Progression of Art
Self Portrait shows Tanning as a young woman with her head on her hand looking out at the viewer in a typically reflective artist's pose. Her drawing shows good technical skill and gives special attention to the detail of her hair. The isolated study of the eye to the left of the page is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the picture and links to Surrealist tendencies that would later emerge. Both André Breton and Salvador Dalí were interested in eyes, and often particularly in the disembodied eye - as in the case of illustrations included in Breton's novel, Nadja (1928). Attention is drawn to the eye as a window to the unconscious world, but also by seeming contradiction, as the organ wrongly attributed to sight. For to 'see' into the depths, as is demonstrated by Tanning and by other Surrealist artists, is actually a more complex and internal process.
Graphite on paper
Birthday is a seminal work for Dorothea Tanning; it is the work that saw her noticed by the likes of Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim, it placed her strong individual character firmly on the artistic stage, and introduced motifs that would recur throughout her career. She paints herself in the foreground of a room that recedes to become an infinite passageway of many open doors. Her costume combines nature and culture as her skirt grows with seaweed-like foliage whilst the blouse from which her breasts peak out recalls aristocracy, made of silk and lace. Next to her feet is an animal familiar that has been identified by art historian, Whitney Chadwick, as a winged lemur. Lemurs have long since been associated with the night and with the spirit world. As a symbol of the unconscious released through dream, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Valentine Hugo have all also depicted the magical lemur.
Indeed, this self-portrait by Tanning has much in common with Carrington's Self-Portrait (c.1938). The two paintings fuse together fantasy and reality as the lone artist is portrayed in only creaturely company. Both images present otherworldly framing devices; the door in the case of Tanning and the window in the case of Carrington, and ultimately both herald the significance of a woman's creative and visionary powers. The organic growth that entwines to make Tanning's skirt bears reference to her portrait of the same year, Arizona Landscape, as well as to an earlier portrait of another woman, Deirdre (1940), whose hair is replaced by leaves. Robert Motherwell photographed Tanning herself wearing a crown of leaves in 1945. Like that of her skirt in Birthday, this tentacle/antennae-like feature at once suggests connection to higher realms but also hauntingly recalls a crown of thorns, therefore uniting the pains and joys of life.
Oil on canvas - Philadelphia Museum of Art
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is another relatively early work for Tanning, painted with figurative perfection and an obvious closeness to Surrealist themes. Set in the hallway of a hotel or large grand house, the title of the work is inspired by Mozart's composition of the same title, "a little night music." Knowing that it is a nocturnal scene we immediately associate the picture with a dream. There are two little girls, one who has come across a giant sunflower on the floor, and another who leans against a door, eyes closed holding one of the sunflower's petals. One of the girls has hair that flies upwards, becoming tower-like caught in the wind. While the other girl recalls controversial sculptures by Hans Bellmer, as her hair unusually doesn't quite meet her forehead making one question whether she is in fact human or a doll. Three doors remain closed whilst one is cracked to reveal a bright light.
The painting makes clear reference to the artist's childhood. Along with her sisters she lived in a repressive puritanical Midwestern American environment and cultivated a rich fantasy life by means of escape. The sunflower is a common flower found in her hometown and thus stands as symbol of her identity. As also in a later painting, Palaestra (1949) the children are dressed in the elaborate silks that were favored by Tanning's mother. In both paintings the girls have their tops unbuttoned adding eroticism and sexual intrigue to each of the images. Tanning wrote herself of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, "It's about confrontation. Everyone believes he/she is his/her drama. While they don't always have giant sunflowers to contend with, 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..." The message here is not that there is a literal attack to overcome, but rather an ongoing expedition to survive one's own intense psychology. The motif of closed eyes reveal that it is an inward story here at play, and the painting in composition was likely inspired by Pierre Roy's Danger on the Stairs (1927) that Tanning would have seen in New York at the "Fantastic Art, Dad and Surrealism" exhibition of 1936.
Oil on panel - Tate, London, United Kingdom
Tempête en Jaune (Tempest in Yellow)
During the mid-1950s, Tanning experienced a dramatic stylistic shift. Described as the moment when she "shattered the mirror", the artist dispersed prior detailed scrutiny of her own individual childhood into a more collective experience of life's energy communicated through abstraction. Tempête en Jaune maintains Tanning's signature sunflower palate and whirling cloth-like movement, but here an overall feeling of dream is conjured up, rather than specific emblems explored. Upon close inspection, a closed-eyed figure does remain enveloped in the haze, but her forehead has expanded to become a multi-faceted prism of color and light. There is a parallel here to be made with the dynamism of Futurism, the art movement connected to Henri Bergson's philosophy that privileged ideas of flux, immediate experience, and intuition.
