Art Review: Dorothea Tanning, Tate Modern ‘Sensuality and Surrealism in Equal Measures’


Of the big art exhibitions currently on display in London, this has to be my favourite. Why? Well, not only is Dorothea’s Surrealist artwork some of the most vibrant and emotionally intense of that genre, but this is also an exhibition that goes on to chart Dorothea’s artistic development through her soft sculptures and abstract work and on to her later poetry and writings. This is a show that demonstrates the brilliance and the breadth of Dorothea’s creativity, not just her more well-known paintings.

Too often, solo artist shows, whilst enjoyable, can (inadvertently?) end up demonstrating the extent to which some artists end up working on one tiny topic or in one medium their whole careers. Not Dorothea. She never stopped being curious, she never stopped examining the inner self and if that doesn’t impress you, well, I’m pretty sure the individual works will.

For those that do know a bit about Dorothea Tanning, you’ll be pleased to hear that the iconic Birthday, 1942, has been borrowed from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and it marks the entrance to this exhibition hanging, as it does, in the first gallery. And that is appropriate given that this surrealist masterpiece of endless doors – a reference to the doors of the mind – is often noted as Dorothea’s emergence as a Surrealist artist.

The painting, after all, did catch the attention of Max Ernst, whom Dorothea duly married four years later. And Max himself is often credited with having named the painting ‘Birthday’ as a declaration of Dorothea’s ‘birth’ as a surrealist artist. Condescending, clearly. And also marginalises Dorothea’s earlier works interrogating surrealism and ‘unknown but knowable states’, as she referred to it.

But there is no doubt that Birthday is something else. A self-portrait and more. The eerie sensuality of Dorothea’s exposed breasts contrasting with her insecure gaze, her skirt a swarming mass of tiny, agitated figures, the hybrid creature at her feet, and those endless doors… It is layered with psychological interrogation.

And it is this emotional resonance that links all her work. There is an intensity in everything she does. An emotional state that marks her paintings out from her (male) peers.

Take Self Portrait, 1944, which she painted only two years later. Here, Dorothea is an isolated figure, tiny in comparison to the vast desolate landscape that sweeps out in front of her. She keeps her back to us as, instead, she stares out across the wasteland. It is one of the most affecting depictions of isolation, insecurity and the solo journey you could wish to see.

Then contrast this with the barely contained sexuality of Children’s Games, 1942, where two young girls are ripping down an internal wall, revealing flesh and bodily protrusions underneath. Sexual energy unleashed. The fight against confinement and being compartmentalised and boxed by society.

Then compare this with the delicate Maternity, 1946-7, where – on the other side of those doors in the mind – Dorothea cradles a baby. Only this is no loving scene – the mother looks harassed, the baby is in grubby clothes, and all that lies before them is a desert. Hardly a grand advertisement for motherhood. No wonder she never had children…

There is much about female biology and women’s destinies in her earlier work. Yet by the 1950s Dorothea was exploring more abstract representations.

Her paintings became more blurred, figures less clear cut, and expression through colour rather than form swung to the fore. The figure was never completely abandoned, though. Instead bodies can be glimpsed merging into one another or morphing into the canvas itself. As Dorothea remarked, “I wanted to make a picture that you didn’t see all at once. All of my pictures of this period I felt you should discover slowly and that they would be almost kaleidoscopes that would shimmer and that you would discover something new every time you looked at it.”

(There’s even magic in Dorothea’s words – not that she left this craft pass her by as, years later, she would focus more on poetry as a medium of expression. “Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity,” is one of my favourite quotes of hers.)

Dorothea never stood still. No sooner had she started exploring these kaleidoscopic forms than she turned her hand to her sewing machine to create a series of soft sculptures – hand-crafted anthropomorphic forms that exist midway between bodies and objects.

Bending, curved limbs are discernible, but they go nowhere, attached to nothing. Instead what lands is this capture of movement, of a partial body mid-step. Their influence on the likes of Louise Bourgeois and Sarah Lucas is obvious. And their potent sensuality evident in titles such as, Pincushion to serve as Fetish, and Don Juan’s Breakfast.

(Side Note: I was blessed with an exhibition catalogue, which I will be vlogging about separately but there’s great writing in there on Dorothea’s influence on more artists including Francesca Woodman and Lucy Gunning too.)

Dorothea really let her imagination fly with these. The pieces range in size from the small to the monumental and they were made from just about anything going – fabric forms stuffed with wool, sawdust, cardboard…and fashioned with ping pong balls, jigsaw pieces and pins.

The Tate has, rather impressively, brought seventeen of these sculptures together marking the largest ever group of these ‘living sculptures’ shown together. But they’ve also gone a step further, displaying these alongside some of Dorothea’s paintings of the time and the echoes between the paintings and sculptures are clear and revealing.

The highpoint of Dorothea’s experimentation and exploration of these pieces came with Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202, an installation of a dingy hotel room whose walls are being destroyed by these soft sculptures bursting through the woodwork. The room was first unveiled in 1973, and it is wonderfully recreated in one of the galleries here.

In fact, there isn’t a room in this vast exhibition that doesn’t create a sense of wonder. There are over a hundred of Dorothea’s artworks on display in this, the first UK retrospective since Dorothea’s death in 2012. It is a great success and one that is a splendid testament to creativity and one very skilled creative.

Tate Modern, London, to June 9, 2019
Admission £13.

Image Credits:
1 Birthday, 1942. Oil paint on canvas 1022 x 648 mm. Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, US) © DACS, 2019
2 Maternity, 1946-47. Oil paint on canvas 1422 x 1219 mm. Private collection © DACS, 2019
3 Children’s Games, 1942. Oil paint on canvas 280 x 180 mm. Private collection © DACS, 2019
4 Dogs of Cythera, 1963. Oil paint on canvas 1950 x 2970 mm. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS, 2019
5 Étreinte, 1969. Wool flannel and fake fur stuffed with wool 1016 x 1028 x 482 mm. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS, 2019
6 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 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat © DACS, 2019

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  1. Posted by Hanne, at Reply

    Thanks a lot for the article post.Much thanks again. Fantastic.