Tate Modern London. 27th February – 9th June
Words: Rebecca Dickson
Fairy tale or nightmares, is this what the surrealist inspire? Dorothea Tanning’s (1911-2012) exhibition at the Tate Modern is an extraordinary journey of her life and works through 100 pieces. Her first major show for 25 years and also the first large scale exhibition since her death in 2012, this exhibition takes us on a journey of her artistic genius and her life-long passion for dance, music and performance.
She worked continually throughout her life. Largely self-taught, Dorothea had a career that started in New York in the 1930s as a commercial artist. Her style was ever changing, but she is best know for her haunting and often eerie works. The exhibition absorbs the broadness of her talent, from painting to sculpture to writing, with her final collection of poems ‘Coming to that’ published at the age of 100.
The exhibition demonstrates how her style has never stayed still, always expanding and morphing as she developed as an artist. We can feast upon her early works that explored domesticity, the only choice for many women of the 1930s, which suggest there was more to life than meets the eye.
She first caught the attention of Max Ernst at a party in 1942, held by Peggy Guggenheim, the mother of the modern art gallery. It was Dorothea’s enchanting and iconic self-portrait ‘Birthday,’ (Philadelphia Museum of Art) that first caught Ernst’s attention. He drove her home to consider her paintings for an exhibition by women artists being curated by Peggy, his then wife, at her gallery. They played chess and fell in love. Like much of what Dorothea began, she continued until death stole it.
The 1950s saw her work moving more towards self described ‘prismatic’ prevalent as her style become more abstract. She obviously spent a life time rethinking and pioneering new ideas to challenge herself. This show takes us on a journey through the seven decades of her career, allowing us to see every changing moment of her remarkable artistic pilgrimage.
Her ‘anthropomorphic’ sculptures are truly surrealist forms, unexpectedly stitched in fabric, some even climbing through the wall -as seen in Hôtel du Pavot Chamber 202 1970-73, Centre Pompidou, Paris. These impossible but hypnotic shapes, that contour in front of you, in often bizarrely grotesque clutches, as seen in the Éntreinte, 1969, The Destina Foundation, New York, offer you a glimpse into the bizarre minds of the surrealists.
This visual journey through Tanning’s intense career is fascinating, shedding new light on her images of splintered but sensual forms. A must see this season.