Review: Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern

Until 9 June 2019, you can review surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning’s extensive career at Tate Modern. Living from 1910 until 2012, she strived ‘to plumb our deepest subconscious to find out about ourselves’ in her work. We sent Helen Salter to the exhibition, to see just how deep Tanning went. 

Tanning was born in Galesburg, a small town in Illinois where she said ‘nothing happened but the wallpaper’. It was at a young age when Tanning began escaping to Gothic novels and poetry, sparking her interest in strange and dreamlike worlds. It was only after she moved to Chicago in the mid-1930s that she encountered surrealism, which had emerged in Paris a decade before.
Dorothea Tanning exhibition Tate Modern art gallery london la truite au bleu
Tate’s exhibition opens with her earliest attempts at imagery and symbolism, including a striking self-portrait marking Tanning’s ‘birth’ as a surrealist. The following rooms track her developments from precise realism to a looser, abstract ‘prismatic’ style; the mood shifts from disturbing masked figures, drawing on her fondness for the Gothic, to colourful and light imaginary worlds.

During her long life, Tanning frequently relocated between the US and France owing to circumstances such as the outbreak of World War II. Many of the pieces reflect her feelings towards whichever environment she found herself in, such as the overwhelming heat and drama of Arizona‘s desert landscape.
Dorothea Tanning exhibition Tate Modern art gallery london eine kleine nachtmusik 1943
Though Tanning intended viewers to interpret her work in their own way, key returning themes include fantasy, childhood, the domestic and motherhood. Imagery of a door left ajar, signifying a portal to the unconscious, also reappears, as does the subject of her marriage to German painter Max Ernst, himself a surrealist pioneer.
Dorothea Tanning exhibition Tate Modern art gallery london Hôtel du Pavot Chambre 202 1970-1973
The more Tanning created, the more abstract her works became, such as her oil paintings of morphing, dismembered body parts. She likened these works to ‘kaleidoscopes that would shimmer; you would discover something new every time you looked’. Later still, Tanning turned to her sewing machine to make soft fabric sculptures, then positioned them as though tearing through walls.

Whether you’re a fan of surrealism or not, Dorothea Tanning neatly surveys an enchanting and extensive contribution to 20th-century modern art.

Dorothea Tanning in Long Island 1944 Tate Modern exhibition art gallery londonDorothea Tanning is open until 9 June 2019 
Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG 
020 7887 8888 | 

If you’re more impressionist than surrealist, read our review of Van Gogh and Britain at Tate Britain (open until 11 Aug 2019)

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