The painting marks the convergence of Tanning's early and mid-career styles, and marks a move away from the typical Surrealist dreamscape to a fragmented abstraction more akin to the visual representation of music or general emotion. Tanning herself said of this phase in her career, "my canvases literally splintered. Their colors came out of the closet, you might say, to open the rectangles to a different light. They were prismatic, surfaces where I veiled, suggested and floated my persistent icons and preoccupations, in another of the thousand ways of saying the same things."
Oil on canvas - Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Pincushion to Serve as Fetish
Pincushion to Serve as Fetish is one of Tanning's early sculptural pieces. A funnel, sawdust, and wool have been covered in black velvet and stuck with pins. There is an open end that recalls an orifice whilst the general form resembles a sea creature made strange. Covered in tactile material, the object makes reference to Meret Oppenheim's iconic Fur Teacup (1936), and pierced by pins it looks forward to pains shared by Louise Bourgeois.
As a 'fetish', the object is believed to have supernatural or divine powers. The act of piercing the article with pins is a way of ritualistically releasing and simultaneously connecting with a human life force and nature's rejuvenating energy; it is a way of meditating upon our existence. Equally though, the piercing may suggest sorrow, like Frida Kahlo's The Broken Column (1944), the work could point towards inner suffering. As there was for Bourgeois, there may also be a sense for Tanning that the act of sewing such an object brings with it a process of emotional repair.
Velvet, plastic funnel, metal pins, sawdust and wool - Tate, London, United Kingdom
A later sculptural piece by Tanning, Nue Couchée introduces her weighty, contorted and headless figures. Although the title translates to 'Reclining Nude' the work stands in defiant subversion to the traditional languid and passive reclining female sitter of classical painting. The sculpture resolutely confronts outdated fantasy projections of the female body and instead presents a woman entangled and overcome by complex and invisible interior psychic forces. Tanning uses table tennis balls to highlight the delicate backbone and pink fabric to evoke a fleshy bodily mass. At once heavy, anthropomorphic and still, the form also lies vulnerable, creaturely and ready to scurry or shuffle away.
Cotton textile, cardboard, 7 table tennis balls, wool and thread - Tate, London, United Kingdom
Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202
Her only large-scale installation works, Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 was created for a retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1974. Two similar fleshy pink torsos to that of Nue Couchée climb the walls and rip through the wallpaper, whilst others, similar to recent works by the British artist Sarah Lucas, sprout limbs from the table and chairs. As a memory chamber reminiscent of Louise Bourgeois' cells, the room presents a strong feeling of confinement. Human presence merges with inanimate objects, perhaps to illustrate a state of boredom or from the desire to disappear from repressive circumstance.
Art historian Victoria Carruthers suggests that the piece was inspired by a popular song known to Tanning in her childhood, "the song laments the fate of Kitty Kane, one-time Chicago gangster's wife, who poisoned herself in room 202 of a local hotel." Tanning remembered the following verse:
In room two hundred and two
The walls keep talkin' to you
I'll never tell you what they said
So turn out the light and come to bed.
Indeed, the work does point towards the possibility of physical violence experienced by women and simultaneously laments and berates this. However, it is the mystery of what has happened and also the fact that actual trauma works well as a tool to expose mental struggle that is more poignant.
Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls - Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
By the late 1990s, Tanning's focus had shifted again from painting, to sculpture, to poetry. By this time she was living in New York, having returned from France after Max Ernst had died. Tanning had some hand-stretched canvases that had been in storage since her life in Paris. She recalls how this particular purple flower came to her as, "a vision", and in turn led to the creation of a series of twelve similarly abstract flower paintings. The series were exhibited together two years later in a show called "Another Language of Flowers" in which Tanning incorporated her new found love of poetry by inviting 12 poets to write poems to accompany each of the paintings. Her good friend, James Merrill, provided the verse to compliment this image.
All of the flower paintings glow with soft and illuminating depth. There are often areas of dark void complimented by golden highlights. At once suggestive of female genitalia and the far away cosmos, the work of Georgia O'Keeffe becomes an obvious reference at this late point in Tanning's career. The women's flower representations are equally meditative as they both quietly and powerfully uncover secrets that lie in the creases and in between the folds.
Oil on panel - Dorothea Tanning Foundation, NY