Saturday 18 April 2020


Tate Modern, London

”The decibels of nature can crush an artist’s brain. So I lock the door and paint interiors.”
- Tanning

The Triumph of the Id?

Dorothea Tanning was born in Galesburg, a small American town where, as she described it, “nothing happened but the wallpaper.” But her head was turned in 1936 when in New York she came across a Dada and Surrealism exhibition. She strove to reach Paris, then the epicentre of floppy clocks. Flames of war drove her back, but those same flames also drove many Surrealists to New York. She fell in with them, meeting Max Ernst in 1942 and being married to him from ’46 until his death. After a prolific career she died in 2012, age 101.

Armed with this knowledge it’s easy to look at the early self-portrait ’Deirdre’ (1940, above) and first see the green hair or the strip of red material acting as a dress. Particularly as we’ll see these human/vegetable hybrids throughout. We’ll come back to them. For now, focus on her expression. This is the impassive, slightly sombre look you’d expect of an emerging artists’s self-portrait. Then think of the humdrum title she gave it. The more surreal elements don’t jar with any of this, as they’re portrayed so straightforwardly.

Previous Modernist movement had innovated in the way they depicted things. Perhaps the most extreme case was Cubism, which showed little interest in what it painted, caring only for how it was painted. Familiar things were rent strange. With this deadpan look, Surrealism reversed all that, making strange things look familiar. Hence Tanning would paint works with such humdrum titles as ’A Mrs Radcliffe Called Today’ (1945).

For the surreal must always be presented straightfaced, as though it was real, the weird tale you need to tell deadpan. And this is a genuine time where the hopelessly over-elaborated connection between Surrealism and dreams actually works. We can dream the most bizarre, the most impossible events and occurrences. But at the time we passively accept them, their incongruity only striking us when we wake. Surrealism’s aim wasn’t evoking the bizarre event, it was dispelling the sense of incongruity that might seem to go with it.

‘The Magic Flower Game’ (1941, above) depicts a boy, and so could be seen as visual analogy for puberty. (Sometimes poetically described as a ‘blossoming’.) Or the blooming flowers could represent the triumph of the id, flowing down the walls and talking over that dull-coloured stem-lie body. And indeed, it’s the hand connected to the flower which becomes a green claw. And the second figure, carried aloft by flowers as though they’re balloons, could be the first’s future state.

These readings aren’t wrong as such, they’re just inadequate. And this is another important feature of Surrealism which she epitomised. Tanning normally responded to such suggestions with “please don’t ask me to explain.” As Laura Elkin wrote in the Tate magazine , with her ”this does not symbolise that, this is in route to becoming that, or could take another path altogether, becoming something else entirely.”

Look how the main figure stands stock still, in a work all about change. He’s presented in a state of flux, neither hands nor feet matching one another. And the shadow looks a more vegetative creature than the boy who cast it. The flowers don’t bring about change, they stand for it. Just as vegetation suggests nature’s cycle they represent metamorphosis, not one state replacing another but the ebb and flow of a fluid identity. Paul Eluard said, in perhaps the most Surrealist statement of all, “there is no total revolution, only perpetual revolution”.

And as for her dress code… clothes, especially in art, represent a fixed identity. We recognise a businessman, a workman and a skinny-jeaned bohemian as much as we do a policeman or a milkman, as if they’re all uniforms in the end. But Tanning has ferns for hair, foliage for a skirt. She’s guaranteed to change with the seasons, slipping such ridgity.

The Great Indoors

The billowing amorphous forms of ‘A Very Happy Picture’ (1947, above) recall Julian Trevelyan’s recently seen ‘Riot In the Studio’ (1933). Yet they’re set against an eerie stillness which, unlike Trevelyan, seems more than mere backdrop. The classical arches in the background and the puffing chimneys of the picture within the frame recall De Chirico, and Tanning retains his coolness in a movement normally thought of as fervid. Yet, unlike de Chirico’s Mediterranean skies Tanning paints an interior. An interior so vast it’s hard to conceive of as such, but still an interior. All of this will stay with her.

’Birthday’ (1942, above) is the work that first drew Ernst’s interest. And if the eye first fixes on the figure, it’s soon drawn to that succession of semi-open doors. One of Tannings sayings, which seems related ,was “behind the invisible door, another door.” The doors here aren’t labyrinthine, they run in a straight line. It’s just that they stretch to perpetuity. And Tanning herself isn’t passing through, an Alice-like explorer, so much as holding the door for us - as if in invitation.

