Walking through the Tate Modern’s latest show is like revisiting a barely remembered dream: familiar yet strange, perhaps a little frightening.
This retrospective of Dorothea Tanning’s 70-year career is a hell of a show, in more ways than one. It’s filled with bizarre, nightmarish visions that hint at psychosexual forces lurking just beyond our conscious minds. In one installation amorphous creatures slither from a fireplace and naked human forms burst through chintzy wallpaper.
Others pieces are merely unsettling, such as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which depicts a pair of young girls – or perhaps dolls – standing in a hotel hallway as a giant sunflower scuttles menacingly across the floor towards them. It’s all deliciously gothic, Salvador Dali by way of Daphne du Maurier.
Like so many women throughout history, though, Tanning is best known not for her own work, but for her marriage to a more famous man, in this case Max Ernst, one of the stars of the surrealist movement. But Tanning was no muse – she’d been painting monstrous things since she was 15 years old, much to the consternation of her conservative parents in rural Illinois.
She travelled to Paris in search of kindred spirits, only to be forced back to the US by the onset of World War II. Soon enough, however, the artists she had sought were forced out of Europe too, and it was in New York that she met Ernst, who would become her partner until his death decades later.
There are elements in Tanning’s work that borrow from other surrealists: lonely figures in barren landscapes that recall Dali; uncanny interplay between objects and people reminiscent of Magritte; classical allusions shared with Ernst. But Tanning comes at these common themes from a sadly uncommon perspective: a female one. Many paintings feature a young girl, often in various stages of undress and standing at the threshold of a door, reductively taken to represent sexual awakening. Elsewhere female figures cradle infants, and sexualised forms frolic amid sheets of gauze. It’s refreshing to see surreal depictions of the world that don’t spring from the minds of horny men.
It’s also amazing how cinematic these paintings are, how many of their motifs are familiar from the works of film auteurs. David Lynch in particular uses many of the same tropes. In The Guest Room, for instance, a hooded dwarf in cowboy boots stands beside a naked girl, while in the background a life-size doll is embraced by a sleeping child. If that seems a little too Lynchian, the scene is framed by drapery, a symbol the director returned to throughout his oeuvre as visual shorthand for the border between the commonplace and the uncanny. As far as I know he’s never spoken publicly about Tanning but I wouldn’t be surprised if she was a direct influence.
Later Tanning moved into ‘soft sculptures’, with furry, tweedy, toothy, phallic things seeming to unfurl from the ground itself. She created until her death, writing poetry and a novel. She’s a bona fide genius, and this is a show not to be missed.