green tendrils, which you only realise when you look closely are tiny human bodies, she looks as if she’s just stepped out of a Shakespeare play. One of the many reasons I love her work so much, is that you have to really study it to notice every detail. You can go back to each work many times over and still spot something new. The figure/Tanning is not smiling, and her pose could be read as either self-assured or worried. The floor is tilted, and she grasps at a doorknob. But behind that door is another open door, and another and another. A common motif in Tanning’s work, one that disorientates you, throws you off balance. Because how do you know what each of the doors mean? Endless possibilities, something we cannot see beyond the canvas, perhaps turmoil, adventure or something else? Is she arriving or leaving? One of Tanning’s works in the Tate exhibition even has an actual wooden door in the middle of it.

It was at this time that Tanning met painter Max Ernst. Ernst’s wife at the time, infamous art collector Peggy Guggenheim, had sent him to check out Tanning’s work for an exhibition of women artists she was curating. Tanning did not want to be included in any exhibition that called her a “woman artist”, she refused to be classified (even as a surrealist) and this may be a tiny part of the reason that her story has been hidden, slipped through the cracks in history, and her work overshadowed. Tanning and Ernst fell deeply in love. It was Ernst who titled the peice Birthday, to announce her birth as a surrealist, he was captivated by it. After his first visit, the couple played chess every day for a week. Then he moved in, divorced Peggy, married Tanning and they relocated to Arizona before finally moving to France. 

Perhaps hinting at those games she played in their courtship, in 1944, Tanning painted Endgame in which a high-heeled shoe stamps upon a bishop’s mitre with so much force that it almost pushes through a chessboard. The queen here is clearly the leader. Tanning often felt that her role as Ernst’s wife overshadowed her work, and thought it unfair that the same could not be said for him.

Dorothea Tanning,  Portrait de famille (Family Portrait),  1977 Oil paint on canvas. The Destina Foundation (New York, US) © DACS, 2019

Dorothea Tanning, Portrait de famille (Family Portrait), 1977
Oil paint on canvas. The Destina Foundation (New York, US) © DACS, 2019

From the 1950s, when she was working in Paris, Tanning’s paintings become more abstract and loose. Insomnias (1957) is one such work; it’s disorientating and, until you study it, you don’t even notice the big toe and face hiding out in the corner. She also painted another family portrait in 1977, starkly different to the one she painted in 1946, this version has writhing naked bodies entwined together – it looks more like a threesome plus a barely-visible dog, than it does a family portrait. Yep, her work is still quite weird and surreal even in its abstract form.

In the 1960s, she started making soft sculptures out of fabric. A 1976 film called Insomnia by Peter Scharmoni (which you can view at the end of the Tate exhibition) shows Tanning sewing the cushion-like creations together using a Singer sewing machine. It’s wonderful to see the creation of the works you have just viewed in the hands of the artist. I watched the film twice. You also get a glance at the Pekingnese dogs she owned, running down the stairs behind the soft sculptures Tanning has just thrown down them.

Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012)   Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202  1970-1973 Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls 3405 x 3100 x 4700 mm Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d'art modern/ Centre de création industrielle Photo (C) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat © DACS, 2018

Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012) Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 1970-1973 Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls 3405 x 3100 x 4700 mm Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d'art modern/ Centre de création industrielle Photo (C) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat © DACS, 2018

Included in Tate’s exhibition is also the installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–3), which is the size of an actual room (the film shows Tanning standing inside it). You see bodies – cushiony sculptures – growing out of the walls of an imaginary hotel room. It’s like one of her paintings brought to life. You feel that if you stood watching the space for long enough, you may witness something you didn’t want to see, as if it is a crime scene waiting to be filled with blood. The only escape (or entry?) is through a door left ajar. Tate curator Ann Coxon points out the resemblance to Netflix series Stranger Things.

The Tate exhibition also shows sketches for the costumes Tanning created for Ballet Russes, again strange creations with huge head pieces in the shape of antlers and ships. But it also features illustration work she did for Macy’s and other clients advertising products in the 1940s – proving all freelancers have to make a living somehow.

Dorothea Tanning,   Stanza,  1978 Oil paint on canvas. The Byrd Collection, Arizona. © DACS, 2018

Dorothea Tanning, Stanza, 1978
Oil paint on canvas. The Byrd Collection, Arizona.
© DACS, 2018

When Ernst died in 1976, Tanning returned to New York and dedicated her time to writing – her 1976 painting Stanza depicts an agonised writer. Her last collection of poems, Coming to That, was published when she was 101. When asked at the age of 91 what she’d hoped to communicate as an artist, she replied: “I’d be satisfied with having suggested that there is more than meets the eye.” And how she felt about being labelled a surrealist? “I guess I’ll be a surrealist forever, like a tattoo: ‘D Loves S’.

Dorothea Tanning is at Tate Modern from 27 February to 9 June 2019. Visit tate.org.uk for ticket information. You can also read more in issue 47, where we also feature one of Tanning’s poems.