Dorothea Tanning Family Portrait
Dorothea Tanning 'Family Portrait' 1954. Courtesy Tate

In the early 1980s at a New York concert by her friend, John Cage, Dorothea Tanning was engulfed by a ‘sea of strong feeling’. In reaction to the ‘astral sounds’ and ‘siren space’ of Cage’s music—which in other audience members prompted physical tics, anxious coughs, or shared reverie—Tanning found herself consumed by the sufferings of the animal world:

‘sorry […] for lost dogs, for all dogs […] Elegant broken legs of horses, elephants that die assassinated in the savannah, swarmed by flies. For fish out of water, flopping. Ah, don’t look. For bulls made fools of by strutting morons. As much distress suffuses me about a clubbed snake as about a fallen bird, a maimed toad, and the seals. Bears in traps, steel jaws biting through their mangled arms.’ [1]

Don’t look, she implores, and yet she cannot look away, detailing further cruelties endured by animals at the hands of men. Emerging from the recesses of Cage’s music was a bestiary robbed of its animal power, in which every creature was defeated by the human desire for ‘supremacy’. This dynamic was a ‘planetary poison’, Tanning reflected, a ‘problem drug’ that diverted from the true interconnectedness of the human and the nonhuman. What of the original confusion between the human and the animal species? For Tanning, the vitality of the physical body—‘this wonderful envelope’—lay in its potential for ‘transformation’, in all the ways it could be more than human. [2] As uncovered by the exhibition now on show at Tate Modern, the first retrospective of her work for 25 years, Tanning dedicated her life’s work to leading the eye into the hidden, the unexpected and the ‘never-before-seen-image’. However, it was her communion with the animal world—which reveals itself throughout the decades as bristling fur, hardened skins, bodily contortions—that strengthened her sense of what it was to be a human, and a woman, in the modern world.

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Dorothea Tanning 'Dogs of Cythera' 1963. Courtesy Tate

Tanning is perhaps best known for the paintings on show in the opening rooms of the exhibition. Early canvases such as ‘Children’s Games’ (1942), ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ (1943), ‘The Guest Room’ (1950-52), and ‘Interior with Sudden Joy’ (1951) mark out a personal iconography that probes the terror of the nocturnal, the domestic, and the femme-enfant. Inspired by gothic literature as well as the art and poetry of surrealism, these gloomy interiors stage acts of ecstatic metamorphosis: the girls tear open portals to other worlds, stand at thresholds with hair ablaze, put their porcelain bodies on display. These more familiar paintings, all masterpieces in the surrealist canon, are given momentary pause before the curators chart a new course through the seven decades of Tanning’s career, observing her slow progression towards abstraction and sculpture to illustrate the ways that Surrealism continued to flourish in the late twentieth and even twenty-first centuries. In 1955 Tanning’s style changed, departing from the claustrophobic parameters of the domestic world to arrive at a looser, ‘prismatic’ style of painting. She never fully abandoned the figure, but she sensed she had ‘gone over, to a place where one no longer faces identities at all’, to paint ‘kaleidoscopes that shimmer’, large shadowy paintings of muted colour and orgiastic union. The tight rendering of the youthful body is lost to bulbous, entangled forms that are splayed or splintered across canvases. These bodies appear older, fleshier, misshapen. In one of these paintings, ‘Chiens de Cythère (Dogs of Cythera)’ (1963), the orgiastic composition of twisting human forms morphs into the faces and shapes of a dog.

