American artist Dorothea Tanning’s breathtaking work takes in seven decades; spanning her first encounters with Surrealism in New York in the 1930s, prismatic paintings, poetry and soft sculptures.
Work from across her expansive oeuvre is currently on show in a vast retrospective at London’s Tate Modern, the first such show in 25 years and the only one to showcase work from across her entire career. And some career it was: Tanning published her last collection of poems, Coming to That, aged 100.
Her ‘30s work is showcased alongside later pieces that saw her work across painting and poetry, and highlights from the show include her 1942 self-portrait Birthday, the piece that was said to have caught the eye of artist Max Ernst, who Tanning later married.
Elsewhere, significant pieces from her Surrealist period – in which she often subverted traditional icons of domesticity – are on show, including Children’s Games from 1942 and 1943 painting Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
Tanning, who was born in Illinois in 1910, said that her art aimed to depict “unknown but knowable states”, as Tate puts it, suggesting that there’s “more to life than meets the eye.” The show aims to underline Tanning’s multifaceted passions, which included a love of dance, music and performance that imbued her artistic output from the mid-1950s.
These, the artist dubbed “prismatic”, as a reference to the way she uses colour and elements of figuration that veer in and out of focus for the viewer. The Tate show also features examples of the artist’s set and costume designs for ballets by George Balanchine and John Cranko alongside the figurative works that Tanning painted that clearly align with the aesthetics of dance, such as 1977’s Tango Lives.
It’s no surprise to learn of the high regard in which artists like Louise Bourgeois and Sarah Lucas hold Tanning in, especially in light of her mid-1960s sculptural works. Created using a Singer sewing machine, “these hand-crafted, anthropomorphic forms, in between bodies and objects, inspired a legacy of their own in the world of Surrealist sculpture,” says the Tate.
Dorothea Tanning is at Tate Modern until 9 June 2019.