I like Dorothea Tanning, as does my wife. The sunflower (above) is one of her favourite pictures, one that we have both admired in the permanent connection in the Tate along we went to the Tanning show at the Tate Modern. We were not disappointed. Its a great picture, with the weird skinny elfin figures and the enormous sunflower. The picture itself is quite small, but still packs a punch.
The best surrealist painting packs a strong visual image and also reminds you and feels like a dream. Birthday (above right) was one of my favourite paintings in the whole show. This is a self portrait of Tanning and although she is bare breasted it is not a sexual image but exudes strength, with the signature foliage draping down her back. This painting really spoke to me. I have had dreams in which I am confronted by a myriad of doors. Tanning too by the look of it. Also the small flying creature has more than a striking resemblance to my cat. Not only does it strike all these cords but the technical ability on display is fairly astounding. I like this painting very much.
The almost photorealistic dreamscape (if that isn't too much of a contradiction) continue for the first couple of rooms. I shall not show them all here but the Philosophers is worth looking out for. Tanning (or versions of her) feature in a number of them. So for instance you have these self portrait (above left) of this lonely figure in what appears to be nigh attire looking out a landscape that reminds me of Yellowstone national park. The misty lake floor and the hazy horizon make it a lonely place. I like the contrast between the grey and brown rocks.
Twists on a classic theme is something that happens in art a lot with varying degrees of success. Tanning pulls it of rather well with her take on a still life (above right) where all the flowers are dead and you have this odd and disturbing insect thing sitting on the table. I love the detail of the table cloth with its bumps and creases lovingly depicted. I also like the dead black rose rising above the rear of the table.
Doors. There are frequent doors in Tanning's paintings. Maternity is a theme she explored both in odd fabric sculptures (of which more later) but also in paintings in which a stunning example is above left. The construction is in some ways quite simple, figures, doors, sand and sky. Of course that is irritatingly reductive. Like her other paintings it brings about this odd sense of deja-vu, like you have experienced something strikingly similar. In the background, through the rear door is this assemblage of items looking like female undergarments. Then you have this trio of figures, the barefoot woman holding a baby and then this dog, with a human face (the dog appears in various paintings also). What particularly struck me is the ripped, almost ghoulish shroud-like feel to the woman's clothing. Its almost like the baby has ripped through it you know, like that scene in Alien.
Probably the high point of disturbing, more nightmarish than dreamlike is the Guest Bedroom (above right). Again beautifully rendered. There is allot going on here, the person in bed with their arm around a manikin, the naked elfin girl, the horrific dwarfish figure, their head obscured by what looks like a gas mask covering their head, then this looming death like apparition in the shadows in the background. It is somewhat striking. She is good a fabric is Tanning and shows this off with black, grey and beige coverings. I imagine there are reams written about the meanings in this painting. I prefer just to look at it and wonder.
Tanning lived for a long time. She die age 101. Later in her career she moved away from the realistic style to a more swirling and abstract style. The first one of these to great you is this flame coloured number (above left). It is very large and the central door is in fact a piece of wood, stuck to the middle of the canvas. The swirling yellow and orange is very eye catching and gives a dynamism to the piece. The message appears to be left is trying to get in and right is trying to keep her out. The style is so different it would not be difficult to believe it was by a completely different artists. To be honest I prefer the realist style but these more swirling pieces have something to offer.
Much more hellish is this swirling grey number (above right). Figures emerge from the mists including the dog previously mentioned and various odd people. It is one of those paintings where the more you look at it the more things and people you see.
You still get in these later works that same quality of reminiscent and dreams one has had. One of my favourite of these works is the one above left. Most of the painting is nearly black with swirls of misty red. Then emerging from the darkness is the zombie like hand scrapping the floor. The arm changes from vague to photorealistic. The blues and greens of the limb appeal to me.
Very different in tone at least but still recognisably the same tone is a sort of legs and eye combo. The eye seems to be one of a cat. Seems to be a number of sensual female forms. This becomes a trope of Tanning's later work, there is quite allot that is vaginal, occasionally quite explicitly so.
At the end of the last room is a large predominately green painting. Naked figures cavorting (are they cavorting) with their faces obscured by these swirling lights or possibly flower heads. The deep green colours greatly appeals to me and gives the impression that you are looking down into a pool, to see the nymphs therein among the reeds.
The exhibition was slightly oddly laid out in that in the Tate you usually enter one door, and through the various rooms, and out of the different. This time the last room was showing a tedious art film which I did not watch and so to escape you had to go back through the exhibition. I didn't mind this because I nearly always do this anyway. On my way out I looked at these well nearly pornographic entwined naked figures. I prefer the one on the right where there is the keyhole shape. The black lines striking up and across the scene lift it for me. They are a strong addition.
The other figure I really liked is a, well it's a figure. It is made of intertwining fabrics forming this hunched sad, monkish figure, chained to a pole. It is spooky and quite moving but a bit at odds with the rest of the show, which I found mostly joyful and uplifting, in you know quite a disturbing way.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.