Visible Women

The dark, intriguing legacy of surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning

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Hannah Keegan
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Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning’s work explores womanhood and imaginary worlds, but only now is it getting the recognition it deserves.

When the surrealist artist Max Ernst turned up at Dorothea Tanning’s door one evening, New York City was in the midst of a snowstorm. It was the winter of 1942 and Tanning was living in a sprawling, sparse apartment. As Ernst entered, she told him not to bother wiping his sodden shoes – there were no rugs anyway, hardly any furniture even.

She was 32 and had just moved in after a stint in Paris, where she had been feverishly trying to make it as an artist. Ernst was there to scout work for a surrealist exhibition titled Thirty One Women which his wife, the artist Peggy Guggenheim, was curating.

Tanning led him through to the back room of her apartment, where her painting waited. It was a self-portrait. In it, Tanning is nude from the waist up, looking out as a never-ending series of doors lie ajar behind her and a griffin sits at her feet. She has serious eyes, a head of ringlets and a silk skirt alive with creatures. Suddenly shy, Tanning tried not to meet his eye while he assessed it. Ernst was impressed enough to suggest she call it Birthday, to mark her birth as a surrealist painter.

Dorothea Tanning with husband Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning with her husband Max Ernst in 1955

This meeting marked the beginning of the most creative and romantic collaboration of Tanning’s life. She went on to marry Ernst (prompting Guggenheim to remark that she wished she’d kept the exhibition to just 30 female artists) in a joint ceremony with the artist Man Ray and dancer Juliet Browning four years later. Tanning and Ernst moved to Sedona, Arizona, where she spent one of the most creatively fulfilling periods of her life.

But the relationship eclipsed her career. “Her existence as an artist was dramatically compromised by her existence as Max’s wife, but love triumphs all,” she once wrote about herself.

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The photographer Lee Miller’s portrait of the couple in the Arizona desert in 1946 depicts this dynamic: Ernst appears as a giant, towering figure against the vast, rocky landscape while Tanning is dwarfed and doll-like, gazing up and looking somewhat helpless beside his image.

“We know for sure that Tanning was an incredibly accomplished artist who had a huge impact on the surrealist movement,” says Dr Catriona McAra, a curator at Leeds Arts University who has written extensively on Tanning.

“The very fact that she is not a household name is crucial, considering her skill. It’s time she is reconsidered on her own turf.”

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Dorothea Tanning
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943

Dorothea Tanning at the Tate Modern 

A new exhibition of her work at Tate Modern, her first major retrospective, is doing just that. The painting Birthday greets visitors as they enter the gallery, but the rooms that follow contain the works that established her as a force to be reckoned with beyond the confines of surrealism. During Tanning’s long life (she died in 2012 at the age of 101), she switched lanes restlessly: designing ballet costumes, painting, sculpting, and later in her life writing fiction and poetry.

But her work’s defining trait remained its ability to render the ordinary strange and otherworldly.

“Looking at Tanning’s work is like entering into another universe,” explains the exhibition’s curator, Ann Coxon. “She is interested in everything that lies behind and beneath the facade of the everyday.”

In the painting Eine Kleine Nachtmusik two girls and one giant sunflower appear to wrestle with supernatural forces in a long, dimly lit corridor lined with numbered doors. At the end, one door is open, spilling light into the painting. Tanning said it was about privately held nightmares. In La Truite Au Bleu a girl sits unbothered at a dining room table, while a shoal of poached trout swim around her legs.

A Mrs. Radcliffe Called Today by Dorothea Tanning,
A Mrs. Radcliffe Called Today, 1944

Art of darkness

According to Coxon, we are in a timely moment to appreciate Tanning’s take on the world. “In a digital age, there is a return to thinking about the dark forces that we let into our own domestic spaces – whether that’s through our phones or our televisions,” she says.

“There is something very Stranger Things about her work, which sees monsters coming out of the wallpaper and darkness reaching the teenagers of that community. With Tanning, these fears come to life, they become literal.”

Looking at Tanning’s often sinister depictions of the everyday, you would be forgiven for thinking she had a sad upbringing. But it was books, rather than domestic torment, that fuelled her art. She grew up in Galesburg, Illinois – quintessential Middle America – where she escaped into novels for excitement, and Lewis Carroll’s work in particular.

“In Alice In Wonderland, Alice is the one that calls out all the absurdity in the surrealism surrounding her,” says McAra. “She is a figure of knowledge and this is how Tanning saw the girls in her work.”

Dorothea Tanning, Self-Portrait, 1944
Self-Portrait, 1944

Darkhaired and striking, Tanning was aware of how her own image played into her art, too. “She famously said that she was born on a day of peril, which is a gothic self-image that she cultivated,” says Alyce Mahon, the exhibition’s co-curator. “There were storms, her mother was frightened, and so Dorothea entered the world.”

Tanning’s art also explores motherhood in detail, although she never had children herself. “Her work is ambivalent about it,” Coxon says. “In the painting Maternity, you have a very forlorn woman holding a baby in a barren landscape. This is clearly not a happy picture. There are also doors ajar, which suggests that motherhood is something she was considering.”

In her soft sculpture Emma, a pink, pregnant belly is swathed in white lace. “The piece is named after the protagonist in Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary,” says Coxon. 

“Emma becomes a wife and a mother and finds herself constricted by this bourgeois existence, so she has romantic fantasies of escaping. She’s a very tragic figure. Tanning was working through these issues through her work.”

Young Dorothea Tanning
A 34-year-old Tanning at Great River, Long Island, 1944

Dorothea Tanning and feminism

Despite her distinctly feminine themes, Tanning wasn’t keen on being called a ‘woman artist’ or indeed a feminist. This meant she was excluded from the reappraisal of female surrealists like Lee Miller, Frida Kahlo and Claude Cahun in the Eighties. In 1985, Tanning poked fun at this in her painting Woman Artist, Nude, Standing which depicts a naked woman stood with a bucket on her head, dissolving into the orange-tinged air around her.

“It parodies the narrative of being a ‘woman artist’,” says McAra. “She was ahead of her time in terms of gender politics, she didn’t want to be categorised. She felt it would limit her.”

In the final room of the exhibition, visitors sit to watch a short film of Tanning at work. “Come! Let’s go into the studio,” she beckons to the camera. “I’ll show you some new paintings.

“Just please,” she pleads, “don’t ask me to explain them.”

Now, with sketches of elaborate costumes shown alongside abstract works and surrealist landscapes next to towering fabric sculptures, her work is finally being enjoyed as she’d have liked: on her own terms.

Stylist is hosting a private view of Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern on Tuesday 9 April. To be in with a chance of winning a pair of tickets, click here

Main image: Dorothea Tanning in her studio, Paris 1968. Photograph Courtesy of The Destina Foundation, New York. 

Other images: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943, Tate (purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, 1997); A Mrs Radcliffe Called Today, 1944, private collection; Self-Portrait, 1944, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (purchase, by exchange, through a fractional gift of Shirley Ross Davis); Dorothea Tanning, Great River, Long Island, 1944, The Destina Foundation, New York © photographer unknown.

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Hannah Keegan

Hannah Keegan is the features writer at Stylist magazine.

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