Dorothea Tanning, who died on 31st January, was a long time surrealist painter and explorer of dream worlds. She first discovered Surrealism at an exhibition in New York in 1936, but rather than a revelation it was more of an affirmation of the kind of images which she had already instinctively been making. Max Ernst visited her New York studio in 1942, and fell in love with her over a game of chess. He persuaded his then wife, Peggy Guggenheim, to include one of her paintings in an exhibition of women artists which she was putting on, thus putting her in the grimly ironical position of promoting the person who would supplant her in his affections. They married in 1946 in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet Browner, each acting as the other’s witness. It was a partnership which would last 30 years, from their initial self-built home in Sedona, Arizona to various regions of France, where they moved in 1949 and remained until Ernst’s death in 1976. Whilst it was a happy relationship, it has cast her in his shadow in a view of art history still dominated by male figures. This unjust neglect was reflected in Lee Miller’s witty photographic play on perspective, in which a giant Ernst in the foreground appears to be pressing a miniature Dorothea, in the middle distance, into the desert ground as she looks up at him shaking her fist. This was no reflection on Ernst’s attitudes (although it was arguably prescient of Miller’s own future neglect), as he granted equal space for and encouraged her creative impulses. Rather it seemed to sum up critical attitudes, or more often than not, the lack of any serious attention at all. Sarane Alexandrian (he’s a bloke, by the way) typifies this dismissiveness in his Thames and Hudson book on Surrealist Art, commenting that ‘the influence of Max Ernst hastened her development towards surrealism’ and that her ‘artistic personality was to blossom as a result of her contact with him’, as if she was an adjunct to his genius, drawing from his vital essence. They did make a good photographic couple, it has to be said; she with her long dark hair and aquiline feaures, intelligent and sympathetic, he with his wild, artistic tufts of white hair and ascetic raptor beak. Tanning would be the subject of photographs, either alone or with Max, by the likes of Man Ray, Lee Miller, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Irving Penn, and also played a small part in Hans Richter’s 1957 film 8x8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements, alongside the likes of Jean Cocteau, Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, and Alexander Calder.
Sunflower LandscapeTanning’s paintings are filled with recurrent elements: doors opening onto mysterious spaces, sometimes multiplying into a profusion of potential portals; sheets and tablecloths, folded and scrunched up into suggestive forms (often looking like cabbages or lettuces) or laid out, ridged and gridded with sharp creases; roots and ragged, fluttering shapes, half material, half immaterial, like smoke or flame; unnerving children with blank stares, or women gazing into some far off distance, or focussed on inner worlds; mysterious interiors filled with suggestive objects; blue boats; and giant Pekingese dogs. In one disconcerting photographic collage, she depicts herself, lounging on a chaise longue with a peke on her lap, with a dog’s head. Perhaps most of all, she is associated with sunflowers, however, which exert a powerful and not altogether benevolent symbolic presence in her works of the early 40s. Sunflower Landscape of 1943 has a strange doll-like child in a pink night dress communing with a disturbingly anthropomorphised sunflower, which has green breasts, its distended trumpet of florets forming a protuberant face and its petals a mane of hair. She stands on a desert plain riven by a gaping crevasse on which giant stands of sunflowers rise beneath the star-flecked sky, lit by a moon which itself has been eclipsed by the face of another sunflower. Rapture from 1944 shows that her work could be as ecstatic as it could be disturbing and inward, however, its giant sunflower head hovering in a blue sky, casting its radiance over the wide expanse of the desert landscape below.
Tanning was friends with the ballet choreographer George Balanchine, and designed the sets and costumes for several of his productions. Bayou, from 1951, was particularly memorable, with its backdrop of bulbous, twisted trees draped with exaggerated pelts of Spanish moss painted in cool, moonlit blues looking like it could be an illustration for some Tolkienesque subterraenean world. In the 1950s and 60s, her work took on a semi-abstract quality, tonal studies in which female forms manifested themselves in fragmentary fashion. In the late 60s and 70s, she created sculptures made out of soft materials; entwined tangles of limbs and torsos, and gaping ragged toothed maws. They’re uncannily like some of the soft sculptures produced by Sarah Lucas, and included in the recent British Art Show. Tanning tends to place hers within larger installations, however, setting them within domestic contexts: in front of doors, emerging from stoves, exploding through walls or as pieces of furniture themselves. Fleshy forms and domestic spaces fusing in a suggestive way. Tanning continued creating throughout her latter years, and also turned to writing, like the similarly long-lived surrealist Leonora Carrington, who died last year (mining your subconscious is evidently a healthy activity). She produced memoirs, poetry and a novel, Chasm, published in 2004. This is a piece of desert gothic which seems to recreate her artistic vision in prose form. She was always fearsomely unfettered in her imagination, in much the same way that Angela Carter was. I can imagine them collaborating on an illustrated version of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann or The Passion of New Eve.
Eine Kleine NachtmusikThe Tate Gallery owns five pieces by Tanning, which show the breadth of her work and its development over the years. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) is the best known of her paintings. The hotel landing upon which its dream events are staged is mysterious in its very anonymity. The cracks in the walls seem more like folds, as if the whole structure is provisional, an interior set rapidly erected. The girl leaning exhausted against the door looks like she’s just wrestled with the animated sunflower, one of its petals grasped like a rag in her hand. The other girl still appears to be umbilically connected to its broken stems. Her hair flows upwards, as if the corridor has areas free of normal earthbound gravity, rather like sections of the passageways of the Hotel des Folies-Dramatiques through which the artist floats in Jean Cocteau’s film Blood of a Poet. They are both clothed in ragged strips of bundled and bunched white fabric. At the end of the corridor, following its red carpeted trail, a door is slightly ajar, a burning orange-yellow luminescence visible within, perhaps indicating the presence of more of these uncanny flowers. Some Roses and Their Phantoms (1952), which is currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, depicts the surface of a table, covered with a white cloth squared off by sharp creases and ridged by a landscape of folds. Folded and scrunched up forms lie on the surface or on a plate, either scrunched up napkins or leaf-head vegetables – cabbages or artichokes. A creature which is half folded napkin, half insect probes about it with long, jointed legs. Another scrunched up cloth or vegetable form peers over the edge of the table with one watchful eye. The brown, soil-coloured wall beyond is rent by tears which could also be folds. A Mi-Voix from 1958 is one of Tanning’s semi-abstract works, a study in greys and whites in which elements of the female form are made manifest in an angular, fractured style reminiscent of early cubism, organised around a central axial ‘stalk’ which could be vegetable, mechanical or a piece of furniture. Pin Cushion to Serve as a Fetish (1965) is one of her earlier soft sculptures, a black vehlvet form with an orange mouth (which could just as well be the other end, of course), with pins already stuck in. It looks like a more pliable version of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska famous modernist sculpture Bird Swallowing Fish (1914). Nue Couchee (1969-70) is another soft sculpture, this one of a reclining torso with distended, intertwining limbs, their rubbery elasticity offset by the sharp angularity of the elbows. The nobs of the vertebrae in the back are created by table tennis balls stuffed inside. It’s a disturbing figure which you never want to see shifting into It’s a disturbing figure which you would never want to see shifting into alternately jerky and sinuous motion, like the spirit of Sadako crawling out of the TV screen in Ringu. Not that this seems likely with this inert, floppy form, which resembles some pitiful discarded reject from an experiment in gene splicing. Maybe in your dreams, however, crawling across those suggestively folded and crumpled sheets.