Monstrous plants, creepy dogs with baby faces, adolescent girls, doors as a portal to the unknown. The mysterious world of the American painter Dorothea Tanning is on show at Tate Modern in London. This is the first large-scale survey in 25 years of the artist known for her links with Surrealism, the cultural movement born in Europe in the mid-1920s that rejected a rational view of the world and tapped the creative power of the unconscious: a world of dreams, nightmares, altered states and unexpected encounters. Tanning was one of only a handful of female Surrealists who gained recognition in their own right. For male Surrealists, women were usually objects. Tanning’s women are independent explorers, visionary figures confronting the unknown. “I like the work of Dorothea Tanning because the domain of the marvellous is her native country”, said Max Ernst, the German surrealist painter in 1944. If her subjects inhabited the domain of the marvellous, it was because they were on the run from the domain of the banal. She often painted interiors: the dining table, the bedroom, the hallway. In her hands the domestic is upturned, unstable. It becomes peculiar and dangerous.
Dorothea Tanning was born in 1910 in Illinois and lived till she was 101. During her long career, she also worked as a sculptor and, later in life, became a poet and writer. She was already establishing herself as an artist when she saw the exhibition, “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936. It featured the work of Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim, whose famous fur-lined cup made its American debut. She would later describe the exhibition as “momentous” and said it gave her the confidence to carry on and “do what I’ve always been doing.” In the early 1940s, the owner of Tanning’s gallery introduced her to a group of surrealists who had been forced to leave Europe during the second world war. One of these émigré artists was Ernst, whom she married in 1946. They would stay together until his death in 1976.
Tanning’s take on Surrealism was unruly and highly personal. In her autobiography, she described her paintings as “pirate maps, diagrams for mutiny”. Her imagination was fuelled by her childhood in small-town America and her interest in Romantic literature, Gothic novels and dance (she produced costumes and sets for four ballets with the choreographer George Balanchine). In the middle of her career she began to distance herself from Surrealism’s signature precision. Whereas in her early paintings she created the components of her worlds from meticulous observation, skewing the familiar into the fantastical, her later works became abstract and fragmented. The paintwork loosens. The settings disappear. Edges shimmer and blur. Canvases get bigger. Figures remain, but fracture into colour and light. “My canvases literally splintered”, said Tanning, describing this break with Surrealism. Much of her singular inventiveness evaporated with that splintering. More successful – and stranger – were the soft sculptures which she focused on for a decade in the 1960s and 1970s: anthropomorphic, erotic forms that feel like hybrids of bodies, plants and objects. In her final years, she re-invented herself once again, producing her first novel, “Chasm”, at the age of 94.
“A Very Happy Picture” (1947)
This picture, painted around the time Tanning and Ernst got married, is a veritable vortex of surrealist elements. An ectoplasmic veil or sheet whips up the scene, which looks as if it’s set in a cavernous railway station. A naked boy perches on a suitcase, holding an umbrella, as he observes wedding ceremony gone mad. On an easel nearby stands a painting of three smoking factory chimneys. The happy couple are part swathed, part dismembered by the veil. A tight bouquet of roses hovers above the bride’s genitals. Her red lips smile through a gash in the cloth.
When Ernst first visited Tanning’s studio, he was particularly struck by this self-portrait. It shows the artist standing on a threshold, half-dressed in a costume made of roots and lichen. She is stark, self-possessed and poised. An infinite procession of doors opens into the distance. A strange, winged creature – dog, lemur or demon? – stands beside her like a witch’s familiar. As a domestic interior, it is distinctly hostile. The house for Tanning is never a place of safety. As she would later write in a poem: “All homes are home; mirages everywhere. Aside from gravity, there are no limits, never were, nor will there ever be…”
“Some Roses and Their Phantoms” (1952)
This is one of the most arresting paintings in the show. It’s like no still life you have ever seen. Desiccated plants – or are they creatures? – meet on a pure white tablecloth, crisply unfolded. It’s gorgeously painted: the folds of the cloth fall in a grid. Tanning’s talent was to spin her observations of the domestic into something seriously otherworldly. In a note which accompanied the picture, she wrote: “Here some roses from a very different garden sit? lie? stand? gasp? dream? die? – on white linen…As I saw them take shape on the canvas I was amazed by their solemn colours and their quiet mystery that called for – seemed to demand – some sort of phantoms.” The colour palette is tight and deathly: white, sepia, brown and black. Even the air seems infected. The wall behind is unstable and pustulant.
Tanning and Ernst lived for a decade in Arizona. Here, the Arizonan landscape is reduced to a sand-coloured wasteland that gives no shelter to the isolated mother and baby. As in her earlier painting, “Birthday”, there is an animal companion, a little Pekinese, but this time – most unsettling – it has the face of a child. Tanning painted the figure of a mother many times. This is one of the most savage. Over the mother’s belly, her nightgown is ripped to shreds.
“Room 7, Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202” (1970-3). Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls
In the mid-1960s, Tanning started to work with cloth, making soft sculptures that were sewn, tightly stuffed and padded. This is the only installation she ever made, for a show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The scene, with its seedy lighting, suggests a nightmare hotel. “Nothing happened but the wallpaper” said Tanning about the small town in Illinois where she grew up. Here the wallpaper is very much happening. Nudes rupture the patterned walls. Bulging figures dissolve back into them and the furniture is colonised by tendrils – Tanning was interested in the links between plants and bodies. The fireplace seems to be giving birth – but to what? The world is depicted as claustrophobic and suffocating – especially for women – but innately porous. The mind, fertile and creative, is always breaking through. This is the domain of the marvellous. The fantastical reigns. The familiar is estranged.
Dorothea Tanning Tate Modern until June 9th