On Dorothea Tanning

I don’t see why one shouldn’t be absolutely fascinated with the human form … we go through life in this wonderful envelope. Why not try and acknowledge that and say something about it? So what I try to say about it is transformation.

Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning: ‘The Philosophers’, oil on canvas, 1952

Having a UAL student card and a Whitechapel Gallery staff pass, I’ve been trying to make the most of never having to pay for art exhibitions in London ever again. So I went to the Tate Modern one Saturday night (avoiding the families) to check out the Dorothea Tanning exhibition. I stopped to see the shows on the Weimar Republic (which was great) and the Jenny Holzer artist room but the main attraction was Dorothea.

Which is funny because I had it in my head for ages that it was actually a Leonora Carrington show – which made me wonder how long I’ve confused the two artists. To be fair, they have very similar names, they look similar, are similar ages and lived a very, very long time, were both painters, lady Surrealists and poets, and both shagged Max Ernst. I mean, give my poor brain a chance.

Dorothea Tanning: ‘Notes for an Apocalypse’, oil on canvas, 1978

Anyway, as a result of actually separating the two in my mind, Leonora still wins out for me. I feel, maybe because she had a lot more shit happen to her and was British/Irish, she has a bit more edge, more grit, more depth, and slightly more consistent. Dorothea sometimes seems a bit whimsical, American, floofy, insubstantial, subject to dramatic change – no bad thing, but sometimes frustrating.

I felt, generally throughout the Dorothea retrospective, that there was something insubstantial about the curation as well. I have no problem celebrating and getting to know the artist as a person, but I sometimes felt, especially in the first room, there was an emphasis on the glamour of the woman as opposed to allowing yourself to be submerged in her work. Sometimes this was reflected through the wall text (everyone seems to hate Tate wall text) and through photographs, also through Dorothea’s own self-portraits and self-mythologising. There was an eery similarity between her painted self and her photographed self, as if she was painting herself from the same photo instead of from a mirror or her imagination. It was too consistent, with the repetition of a cartoon character.

Sometimes with retrospectives of female artists, there’s an urgency to inform the public why this person is important (she was pretty! She lived to 100 years old! She shagged Max Ernst! She did all these paintings!) and usually the depth of the artwork surpasses this, I just felt with Dorothea she remained the centre of the show and her work didn’t always transcend her. There were some works that I just didn’t think were that strong – though this may be because of the ‘space ship paradox’.

By this I mean the quality of being so mind-blowingly ahead of your time that your work is later copied and referenced to the extent that it becomes cliche itself. Like when you watch something like 2001: Space Odyssey, so far ahead in space age aesthetics, effects, techniques, that becomes so famous and replicated that when you finally watch the original you are already saturated with copies that you fail to see the originality, and the result is disappointing.

No one can argue that Dorothea Tanning was an incredibly prolific, original and talented artist, and was a real ground-breaker. It’s just this kind of worked against her in a greatest hits compilation like this show. At moments it felt more like a group show including Leonora Carrington, Louise Bourgeois and Sarah Lucas, and Tanning’s own personal voice became lost in a series of references of other works that look exactly the same but are more well known by other artists. Even though she probably had all the ideas long before anyone else. Yes, she did soft sculptures, Surrealist painting, installation, merged figurative and abstract – it’s just a lot of artists are better known for these things than she is. I’m still struggling to find her personality in a lot of the work she made.

Dorothea Tanning: ‘Heartless’, oil on canvas, 1980

However, what I can hear of her voice is endearing. She was a funny, warm, spontaneous, sensual lady. The film piece interviewing her in her studio was fabulous, I watched it several times. And there were many things about her work in the show that I did like.

I liked the recurring theme in her works of motherhood: there were several images of pregnant bellies and mothers holding babies. But though I’ve said Tanning’s work can tend towards the sweet, there was an underlying ambivalence about the psychological presence of these characters, about the state of maternity itself. You weren’t sure whether the mother was protecting or endangering the child, whether she was a moment away from abandoning it or destroying it. Who is trapped and who will escape? Obviously Tanning was childless but interestingly her reflections on this theme don’t seem to have much to do with a personal desire to be/not be a mother, but maybe more about creative output in general. Being an artist can be kind of like being a parent, at different moments your work can drain you and give you life.

I liked her lithographs, they were very beautiful, and I quite liked her ballet costume and set designs. It made sense to me that she would use the actual human body as a frame for her imagination and see her creations move through space. Maybe this formed a bridge between her painting practice and her sculptural later work, but I’m not sure of the exact dates.

To return to negatives though, generally though there was a strangely limited selection, of little tastes of moments in a long career. My favourite pieces were those images I’ve included in this post: I like the movement, seduction, dreamlike atmosphere and ambiguity of the way she merges human and abstract shapes, I think this period of 1970’s to 1980’s painting is fantastic and I would almost have rather just seen a show that looked really in depth at this period.

Tanning, over decades, created her own mythology of painting and symbolism. She made a god of her childhood pet dog, a world out of her dreams, a solace of beauty out of her love and pain, and a new language out of her distortion of the human form. I also hope over many years to replicate these achievements, and find strength in her success.

Dorothea Tanning: ‘Mean Frequency of Auras’, oil on canvas, 1981

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