Everyday life can be a nightmare, and Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) created art that was like a dream diary of domestic horror. Her images ripple with gothic, fantastical paranoia, tearing at the fabric of living: the dinner table, the chores, the sex, the food, the very tedium of existence. This major show makes a strong case for her being one of the greats of surrealism, overshadowed throughout history by the macho men of the genre.
And you’ll hear a lot about them, especially her husband Max Ernst, because it’s hard to talk about surrealism without talking about the men – but Tanning deserves to be seen without the constant caveats. When you do that, the early works here shine in their own right.
Tanning announces herself in 1942 with a brutally strong, part-nude self-portrait; a defiant, confident bit of bravado. And for the rest of the decade, she digs deeper and deeper into the possibilities of surrealism. There are thousands of doors, claustrophobic blood-red interiors, mirrors and flowers. Domestic settings dominate, as do girls on the cusp of womanhood. This is dark, brooding, terrifying art that kicks – really hard – at ideas of what a woman should be. This is symbolic painting as defiance of the expectations of femininity, and lots of it is brilliant.
But by the late 1950s, Tanning ditched surrealism for a semi-abstract approach to depicting writhing masses of bodies or angles. Suddenly, her paintings become maelstroms of tangled limbs. There are good ones; the images dominated by flesh-tones or inky black have a screaming sense of torture about them, a Bacon-esque torment. But most are just awful, formless, ugly things. There’s one filled with dog faces which will haunt you forever.
But then there are the sculptures; big, stuffed shapes that look like lumpy bodies. They’re fantastic, contemporary, and a total revelation; rife with anger and anxiety.
As a surrealist and sculptor, Tanning could be brilliant, but the rest is more nightmare than dream.