The first of her dogs was called Kachina. It is a name that referred to the powerful, spiritual deities, the kachinas, of the Pueblo Villages of the American Southwest. A kachina can resemble anything in the natural world or cosmos, from animals, objects, structures, elements, locations, events, natural phenomena, to more abstract concepts. The Hopi tribe, who occupied terrain close to Tanning’s Sedona home, believed that these immortal beings were messengers between the human and spirit world, and could be implored, through ritualistic dance and the ceremonial giving of carved dolls, to bring about the harvest rains. The colourful cottonwood dolls were typically presented to young girls or new brides, to instruct them in the societal expectations and elemental forces of the world in which they lived. On his first trip west in the early 1940s, Max Ernst was so taken with the Hopi Kachina dolls that he purchased the entire stock of the Grand Canyon Trading Post. [3] Ernst had brought the small Lhasa Apso, Kachina, with him when he moved into Tanning’s New York apartment in 1942, after their fabled game of chess. Kachina became a part of the furniture, and travelled with the couple to Arizona and France. The inscrutable face of this small dog, and those of the Pekingese she owned later in life, stares out of her canvases, typically framed by the fixtures of the home. As breeds, both are distinctively fringed with long, sleek hair that grazes the floor and dips low over the eyes. The tassel, a gathering of threads that is a recurring motif of mysterious power in her early paintings, recalls both flowing girlish ponytails and the sweeping hair of her dogs, drawing the female, the animal, and the domestic into a curious dance.

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Dorothea Tanning 'Maternity' 1946-7. Courtesy Tate

Of all the animal world Tanning found her greatest affinity with dogs, admiring of their ‘useful truths’ and ‘ancient wisdom’. [4] They were her companions and confidantes. It is often claimed that she doted on her dogs as she never had children. Enumerating in her autobiography the small ‘luxuries’ that ‘make a modest life big’, from leaving letters unanswered to crying for fun, the most striking is, ‘telling the best ideas to the dog’. Surrealism was captivated by the ties that bind the animal and human worlds, using animals as symbols for suppressed desires and instincts or as a channel through which to express the sublime or fantastical. Tanning’s surrealist peers, such as Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Leonor Fini, conceived of hybrid creatures of the imagination, part-human, part-beast to free the female spirit from cliché or convention, while others divined animal alter egos, such as Leonora Carrington’s equine Tartar and Max Ernst’s avian Loplop. For Tanning, however, the dog was not a symbol but a shape-shifter. Dogs feature in many of her paintings, a benign presence that reappears throughout the exhibition: ‘A dog (my dog) […] over the years, shows up in many avatars, as constant as a talisman’. [5] Masquerading as a man, as a dancer, as a child, as a custodian of the domestic realm, it affects both human and animal qualities: begging, staring, sighing, whining, seated at a dinner table or locked in amorous embraces.

While in the popular conscience dogs stand beside man to symbolise loyalty, vigilance, guardianship, the dogs of Tanning’s imaginary insert themselves within the human narrative. In many instances they alone stare out of the painting to meet the gaze of the viewer, ensuring they are visible, acknowledged, while their human counterparts remain trained on the scene. In ‘Maternity’ (1946-7), a painting that dramatises the endless horizons of the Upper Sonoran Desert that encircle Sedona, a Pekingese dog sits at the feet of a mother cradling her child. The dog has a human face, that of an infant, and, as the despondent mother stares off into the distance, the dog’s round black eyes gaze out of the picture as if appealing to the viewer. In ‘Tableau vivant’ (1954), the supine body of a nude woman is propped up by a human size Pekingese. In ‘Stanza’ (1978), the dog is rendered as an abstract composition, the body a circle, the fringe an arc, and yet the eyes—as two gleaming yellow discs—still communicate with the same intensity. They are watchful but, as the names of her dogs attest—Kachina, Dreamy, Groucho—they also occupy a secretive sphere of their own.

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Dorothea Tanning 'Tweedy' 1946-7. Courtesy Tate

And in the images or objects in which dogs are not depicted, some semblance of them is still discernable: veils of hair, needle teeth, panting mouths. This is particularly true of Tanning’s soft sculptures, the most revelatory grouping of works in the exhibition. As many have noted, these sculptures were without precedent. ‘It came up from a sort of rage, as if I were working blind’, Tanning claimed, beginning to sew and stuff unsettling figurative forms with her old Singer sewing machine in 1969. Listening to a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Hymnen at the Maison de la Radio in Paris that year, she had seen ‘[s]pinning among the unearthly sounds’ of an electronic score punctuated by voices, cheers and quacking ducks, new textile forms: ‘earthy even organic shapes that I would make, had to make, out of cloth and wool […] Fugacious they would be, and fragile, to please me their creator and survivor’. [6]