She spoke of Surrealism’s appeal to her being “the limitless expanse of possibility”. The show helpfully explains the door can be “a portal to the unconscious”. But why so many doors? Why would she also say things like “my wish is to make a trap (picture) with no exit for either you or me?” And in a related question, why all the interiors?

A friend once told me of a dream she had. She was trying to go outside, but every time she found an exit door and went through it, she’d find herself in a new interior. As she described it the effect wasn’t confining. Each time she’d be in public spaces, large enough that the new exit door needed some finding. But the effect of knowing there was no outside to be found was ultimately claustrophobic. Tanning seems to have a similar mood.

It also feels evocative of my childhood. Which was characterised by labyrinthine institutions, sprawling hotels, seemingly endless department stores to explore, rooms bigger than the whole bungalow I lived in, indoor spaces so large they switched on your outdoor senses. These were liminal spaces, a made world yet one I had no part in the making of. Hotels we can (at least temporarily) live in without their being our home, with us accepting some areas will be locked to us.

In fact the famous ’Eine Kleine Nachtmusic’, coming up shortly, is clearly set in a grand hotel, three-digit numbers on the doors like a pre-echo of ’The Shining’. Tanning later said: “At night one imagines all sorts of happenings in the shadows of the darkness. A hotel bedroom is both intimate and unfamiliar, almost alienation, and this can conjure a feeling of menace and unknown forces at play.”

As the show says “the movement explored the hidden workings of the mind, as a source of art and writing.” So of course it needed visual metaphors to convey all that. By challenging the indivisibility of the self, Freud had made it possible to conceive of the mind as having an architecture within it. The Surrealists took up this, along with Ben Johnson’s celebrated phrase “I contain immensities”.

So the you which you think of as you is just one small part of yourself. The whole of you is akin to a gargantuan sprawling mansion you can explore. It contains rooms, and inhabitants of rooms, you’ll come across as if they were strangers to you.

But this is double-edged. Even if that mansion is gargantuan, its also finite. Its limits are, after all, the limits of yourself. So Tanning’s work is simultaneously grandiose and confining, liberating and oppressive. In an ostensible self-portrait she becomes a threshold guardian, offering us the route to understand ourselves.

‘Children’s Games’ (1942, above) has something of Surrealism as it’s conventionally conceived, art as a means of escape from humdrum, confining reality into imaginative realms. Art is a cake with a file in it, paintings are portals by which the girls can stage a prison break from consensus reality (represented by that iron-grey corridor). Further emphasised by the sky visible through the doorframe at the end.

Yet the violence of the image, which elides between a hung painting and ripped-off wallpaper, suggests not slipping into a charming faun-filled fantasy world but something far more sinister. The tear, the rupture, seems not a means to an end but the theme of the work. Like invoking a demon the girls bring the portal about, but are then subject to its sucking force. And then there’s the legs of the third figure, protruding into the scene but entirely ignored by the other two.

In my non-review of Mark Fisher’s ‘The Weird and the Eerie’, I described the weird as “the rip, the threshold torn open between dimensions... It disrupts out reality, but it exposes us to a higher reality.”

And the use of girls, as played up in the title, may not be incidental. George Bataille, the ‘underground’ Surrealist, recalled being in infant’s school and seized by the desire to rub his ink-stained hands over his classmates’ white shirts. From there he theorised that art was all about despoilment, about the urge to break down the pure state of things. Creation could only be brought about by destructive means. (And let’s remember Surrealism stayed close to its older sibling, Dada.)

‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ (1943, above) is something of a ‘greatest hit’ for Tanning, inevitably made the poster image of the show. It seems a sequel to ’Children’s Games’, with repeated but reworked elements. The torn portals have become doors and some of the features of the two girls have swapped over. (But still, for example, one’s hair flows up and the other’s down.) But mostly, the ‘dead’ third girl has morphed into the sunflower.

Almost every account I read described the sunflower as menacing the girls. But, guys, just look at that scene! It’s laid out on the carpet it's the victim! Sunflowers of course need sun, and perhaps that narrow shaft of light is just enough for it to feebly raise a few petals like the dying man’s head in movies.

