Saturday, September 18, 2021

My hero: Dorothea Tanning by Emma Healey


Flower duet … Dorothea Tanning's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943).

My hero: 

Dorothea Tanning

 by Emma Healey

The Costa first novel winner applauds the painting polymath who put beautiful and frightening twists on domestic scenes

Dorothea Tanning’s brazen, bizarre flower paintings

Dorothea Tanning; Tracey Emin review / From the sublime to the miserabilist

Saturday 17 January 2015


orothea Tanning didn’t limit herself to one form of artistic expression: she painted, sculpted, wrote poetry, memoir and fiction, and it was my mother (who has also never settled on one art form) who introduced me to her. For years we’ve both been fascinated by a painting in Tate Modern: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943). Two girls stand on the landing of what could be a hotel – there are room numbers on the doors – looking as though they have had a long, hard fight with the giant sunflower that lies, broken, in the centre of the picture. Their clothes are dishevelled; one girl’s hair floats up into the air and the other’s seems to emerge from behind the mask of her face; there is a hint of sexual awakening, and of decay. At the end of the corridor a door is ajar, a bright yellow light spilling on to the carpet.

It’s difficult to know exactly what you are supposed to feel. Fear? Despair? Hilarity? Tanning does sometimes seem to be poking fun at the society she lives in, especially where women’s roles are concerned. Like many artistic women she was somewhat eclipsed by her more famous painter husband, Max Ernst, and later said her marriage “did stain my work indelibly”. In the painting Some Roses and Their Phantoms, from 1952, she plays with similar domestic/uncanny juxtapositions – a table spread with a beautiful white cloth shows strange forms, like the dried or twisted remnants of plants, placed where cups and a coffee pot should be. Crumpled and shadowed, they become insect- or monster-like.

Playing with the familiar … Tanning.
Playing with the familiar … Tanning. Peter Ross/Dorothea Tanning Collection/EPA

I adore this painting, and have found many of Tanning’s pictures are similarly beautiful and frightening, playing as they do with familiar, even cosy spaces by adding strange and disturbing elements. I especially love A Mrs Radcliffe Called Today (1944), which references one of my favourite writers – that master of 18th-century gothic romance, Ann Radcliffe.

No comments:

Post a Comment