A Review of Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern, London

Courtesy of Tate Modern, London.

Courtesy of Tate Modern, London.


It felt like Dorothea Tanning found me, rather than the other way around. 

I had heard of a friend’s suicide days before seeing the exhibition, and could see this tragedy’s tendrils creeping through too many lives. But the chain-reactions this set off were not clean or comprehensible – they had spikes. Suicide creates an end-point. It alters the narrative forever – previous thought-patterns, hopes and dreams are recast in the light of this new information: they coagulate. But this resolution leaves you not with answer, rather a tangled mess of irresolvable questions. At first your brain erects mental structures to help you process what has happened; then, it needs to dismantle them, slowly, from within.

I was smack inside the aftermath of a five-year relationship and didn’t know what to do with my own feelings in response to this: what place did my quasi-grief have when set against the pit of real, dark, solid loss. Its finality. Its sharp edges. I tried to hold my emotions at bay – what right did I have to mourn, feeling at a distance from this tragedy’s epicentre; it felt queasily wrong to let his death trigger my own personal feelings of loss.

But, of course, one morning it all hit. Tears came with great dollops of relief at being forced to relinquish control and let waves of disoriented emotion wash over me. Fragile, teary, I found myself at the Tate, soothed by the vast anonymity of the turbine hall, walking into the first solo-show of Tanning’s work in twenty-five years.

Dorothea Tanning  Birthday 1942,  courtesy of Tate Modern, London.

Dorothea Tanning Birthday 1942, courtesy of Tate Modern, London.


The first thing you see is the self-portrait Birthday (1942). It has claws, and they hook you in. Birthday presents a process of peeling back layers – not only visualising phantasmagoric depths, but the interplay between these and the surface, rendered with naturalistic skill: pale skin, bare breasts, eyes looking impassively across your shoulder. Her dress, pulled taught like a tether around her waist, is falling away, morphing into sticky green fronds of nearly-human form. Behind are labyrinthine doors. In front, a winged gargoyle. Nothing is lost in the psyche. But much is hidden, at least from our conscious minds. This piece’s brilliance lies in how it navigates these different layers.

Tanning deals with drives; urges. She makes art for the depths. For the places in your psyche that you have to push yourself to find, but which are lying in wait to spring out if left unacknowledged. She wants to ‘plumb our deepest subconscious’ – ‘trawling the psyche to find its secrets’. 

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik deserves its iconic status. It is radioactively charged: a girl’s hair flicks up with demonic energy; a petal – imbued with this life-force – creeps down stairs; cracks appear in the walls of a muffled, carpeted hallway. It depicts the moment when, no longer to be kept at bay, our abandoned child-self is unleashed. This child, who we only see from behind, has a twin, with blonde hair and closed eyes: ‘grown up logic’ pitted against our ‘bottomless psyche’. The perpetual battle between containment and abandon that replays in different formations throughout our lives.

Grief’s pain is not localised. It does not wake up next to you in the morning and announce its presence, allowing you to size up its weight, mass, density. So it is easy to misplace, transpose, or attempt to shut away in a box. While these are vital survival techniques, moments of overspill are also life-saving: they are your psyche prodding you to acknowledge what has been hidden from view. In this there is relief, as well as something vertiginous. 

Dorothea Tanning  Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943,  courtesy of Tate Modern, London.

Dorothea Tanning Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943, courtesy of Tate Modern, London.


Tanning’s work isn’t ‘about’ loss – or any single concept – but its quest into the mind’s recesses makes it unusually able to reveal aspects of this multi-headed process. These pieces speak to you because of the supreme effort they put into the process of prizing open, and because of how far they reach. Tanning saw her role as active, muscular: she rolled up her sleeves to ‘trawl’, ‘plumb, ‘drag lines like ropes across one brink of reality after another’ until ‘a new world heaves into sight’. 

Her work does not only deal with the psyche’s painful corners. There is humour and sheer imaginative play throughout. Birthday can also be read as a statement of Tanning’s artistic intent: an ode to unbridled creativity. The pull it emits is beguiling and erotically-charged – no surprise that Max Ernst was captivated. The first time he and Tanning met, Birthday was sitting, completed, on an easel in her apartment. He had been scouting for his wife Peggy Guggenheim’s exhibition of female artists. Within years, he had left Peggy for Dorothea. 

Ernst gave this piece its name: to him it marked Carrington’s ‘coming of age’ as an artist. To me, Birthday’s virtuosity makes this comment patronising. Tanning’s work and life are too-often presented as an adjunct to this more famous Surrealist; she has been, perennially, ‘one of Earnst’s women’, also including Leonora Carrington. This retrospective of a monumental 70 year career begins to redress this imbalance.

Beyond its emotional intelligence, Tanning’s work is challenging. The early Surrealist pieces pushed me aesthetically. I had to force myself to revisit some, their depictions tugging at, and thereby revealing, the limits of my aesthetically sanitizing gaze. They do not aim to be decorative and they do not need you to like them; Tanning asks for more from you than that. 

Dorothea Tanning  Chambre 202 1970-73,  courtesy of Tate Modern, London.

Dorothea Tanning Chambre 202 1970-73, courtesy of Tate Modern, London.


From the mid-50s, she passed through the mirror that was actually a door and into a more abstract and ‘prismatic’ style: ‘I think I have gone over, to a place where one no longer faces identities at all.’ Huge canvases of crystalline and kaleidoscopic shapes, tracing outlines of grotesque bodies, ask the viewer to spend time deciphering ‘unknown but knowable states’. Aesthetically, these still push: the colours and figures have a quality that is a bit tacky, a bit over-boiled. It is intriguing, and prescient.

As you walk through the show, its roughly chronological sequence catches Tanning’s constant reinvention. Another swerve, when she starts sewing flannel and fake fur, stuffed with wool, into humanoid limbs. This is decades before Lee Bull’s cyborgs or Sarah Lucas or Louise Bourgeois’ textile figures. In the installation piece, Room 202, these fleshy sculptures rent through wallpaper in a reconstructed hotel room – inspired by Kitty Kane who married a gangster and poisoned herself in a Chicago hotel. 

Everybody should see this show – but in particular every woman who has experienced loss. You will find some of your emotional thickets given visual expression. I felt seen. Not only is it one of the most excoriating explorations of a female psyche I have ever encountered, it is also startlingly radical: concerned with flesh, bodies, motherhood, home, eroticism, fetish in ways that still subvert norms today. It depicts an imagination seemingly unhampered by artistic insecurity: video clips and interviews give a sense of Tanning the person doing all of this creative, emotional and physical work with grace and unwavering instinct until her death aged 101. 

Loss makes you look for the truth-seekers – the soul-bearers, in life as well as in art. Tanning is one of these. 

Dorothea Tanning  Embrace 1969,  courtesy of Tate Modern, London.

Dorothea Tanning Embrace 1969, courtesy of Tate Modern, London.


Written by Sophia Compton, a Contributor to Arteviste