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“Women artists. There is no such thing — or person. It’s just as much a contradiction in terms as ‘man artist’ or ‘elephant artist’.” So Dorothea Tanning, born 1910, insisted throughout her very long life — she died in 2012, far enough into the 21st century to see the transformation of art history by gender studies and identity politics: precisely the concepts fuelling interest in her work now.

At Tate Modern’s new retrospective, the first to explore her seven-decade career, it is clear why Tanning is perfect poster girl for the museum’s attempts to nuance, broaden and diversify the 20th-century canon. Tanning was at once composer of iconic images, a multimedia experimenter whose unchanging subjects are women’s dreams, fears and domestic conditions, and she lived to an age advanced enough to allow claims — as for recently anointed stars Maria Lassnig, who died aged 94 in 2014, or 103-year-old Carmen Herrera — for a late style somehow connected with female longevity.

Only part of this holds up. An American woman confronting male-dominated European surrealism in 1940s New York, Tanning created in the movement’s jewel-like, exact style some very compelling, memorable paintings, imbued with Freudian symbols. Most famous are “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”, depicting two doll-like girls in silk and taffeta on a hotel landing with an enormous sunflower, so dynamically painted that it seems to sway and slither along the red-carpeted corridor lined with doors, and “Birthday”: a self-portrait in a theatrical lacy costume, skirt trailing seaweed, with a winged lemur, emblem of the spirit world, before an infinitely receding passage of opening doors. Max Ernst, Tanning’s future husband, suggested the title to mark Tanning’s birth as a surrealist.

Tanning's 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' (1943) © Tate/DACS, 2018

Over the next half-century, less famously, Tanning went on to make soft textile comic/menacing figures: the twisting pink flannel and fur-covered couple in “Étreinte” (Embrace); a round belly emerging from a froth of dirty lace in “Emma”, named for Flaubert’s frustrated Madame Bovary; a pink fabric nipple on a stick, like a lollipop, “Traffic Sign”. These, dated 1969-70, are the revelations at Tate, and connect Tanning both to prominent 1960s-70s feminist avant-garde artists working with textiles — Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama — and to fashionable contemporaries: Sarah Lucas, Cathy Wilkes.

This area of Tanning’s practice reached its peak with the claustrophobic room-sized installation “Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot” (1970-73): fabric mannequins breaking through the wallpaper, merging into the furniture. Tanning wanted us to feel that “the wallpaper will further tear with screams” within a setting of “odd banality”.

'Etreinte' (1969) © The Destina Foundation, New York/DACS, 2018

Fabric and interior decor haunt this exhibition, as they haunted Tanning’s childhood in rural Illinois “where nothing happened but the wallpaper” and Tanning’s wistful mother dressed her daughters in fanciful lace and velvet costumes. Every Sunday, a white cloth was neatly folded over the table for the pastor’s visit: “the grid surely proved that order prevailed in this house”.

Tanning would undo that linen grid in paintings indebted to surrealist games of scale and the uncanny crossed with the familiar. In “Portrait de Famille”, the paterfamilias, a huge looming face and bust, in glasses, suit and tie, spreads across a depiction of a well-laid table; he dwarfs a rigid, blank-looking girl and even smaller serving woman trying to appease an outsize dog. This anticipates Bourgeois’s blazing sculptural installation “The Destruction of the Father”, though Tanning has none of Bourgeois’s fire or formal inventiveness.

'Birthday' (1942) © Philadelphia Museum of Art/DACS, 2018

She does, though, in early paintings have joy. In “A Very Happy Picture”, the familiar cloth unravels in a whirl of silvery dynamic, jagged folds which enwrap and pull together a nude woman, body bursting into a bouquet of red roses, her face only visible as smiling red lips, and a man pierced with an umbrella pointing at her genitals. It is a daring, delightful metaphor for rippling female sexual pleasure and fantasy painted soon after Tanning’s marriage to Ernst in 1946.

It was a long, contented relationship, and maybe freed — or forced? — Tanning to consider more clearly the nature of patriarchy. But it did not sustain her strengths as a painter. From the 1950s, as her canvases got bigger, her flair for tight composition evaporated, brushwork loosened into more gestural, flowing strokes, then into a winsome abstracted manner, unconvincing in its overworked efforts of sensuous surface, as in the all-over flailing limbs “Même les jeunes filles” (1966) or the feeble bodies rising through billowing white cloth in “Poppies” (1987).

'Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202' (1970-73) © Centre Pompidou/MNAM-CCI, Dist/RMN-Grand Palais/Philippe Migeat/DACS, 2018

Occasional later sculptures, where Tanning uses fabric rather than depicts it — the black velvet “Pincushion to Serve as a Fetish” (1979) — retain glimmers of surrealist ambiguity and formal meticulousness, but Tate does Tanning’s reputation no favours by swamping her few significant works with rooms of shockingly poor, thematically over-obvious paintings. A show half this size would have been twice as impressive.

To June 9, tate.org.uk

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