Dorothea Tanning: The Artist Who Pushed the Boundaries of Surrealism

As Great Art Explained’s James Payne notes in the above pro­file of Sur­re­al­ist Dorothea Tan­ning, the emo­tion­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal com­plex­i­ty of her work invites inter­pre­ta­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to one of best known paint­ings, 1943’s Eine Kleine Nacht­musik.

Its doors, young girls (femme-enfants, if you pre­fer) and sun­flower were recur­rent themes for her.

What’s it mean?

Tan­ning main­tained the paint­ing is about “con­fronta­tion:”

Every­one believes he/she is his/her dra­ma. While they don’t always have giant sun­flow­ers (most aggres­sive of flow­ers) to con­tend with, there are always stair­ways, hall­ways, even very pri­vate the­aters where the suf­fo­ca­tions and the final­i­ties are being played out, the blood red car­pet or cru­el yel­lows, the attack­er, the delight­ed vic­tim….

Art his­to­ri­an Whit­ney Chad­wick, author of Women Artists and the Sur­re­al­ist Move­ment, dared to com­pare Eine Kleine Nacht­musik to Pierre Roy’s 1927 work Dan­ger on the Stairs, which Tan­ning may have encoun­tered dur­ing her life chang­ing vis­it to the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art’s ground break­ing 1936 exhib­it Fan­tas­tic Art, Dada, Sur­re­al­ism.

Both paint­ings unfold on nar­row, win­dow­less land­ings. Roy’s fea­tures a snake, that har­bin­ger of “Freudi­an sym­bol­ic con­tent”, slith­er­ing down a stair­case; Tanning’s two long-haired girls in Vic­to­ri­an desha­bille and a “torn and writhing sun­flower, an image strong­ly iden­ti­fied with Tanning’s Mid­west­ern ori­gins, close to nature and capa­ble of con­vey­ing impres­sions of both fecun­di­ty and men­ace.”

Tan­ning bri­dled at the temer­i­ty of Chadwick’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion:

To com­pare my vision with the per­fect­ly pro­por­tioned and very pho­to­graph­ic depic­tion of a snake (ana­con­da) on a stair, neat­ly paint­ed, some­what in the man­ner of Magritte, is sim­ple-mind­ed. The scene, though infre­quent, is pos­si­ble in the nat­ur­al out­side world. Mine is not.

Could it be that the sun­flower is a trap set for experts unable to resist the pull of pub­licly inter­pret­ing a Sur­re­al­ist scene?

Tan­ning died in 2012 at the age of 101, but Eine Kleine Nacht­musik’s sun­flower con­tin­ues to exert its siren pull.

Art his­to­ri­an, Catri­ona McAra, author of A Sur­re­al­ist Stratig­ra­phy of Dorothea Tanning’s Chasm sees it as a sym­bol of “deflo­ration, men­stru­a­tion and erot­ic noc­tur­nal knowl­edge”, while art his­to­ri­an Selin Genc pegs it as “the unknown the child sens­es with­in her­self: a source of con­cern and fas­ci­na­tion.”

Far be it from us to haz­ard a guess in the pub­lic forum, though we’d be keen to get an ado­les­cent girl’s unof­fi­cial take on it, par­tic­u­lar­ly if she shares Tanning’s fas­ci­na­tion for Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land and is as yet unac­quaint­ed with the Sur­re­al­ists, female or oth­er­wise.

Giv­en that many young teens under­stand gen­der to be a non-bina­ry propo­si­tion, our hypo­thet­i­cal inter­vie­wee might appre­ci­ate Tanning’s staunch rejec­tion of the label ‘woman artist’, insist­ing that “there is no such thing or per­son” and it is “just as much a con­tra­dic­tion in terms as ‘man artist’ or ‘ele­phant artist’.”

21st-cen­tu­ry artists of all ages, gen­ders and gen­res could ben­e­fit from her advice to “keep your eye on your inner world and keep away from ads, idiots and movie stars.”

That, friends, is how you make Eine Kleine Nacht­musik.

In a 2001 arti­cle in ART­news titled The Old­est Liv­ing Sur­re­al­ist Tells (Almost) All, Tan­ning, then 91 and “still alive in every way” spelled it out:

(Art) should make us feel good about life, or at least make us think about the big ques­tions, the things that peo­ple don’t want to ask them­selves any­more.”

Here’s some more of Dorothea Tanning’s work to get you start­ed on those ques­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Fan­tas­tic Women Of Sur­re­al­ism: An Intro­duc­tion

An Intro­duc­tion to Sur­re­al­ism: The Big Aes­thet­ic Ideas Pre­sent­ed in Three Videos

Dis­cov­er Leono­ra Car­ring­ton, Britain’s Lost Sur­re­al­ist Painter

What Makes Sal­vador Dalí’s Icon­ic Sur­re­al­ist Paint­ing “The Per­sis­tence of Mem­o­ry” a Great Work of Art

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Glen Nicholson says:

    While com­plet­ing a degree in art his­to­ry many of my pro­fes­sors were strug­gling to find out more about women artist. This was espe­cial­ly true of those teach­ing late 19th and 20th cen­tu­ry art. I was grap­pling with the male enfant ter­ri­ble, the machis­mo genius that dom­i­nat­ed the his­to­ry of art. I with­drew to the many anony­mous artists of the ear­ly mid­dle ages and those who’s names we know that were seen as crafts­men not celebri­ties. I love art with a pas­sion, but shrank from the ego­ism of Picas­so, Pol­lok and Dali.
    This intro­duc­tion to Tan­ning is a rev­e­la­tion. Like Hilma af Klint she has so much to say with­out the claus­tro­pho­bia of her ego dom­i­nat­ing her art. Her sub­jects address the inner self of all women and her style is bril­liant­ly orig­i­nal with­out the taint of out­side influ­ence. Let us hope we find more of her orig­i­nal­i­ty and give the male gaze it’s only equal place along with oth­er world per­cep­tions.

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