Must-see: Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern
The curators at Tate Modern are to be congratulated for another exhibition in the main temporary gallery space dedicated to a gifted female artist. For the past decade or so the work of Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Sonia Delaunay, Anni Albers and now Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012) have been on display. Apart from their long, productive careers producing paintings, sculptures, prints and textiles all these female artists were active into older age.
The Tanning exhibition begins with the young American painter relocating to New York and managing to meet the older emigre Surrealists who had moved there to escape war-torn Europe. One such artist, the celebrated Max Ernst, had escaped internment camps in France and with the financial help of the heiress and gallerist Peggy Guggenheim (whom he married) reached safety in New York. Dorothea Tanning’s paintings from the 1940s include Birthday, (1942) a delicately painted self-portrait of the artist, bare-breasted in an extraordinary costume with a skirt of thorns. Ernst saw this painting while scouting female artists for an exhibition at Guggenheim’s new gallery, became enchanted by the beautiful, talented Tanning and this marks the beginning of their long relationship. After Guggenheim and Ernst divorced, he married Dorothea Tanning and the pair were together from 1946 to 1976, the end of his life. Her paintings of this period resemble in their mystery and careful detailed style those of other Surrealists. What is most interesting here are the rooms devoted to her later oeuvre. Her style of painting becomes more fluid and looser and a mixture of semi-abstract washes of colour and suggestions of figures give the impression of sensuality.
But the greatest achievement is the large collection of her soft sculptures, 17 in total, dating from the mid-1960s through to the early 1970s, which are showcased. They are of huge originality. Again sensual forms of writhing headless bodies and limbs constructed out of fabric which in their three-dimensionality are in a dialogue with the canvases hanging on the walls. The most impressive is the installation ” Hotel du Pavot, chambre 202″ (1970-73). This is a nightmare tableau featuring five sculptures. Two female forms break through the wallpaper of the dimly lit room. Brown tweedy figures extrude from the table, the couch (Rainy Day Canapé) and chimney hearth. The coup here, in my opinion, is the film in the final room of the exhibition which shows a cheerful, still captivating, 60-plus-year-old Dorothea Tanning discussing her paintings in her studio; but also at work at her Singer sewing machine creating these soft sculptures and stuffing the awkward-shaped limbs and torsos. There is a sequence where the artist is carefully placing the sculptures in her Hotel du Pavot room, and lugging a progression of these large objects up the stairs in her Provençal house. They all tumble down, followed by the couple’s long-haired brown dogs, and there’s a glimpse of the wispy, white-haired Max Ernst lurking in the shadows. After looking at the film I retraced my steps and looked again at the various sensual sculptures constructed with wool flannel, faux fur fabric, speckled tweed and velvet.
This is an eye-opening exhibition and a perfect introduction to a less well-known artist who happens to be female.
Dorothea Tanning is on at Tate Modern until 9th June 2019.