Blog, Exhibitions

Dorothea Tanning the best female twentieth century artist you’ve never heard of.

Her work is currently on show at Tate Modern. Tanning is one of a number of unjustly overlooked female artists whose work has been reassessed in recent years.

Birthday 1942 oil paint on canvas (Self Portrait)

The show’s curator, Ann Coxon, says that Tanning not only suffered from the sexism of the Surrealist movement but also from her own resistance to being labeled as a feminist artist. This meant that she, in effect, excluded herself from the feminist exhibitions of surrealist art in the late 1980’s and 1990’s.

Her time has now come, as she fits in well with the Tate’s mission to display the work of twentieth century female artists.

At the start of her career Tanning was a surrealist painter. She was totally hooked on the idea after seeing the groundbreaking exhibition ‘Fantastic Art, Dada and surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art. This prompted her to visit Paris in 1939, a trip that was cut short by the German invasion. Tanning was able to meet many of the surrealists, including her future husband Max Ernst, when they fled the Nazis for New York.

Tannings 1940’s work is surrealist but also includes a great deal of dramatic gothic touches. The painting that has been used as the exhibition’s poster is amazing and much smaller than you expect it to be.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943

Eine Klien Nachtmusik (1943) has two girls in Victorian dress fighting a giant tentacled sunflower along a hotel corridor. As with many of Tannings paintings there are a number of doors- inviting you the viewer in.

Alyce Mahon, the exhibitions co-curator says ‘ The door is a talisman for the power of art over the spectator’.

In the 1950’s and 60’s Tanning moved away from Surrealism towards abstraction. Her paintings showed entwined figures which appear to loom out of a blue grey fog.

Poached Trout

Her work is usually accompanied by amusing titles, sometimes in French sometimes in English.  This woman had a sense of humour! As well as paintings and sculpture Tanning also designed for the theatre.

One room in the exhibition is named Maternities. Tanning did not have children but spoke of maternity in a broader sense and sometimes likened artworks to creative offspring. Some of her drawings from this time remind me very much of the raw, minimal vital drawings of Tracy Emin.

The last section of the exhibition shows Tanning’s move into soft sculpture. It is important to remember that she was a pioneer in this method of creativity way ahead of her time and prefiguring the work of Sarah Lucas and Louise Bourgeois. The Installation Hotel du Pavot : chamber 202, is magnificent and shocking all at the same time with its organic shaped forms, bodies?, bursting through the walls.

Installation Hotel du Pavot : chamber 202

Dorothea Tanning is at Tate Modern until June 9th 2019. A great Exhibition not to be missed.

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