For Linda Nochlin, such ‘soft work’, as found in the similarly stuffed, hand-sewn 1990s sculptures of Louise Bourgeois, was suggestive of ‘concerns both feminine and geriatric’. At once assertive and limpid, these are bodies that are ‘prey to gravity’. [7] Tanning claimed the limited lifespan of these organic materials—found fabrics such as wool, tweed, faux fur—would match her own, and the tangled bodies are now extremely fragile, their taut surfaces at risk of sagging and their sewn seams beginning to slacken. (It is perhaps the final time that the radical installation work ‘Room 202, Hôtel du Pavot’ [1970-73] will be shown in its entirety). These sculptures reduce bodies to their feral energies and physical defences, exposing vertebrae, orifices, and their fine seams. However, they are resilient: though they buckle, flop, or clasp one another, their skin is hardened, their fur coarse, their posture erect. One sculpture, ‘De quel amour (By What Love)’ (1970), features a thin tweed figure chained to a post, an animal imprisoned, its limb-like extrusions wound around themselves as if in an act of defiance. In ‘Room 202, Hôtel du Pavot’, they burst through walls, clasp each other in acts of passion, fuse with the furniture; ‘a tangled group of flesh and fur that clung together from the start’. [8] In a 1987 letter, she described this sculptural environment as ‘the surrealist work par excellence – and probably the last?’

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Dorothea Tanning 'Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202' 1970-3. Courtesy Tate

‘My dog’s eyes tell me I’m powerful’: it was not until the second half of her life that she drew more explicit visual connections between herself and the dog. [9] In the playful photographic collage ‘The Artist as a Dog’ (1967), Tanning reclines on a chequered chaise longue and clings to a small black dog in her arms. She has the head of a Pekingese dog, a photograph cut and pasted to cover her own, which gazes out and blankly away from the scene as if in dream. Tanning described her repeated depiction of canines as ‘a state of mind’, a way of communicating a profound retreat into contemplation. The dark, round, impassive eyes become her own, as she enters her imagination to open one of the many doors set ajar to startling new worlds.

Dorothea Tanning, Tate Modern, 27 February - 9 June.

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[1] Dorothea Tanning, Birthday (San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986), pp. 169-170.

[2] Dorothea Tanning, ‘Dorothea Tanning’, Bomb, 33 (1990), 36-41, (37).

[3] Samantha Kavky, ‘Max Ernst in Arizona: Myth, mimesis and the hysterical landscape’, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 57/58 (2010), 209-228 (210). In a 1942 photograph taken by James Thrall Soby, ‘Max Among Some of His Favourite Dolls’, Ernst gazes down benevolently at his collection of dolls, and in another he cradles them like a father. Lee Miller also photographed Ernst in 1946 wearing a ‘Kachina’ mask.

[4] Dorothea Tanning, ‘Wisdom Tinged with Joy’ (2006)

[5] Dorothea Tanning, Dorothea Tanning: Hail Delirium! (New York: New York Public Library, 1992), p. 89.

[6] Dorothea Tanning, Birthday (San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986), p. 175.

[7] Linda Nochlin, ‘Old-Age Style: Late Louise Bourgeois’, in Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader, ed. by Maura Reilly (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), pp. 383-394, p. 387.

[8] Dorothea Tanning, [c.1993], qtd in Alyce Mahon, ‘Life is Something Else: Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot’, in Dorothea Tanning, ed. by Alyce Mahon (London: Tate, 2018), pp. 53-67 (p. 57).

[9] Dorothea Tanning, ‘Sybaris 1972’, Western Humanities Review, Vol. 57, no. 1 (Spring 2003), p. 10.

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Natalie Ferris is a writer, editor and researcher based in Edinburgh. She is currently finalising her first monograph, Abstraction in Post-War British Literature 1945-1980 (forthcoming, OUP).