As the out-of-place ’surreal’ object the flower grabs the attention. But it would make more sense to see the girls as menacing it. The blonde has a pulled petal in her hand. Yet the other looks to it with the impassive curiosity of childhood, with the trails of her dress seeming to extend its stem. Perhaps her hair flies up as its energy flows into her. Perhaps this takes place in a world of windowless corridors, where everyone is flighting over those slender shafts of light. Tanning also created the lithograph ’The Seven Spectral Petals’ (1950) of a sunflower with missing petals, this time with a knife and fork beside it.

However, we should remember the hotel is chosen as a setting for a psychodrama. And we should think back to ‘Magic Flower Game’, which mapped a similar conflict onto a single, shifting figure. This is no an outer but an inner confrontation, out of which a winner is unlikely.

And Tanning’s own ‘explanation’ (“It's about confrontation… there are always stairways, hallways, even very private theatres where the suffocations and the finalities are being played out, the blood red carpet or cruel yellows, the attacker, the delighted victim…”) carefully avoids spelling out who is the attacker and who the “delighted” victim.

In ’Self-Portrait’ (1944) Tanning unusually painted both a naturalist scene and a landscape. Yet she inserts herself in a desert scene in a bathing costume, the proverbial fish out of water. She had recently moved with Ernst to Arizona. But while he (who often painted landscapes) found inspiration in the cavernous open spaces, she acknowledges it here only to say it holds no interest for her. She simply continued with her interiors, ’Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ having already been painted there. “I think I could live anywhere if allowed to create freely,” she commented. “My personal space is so richly furnished.”

In fact a credible argument could be made that all her imagery at this time came from her early domestic life. Perhaps her art stirs in me such strong feelings from my childhood because it came so much from hers.

Take for example ’A Family Portrait’ (1954, above) which shows a man, a woman a maid and a dog. (The absence of a daughter presumably because we’re taking her perspective”. But, though they’re painted realistically in pictorial space, they’re sized according to symbolic importance. The maid barely comes in ahead of the begging dog.

And, while he looms over the picture, the Father is an eyeless, ghostly apparition. Yet the whole picture seems oriented round his orange tie, the brightest thing in the frame. “Just wait till your Father gets home” is linked to the psychological concept of phallocentrism, where the penis is turned into a magic object which imposes order. Usually reluctant to analyse her work, Tanning called it “a comment on the hierarchy within the sacrosanct family”.

And the white Sunday-best tablecloth appears in other works, such as 'Some Roses and Their Phantoms’ (1952). Tanning’s upbringing had been 
strict and Lutheran, and she came to see that tablecloth as another totem of power. “The great gleaming white tablecloth… made a gentle grid from end to end. The grid surely proved that order prevailed in this house.”

Turpentine Ambiguities

By the mid-Fifties Tanning had abandoned her Surrealist style for something much looser, and clarity of image for something much more diffuse and ambiguous, made with thinned-down paint. (Though they can look like watercolours, they’re oils.) She said at the time “I wanted to make a picture you didn’t see all at once. All of my pictures of this period I felt you should discover slowly”. And they’re paintings which could only be paintings, which couldn’t be done in any other media.

It’s great that she didn’t get stuck in some Surrealist production line. However, the notion is better than the realisation. Too easily they become like the Surrealist works the other way up. They first look challenging but then all-too-familiar elements resolve - a head, an arm and so on. But it’s like listening to a long distance phone call. If it takes a while to work out what’s being said, it doesn’t make those words worth hearing.

Though with ‘Even the Young Girls’ (1966, above) the intent works well. We can see three figures suggested, one hold, one pink, one almond brown. The central one could be a sketch for a Moore sculpture. Yet rather than be set against a background, the figures themselves seem to dissolve into it. Which itself hints at further figures.

While the later ’Daughters’ (1983, above) sets those convoluted, plasticated figures (one sporting a double elbow) in the solid domestic setting of ’A Family Portrait’. They look as though they’re trying to bust out of the picture frame as much as from the setting. But this time the wallpaper tears less readily and they are thrown back on themselves.

”Wild Desires”

By the mid-Sixties Tanning had moved to Paris and begun to make “soft sculptures” sewn from fabric, most commonly of distortions of the human form. The show describes these as “playful sinister and erotic. They straddle the division between object and being, inanimate and alive.”

Tanning herself said: “I don’t see why one shouldn’t be fascinated by the human form… we go through life in this wonderful envelope. Why not acknowledge that and try to say something about it? What I try to say is transformation.”

Yet, compared to the works from the classic Surrealist era, they seem at least as much about entrapment, as if we’re caught within those envelopes. She also said the works came “out of rage”. Writing in the Standard, Matthew Collings says “the sculptures deliberately never entirely cohere as humans,” as if they’re body parts somehow left to fend for themselves.

