Dorothea Tanning, Tate Modern review – a gorgeous trip through gothic nightmares

Tate Modern, London
Her disturbing art is the climax of surrealism, but this exhibition also reveals Tanning’s appetite for the gothic and its long history of female creativity

I’m looking into a seedy hotel room. The lights are low. Bodies are sprouting from cracks in the walls. A creature straight out of a Bosch vision of hell is creeping, or is it seeping, out of the fireplace. Worst of all, somehow, is a human(ish) leg emerging from an armchair and stretching across the room. All the monstrosities in Dorothea Tanning’s 1970 installation Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot are made of soft stuffed fabric that intensifies their uncanny effect. These stitched-together textiles bulging with mysterious innards are queasily corporeal. This life-sized room from a fleapit Paris hotel is infected with nameless terrors and depraved memories.

Perhaps they are memories of surrealism. For Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot is surely the last great masterpiece of this movement founded by French poets after the first world war. Surrealism called for an art of the unconscious, inspired by Sigmund Freud’s writings on dreams and sexuality. Dorothea Tanning, who was born in small-town Illinois in 1910, was one of a generation of US artists who fell in love with surrealism and, in her case, a surrealist – in 1946 she married Max Ernst. Tanning’s late works are revealed as a sensational climax of the surrealist movement by Tate Modern’s sensitive and fascinating reappraisal of her. But this gorgeous trip through 20th-century dreams and nightmares also shows that she was never simply a surrealist, let alone a mere follower of the movement’s European founders. Something else pervades her imagination – an appetite for the gothic and its long history of female creativity.

Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012) Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 1970-1973 Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls 3405 x 3100 x 4700 mm Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d’art modern/ Centre de création industrielle Photo (C) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat
Film set of the mind ... Dorothea Tanning’s Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970-1973).
Photograph: DACS, 2018

A Mrs Radcliffe Called Today”, says the writing on a wall in her 1944 painting of the same title. It’s a homage to Ann Radcliffe, the 18th-century gothic novelist who wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho. Tanning’s painting depicts a castle wall and a flying buttress. A ghost walks past the castle with fire for a head. Her disembodied hair seems to have rematerialised in an archway. Tanning was not the first surrealist to declare her love of gothic novels. In his Manifesto of Surrealism published in 1924, the movement’s founder André Breton praises the “unforgettable intensity” of Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel The Monk. Yet there’s a difference. Breton exhibited the ingrained prejudices of the male surrealists, men of their time, when he drooled that The Monk’s heroine Mathilda is “less a character than a continual temptation”. Tanning, as if to deliberately overturn this surrealist cult of great male perverts of the past resurrects Radcliffe, whose novels closely identified with the feelings and perceptions of women.

Tanning’s art is full of haunted houses and sinister, inexplicable happenings that owe as much to gothic novels as they do to Breton or Ernst. In her 1943 painting Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, a door in a vast and echoing hotel is opening to reveal an unholy glow inside: the other rooms on the floor are grimly shut while two girls sleepwalk on the landing. One has hair flowing upward as if she’s underwater. A giant sunflower has materialised. What horror lurks in the roomful of light? A premonition of the A-bomb? A furnace for corpses? It’s 1943.

Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012) Verbe 1966-1970 Flannel, wool, tweed, cardboard, polyfill, forged steel, and wooden jigsaw puzzle pieces from Johannes Vermeer’s “The Artist’s Studio” (ca.1665/66) 890 x 1160 mm Yale University Art Gallery, Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund
Dorothea Tanning’s Verbe (1966-1970). Photograph: DACS, 2018

In her 1950-2 painting The Guest Room, a naked girl stands in an attitude of frozen alienation while a young woman lies in bed hugging a male doll. It’s a very strange set-up, but what’s most troubling is a short fat figure wearing cowboy boots and a blue head-covering that seems to conceal facial deformities or inhuman tubes under its folds.

A bit David Lynch, right? But decades ahead of the surrealist film-maker. Tanning spent much of her life in France, but this exhibition reveals her as a great American artist. Her feel for gothic is reminiscent of the stories of her contemporary US writers Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson. These are paintings of nightmares remembered in tantalising fragments.

Then, in 1970, on that awful night in room 202 of the Hôtel du Pavot, those nightmares crawl off the canvas into our own, three-dimensional world. Her monsters swarm the walls and bulge out of the upholstery. It made perfect sense for Tanning to make the leap from painting to this pioneering masterpiece of installation art. The staircases and doorways, cupboards and ruins that populate her early paintings find claustrophobia and unease in the structures that enclose us. That obsession with buildings haunts the entire gothic tradition, but for Tanning it is also an angry dissection of the “normal” bourgeois house and the prisoners it contains. In her 1954 canvas Family Portrait, a doll-like blonde wife is literally dwarfed by the colossal man of the house in his mirrored glasses.

If Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot doesn’t upset you at first, keep looking. It’s an insidiously atmospheric real-life space – a film set of the mind. And it’s just one of the revolutionary artworks Tanning created at a time when surrealism was supposedly old hat. Her sewn-together fabric sculptures that culminate in her freaky hotel room are the greatest things she ever made. Reclining Nude, created in 1969-70, is a pink body that twists and truncates in inexplicable, upsetting ways. Embrace (1969) is a soft toy from hell. A brown furry gorilla-like form is “embracing” – or assaulting – another mutant female nude.

Just to describe these sculptures is to recognise how contemporary they seem. There are clear connections between Don Juan’s Breakfast (1972), in which pink flesh bubbles up out of a black beer stein, pressing at a buttoned seam, and the work of artists from Sarah Lucas to Cathy de Monchaux. Did I say Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot is the final masterpiece of surrealism? Revise that. It’s the door between surrealism’s bad dreams and ours.

• Dorothea Tanning is at Tate Modern, London, from 27 February until 9 June.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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