Review | Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern


Birthday (1942) hangs opposite the entrance to the first room. Tanning stands proud yet forlorn, shirt as open as the door which she holds, leading to a corridor of countless other open doors, a griffin crouching at her feet.

André Breton’s first Surrealist manifesto, written in 1924 primarily in Les Deux Magots café on Paris’s Left Bank, defined the movement as ‘the functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason’. Tate Modern’s retrospective of Tanning’s work spans her 70-year career and, her work put together in this way seems to be a timeline of thought itself, beginning with the hyperreal yet unsettling first surrealist works (many of which began as commercial illustrations), then moves to her more abstracted paintings, and finally her writhing and extensive range of soft sculptures. All this was created in her pursuit of ‘unknown but knowable states’.

Dorothea Tanning was born in 1910 in Galesburg, a small town in Illinois. She moved to Chicago and then New York, and then Paris in 1939, hoping to become one of the Surrealists that still gathered there after several versions of the Manifeste du Surréalisme, although she had to return to America on the outbreak of the Second World War. She famously had a relationship with fellow Surrealist Max Ernst, but this show does not overstate his influence over her work, refreshing when so many female artists have been seen to supposedly ‘transcend’ their gender with the help of their famous male partners. Tate’s shop sells Tanning’s favourite novels: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and it is easy to see the often disturbing influence of these classics of Gothic literature on her work. Warped bodies, distended faces, dark rooms and high ceilings culminate in soft sculptures, as if two-dimensional formatting had suddenly not been able to contain the energy and movement of her surreal figures. In the short video documentary, Insomnia (1978, directed by Peter Schamoni), shown in the very last room, Tanning’s voiceover addresses the criticism of the sculptures: ‘too bad they aren’t hard’, her critics apparently said. She replies, ‘you might as well have said, ‘too bad they aren’t dead”. Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970-3) is the perfect example of Tanning’s inability to contain or explain her unique form of reality; in a dark hotel room, the flat, formerly solid wall becomes anthropomorphic, growing and extending a half formed arm outwards, and then wrapping round a representation of a female torso.

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Poppy Hotel, Room 202), 1970-72

Tanning is greatly interested in the female body throughout both her paintings and her soft sculptures. The women in the paintings on display here, despite often being set together with other figures, seem lonely, with distant, wistful faces. Although the objects featured in her work represent a subconscious reality in the tradition of Freudian Surrealism, her faces are impossible to see beneath. The figure in Maternity (1946-7) holds a toddler, both of them dressed in creamy-white, the fabric torn, almost shredded, where her pregnant stomach is. The belly seems to have finally surfaced through the painting in the sculpture Emma (1970), placed opposite the painting, a bulging pink belly rimmed by Victorian-style lace. Her focus on the female role develops in the later work shown; 1954’s Family Portrait shows the patriarch of the anonymous family hovering and highly present, but with the soft edges and slight translucency of a ghost, and a mother barely reaching the height of the table, features squashed in an almost childish lack of realistic proportion.

On the right wall, Maternity, 1946-7

The glory and presence of the soft sculptures seem to lie in their vulnerability; the lines where Tanning joined the folds of fabric with her sewing machine are visible, in Nue Couchée (1969-70), ping pong balls are used to press against the surface of the fabric like soft vertebrae under skin.

The more the viewer spends looking at Tanning’s work the greater the feeling is of having walked through the door that she holds open in the first self-portrait, thinking some sort of meaning is grasped before it immediately slipping away through another doorway. The geometric folds of the surfaces painted into some of her work creates a feeling of reality folding in on itself, to a world where hair stands on end and sunflowers can look at themselves in black mirrors.

Words by Jessamy Gather.

The Dorothea Tanning exhibition at Tate Modern runs from February 27th — June 9th. For more information and tickets, visit Tate Modern

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