For example ‘By What Love’ (1970, above) shows a figure, rather deliberately conflated with a penis, not only chained to a post but twisted around itself. (A study drawing shows the threading was originally intended to start with parted hair then work all the way down, which was perhaps too hard to realise in this medium.) Those legs, if they 
even are legs, could not possibly walk away.

And this is underlined by the short film ‘Insomnia’ (1976), which features repeated shots of Tanning carrying a soft sculpture up a stairway (still above), until it becomes Escher-like.

While almost all the figures are single, ‘Embrace’ (1969) puts two together - to rather disturbing effect! It’s simultaneously a grittier and more cartoony version of King Kong taking off Fay Wray. That ape arm obscuring much of the pink figure’s head, and her exaggerated calf muscles which almost match her bum, reduce her to a collection of body parts. The way she’s curved back on herself suggests the way we fold cumbersome objects, the better to carry them.

Made on a sewing machine, the soft sculptures inevitably become framed (and possibly frame themselves) as “women’s art” in a way a painting or print could never be. And co-curator Alyce Mahon has spoken of challenging “the old idea of Surrealism just being about the objectification of women”.

Yet we should be wary of finding the answer we want. Tanning’s art isn’t assertive, instead it seeks to undermine and defamiliarise. These could be closer to the being-as-trap theme of Francis Bacon’s work from this era, existential rather than socio-political. And while we might see a Me Too moment in ’Embrace’, a Surrealist might simply cheer on the realisation of desire.

”An Odd Banality”

Tanning’s installation ‘Hotel Du Pavot, Room 202’ (1970/3, above) is reconstructed for the show and becomes a highlight of it. We’re back to the liminal interiors of ’Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ and ’Children’s Games’. But the shaft or square of light has been reduced to a dim, bare bulb with barely penetrates the room. Tanning referred to it as possessing “an odd banality”.

On first sight, some shapeless creature is invading the room through the fireplace. We might be reminded that a fireplace had already been used as a threshold in ‘Magic Flower Game’. Or that King James I’s 1597 book on Daemonologie suggested magical protective inscriptions be put beside apertures to keep at bay malevolent forces, and such inscriptions have since been found by fireplaces.

Yet two other figures, in the same shade of brown, have already entered the room and look to be fusing with the furniture. This force invades the room, only to become the room. Just like human and vegetable earlier, the monstrous and the domestic fuse. Imagine some Cthulhu creature who invades our reality only to seat himself in an armchair and peruse the paper, only all the time retaining his other-worldly menace. The Sunday where nothing happened, the demonic version.

As this breaks in, the two pink figures look to be busting out through the walls. We might also remember that in ’Embrace’ the masculine was coded brown and the pink feminine. As well as the two wallpaper-tearing girls from ’Children’s Games’. Except when we look again, one is bursting out, through the far wall, and the other in, through the right wall.

In fact, this doesn’t look to be a reappearance of the two girls at all. It seems more consistent that we see one woman. As she bursts out, she simultaneously comes back into the room, like a tunnelling prisoner coming back up in his own cell. As ever with Tanning, there is no outside here. Domesticity is all there is. But that domesticity is also a trap.

After ’Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ and ’Children’s Game’, we’ve moved from a corridor to a room. And that’s significant. They suggested the barriers between the unconscious and conscious could be broken down. Perhaps only by great violence and at personal risk, but still possible.

‘Hotel du Pavot’ is like an older, wiser, more world-weary rebuttal of such youthful high spirits. Their numinousness, their sense of adventure and exploration, is gone. Leaving just the claustrophobia. Surrealism was another Modernist movement uninterested in depicting the world, either the waking world or the world of dreams. Instead it sought to change that world. And, like most attempts to change the world, it didn’t.

It’s perhaps become too easy to dismiss Surrealism. History has dropped it, with its faults and failings on the side facing us. Dominated by Andre Breton, it became strangely doctrinal for a movement dedicated to liberating desire. And not just its imagery but its credos became too easily taken up by advertising art, which exulted in disocvering how easy and how lucrative it was to bypass people’s reason. Surrealism became part of our contemporary world, much more so than something like Constructivism. And we haven’t even started on the misogyny.

Yet this show comes along to remind me of just why and how much I loved Surrealism in the first place, before I learnt to be all smartypants and ‘post-ironic’. A great show for a great artist.

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