Dorothea Tanning, at Tate Modern until 9th June 2019. By Richard Norris.
The prolific, seven decade long career of Dorothea Tanning, now on display until June at Tate Modern, London, has long been overshadowed by her relationship and marriage to the surrealist Max Ernst. With this exhibition, which collects 100 works of drawing, sketches, painting, sculpture and installation, that legacy is at last set to change, as the depth and breadth of Tanning’s work comes sharply into focus across eight expertly curated rooms.
The exhibition unfolds the story of Tanning’s life, from her small town rural beginnings in Illinois, through her later years as painter, sculptor, poet and writer. It moves from key self-portrait Birthday (1942), which celebrates her birth date as a surrealist, through her mid career ‘prismatic’ abstract paintings, towards her later soft sculptures and large scale installations. Also on display are set and costume designs for ballet, reflecting her lifelong passion for dance, as well as commercial work for New York magazines. The sum of which gives the viewer a similar engagement to that which Tanning described, when first encountering Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at MOMA in 1936. In those works she found ‘the limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY’, which is something in abundance here.
Tanning and Ernst’s paths to uptown surrealism were vastly different. Tanning had moved to New York from the small town of Galesberg, Illinois, about which she remarked ‘nothing happened but the wallpaper.’ Ernst, like so much artistic talent in the thirties and forties, was an émigré from the Nazis, part of an influx from Europe that had a marked effect on American cultural life from New York to Hollywood. He had been interned by the French at the outbreak of war, and imprisoned by the Gestapo in Paris. He evaded them through the tireless efforts of heiress, socialite and American art powerhouse Peggy Gugenheim, sailing to New York with her in 1941, marrying her soon after.
A key surrealist theme emerges in Room 1. Chess, and the strategy involved therein, are depicted in Endgame, the first painting you see in the exhibition, on display in the UK for the first time. Surrealism and chess have a rich history, and this enigmatic painting is a key piece. It was commissioned for the 1944 exhibition The Imagery of Chess, at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, alongside 31 other surrealist works on the subject.
It’s a powerful opener. The queen, depicted by a satin shoe, is standing on the bishop, violently stubbing him out like a particularly malevolent cigarette. The promise of freedom and pastures new at the games climax is glimpsed at the bottom of the picture, where a ripped away section of the chess board reveals a broad Arizona sky, the pathway to Tanning and Ernst’s future. The couple relocated there after Ernst’s divorce from Guggenheim, marrying in 1946.
The painting is positioned by the entrance, next to Ernst’s hand carved chess set, which also appeared in the Levy exhibition. Strategy and symbolism go hand in hand, the push/pull of relationships like moves on the board. It could be said that Ernst’s marriage to Peggy was strategic, or at the very least practical; he needed residency, which he gained through their marriage, a coupling writer Kay Larson describes as having ‘all the comfort of nesting with a porcupine’. Tanning said of chess: ‘It’s more than a game, it’s a way of thinking. You have to be clever in a warlike way. You are a good player if you have a mean streak in you.’ Strategy was a necessity.
Tanning’s emerging power is prevalent in the pair of deftly curated self portraits, also in Room 1, never seen before in a major exhibition. The pencil drawings depict Tanning a decade apart, at the ages of 26 and 37 respectively. In the earlier portrait, the artist has lived in New York for less than a year, and had just discovered surrealism. Her gaze is reflective, enquiring yet uncertain. In contrast, the 1947 image, drawn ten years later, a year into her marriage, has a stately, near regal composure of someone very much on top of their game.
Telling juxtapositions such as this emerge throughout the exhibition. Tate director Frances Morris talked of the ‘acute, intelligent and committed cultural vision’ of curator Ann Coxon and assistant curators Emma Lewis and Hannah Johnson at the exhibitions opening. This is accurate and well deserved. The exhibition has been a long time coming – the Tate has owned Tanning works since the late 1950’s – and the show is expertly and sensitively curated.
Time and again, hitherto unseen contrasts emerge through the exhibition space. Portrait de familie (1977) can be viewed across the room through the prism of Nue Couchee (1969–70), the pink soft sculpture reclining in front of it, both exhibiting a resonant physicality through their contrasting media. Similarly, the tight embrace of the soft sculpture Entreinte (1969) sits in front of the flowing dance of Mme les jeunes filles (1966), fleshy oil paint echoing flesh tone fabric.
Engaging new connections reveal themselves around every corner, the ‘unknown but knowable’ moving into focus. The interplay and distinction between the internal and external, between public and private space, are played out in many different ways. Empirical fact, biographical fact blurs into fragments, memory and tactile talismans.Domesticity and family values are subverted, the familiar rubs up against the unfamiliar. As Tanning notes, ‘everything is in motion. Also, behind the invisible door another door. There is no showing who one really is.’
Tanning’s mid-career prismatic paintings are also well represented. The twelve examples in the exhibition constitute the largest series of these works ever displayed. They date from the late fifties until the early seventies, and are of a looser, more abstract style than her earlier domestic scenes. As with much of her work, there are inner and outer layers, creating an almost synaesthetic effect. ‘I wanted to make a picture that you don’t see all at once,’ she noted. “All of my pictures of this period I felt you should discover slowly and that they would almost be kaleidoscopes that would shimmer and that you would discover something new every time you looked at it.’
Perhaps the exhibition highlight is the final room, the installation Chambre 202, Hotel De Pavot (1970-1973). The room is a set, a dark and musty hotel room with a naked light bulb and no outside view. It mixes the banality of this functional space – you can see the outline of a rectangle of newer looking wallpaper, where a painting used to hang – with a resonance far more creeping and fantastic. Disembodied bellies and limbs appear out of the walls, morphing with the fireplace, sinking into the brown tweed furniture. It’s as gothic as it is surreal, and resolutely modern. It has been viewed as the last great work of surrealism, but it is more than that. The murder ballad meets waking nightmare tone of the room hint at something a few steps on from early twentieth century European psychoanalytic symbolism, towards dark psychic terror. It wouldn’t look out of place as a setting for the last series of Twin Peaks.
Tanning’s seven decades of work broaden our perception of surrealism and its’ successors. Her gender fluid soft sculptures seem strikingly contemporary. There’s work here using velvet, tweed, cotton, copper, oils, watercolour, graphite, ink, gouache, charcoal, pastel, wool, lace, fake fur, crayon, flannel, buttons, forged steel, carpet, chain, wallpaper, text, pins, wood, cardboard, felt, jigsaw puzzle pieces, light bulbs and tennis balls. The sheer breadth of her materials over seven decades is as impressive as it is inspirational.
Her art begins with the influence of her surrealist peers, and includes many of their familiar tropes – symbolism, analysis, fetishism, visual humour – yet manages to take these a few steps further, to the point where Tanning herself is an influence, on her contemporary Louise Bourgeois, on the soft sculpture of Sarah Lucas. And, with this exhibition, many more.
Words: Richard Norris