Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern: An open door to immateriality, form, and architecture

Every day we pass through shields of glass, towers of noise, pavements of slippery notes echoing with the strange musicality of the industrial age; the machine of living seems to pervade through our human feebleness leaving almost no time for contemplation. Yet, each stroke of midnight comes with a dream or a brush splash, the canvas becomes a cavity for dream(e)s to meander through, the city transforms and our soul is enlivened. The modern machine hosts the very essence of immateriality itself,  accentuated by the machine-like dynamism of crowds, cars and heels going down steel steps. Coming out is a crave for a portrayal of an architecture that aims to appear less tangible, as if its origins would stem from the very heart of our inward fantasies. Do we want to escape or be contained in the smudgy fabric of a city that oppresses emotion? Can we open a door to a suspended reality that persists with the supple image of beauty anchored in nothing but humanity itself? Can architecture retain the essence of dream while becoming a performative tool in an automated environment?

“Heaven’s motes sift,

to salt-white – paint is ground

to silence; and I,

I am bound, unquiet,

a shade of blue

in the studio.”  

– Dorothea Tanning

Exhibited in their unique mastery, the works of the American surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning can now be admired in Tate Modern in their own uncanny and fascinating atmosphere. Amounting to a total of 150 works that span across 60 years starting as early as 1937.  The collection explores different stages and techniques embedded in her work that not only prove her ingenuity but also her her conceptual clarity and strengths, at places outstripping sometimes that of her husband, Max Ernst. Commencing with early sketches and portraits, the exhibition depicts human emotion and above all women in a truthful, vivid and unscathed manner. Without trying to falsify an impression for the sake of a society, Tanning rejects the obsolete iconoclasm towards the female gender while picturing its irony and irrelevance in a modern context .

Birthday rests in its quiet melancholy, somehow wild and untamed. The self-portrait envisions women as creators of beasts, enhancing female superiority and strength over an indoctrinated society which still places man on a pedestal. Set in an endless space posted out by the continuous progression of doors, the room itself is used as a metaphor for the depth women posses both mentally, intellectually and emotionally. Apart from attributing a unique set of meanings to a bland dwelling element, the painting is a manifesto against the feeble nature women are presumed to nurture, confronting the viewer with an uncanny representation of a modern goddess that somehow is both empowered and aware of her vulnerabilities. Fashion and organic roots create an array that takes back the female beauty to a place of ritual and wilderness, where there is no judgement or prejudice.

Resting patiently in one of the main corridors is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, a materialisation of a dream world concentrated within the boundaries of an over-expanded corridor of 3 doors that await to be open. Two girls seem to be floating under a sort of sleep-numbness, or could it be a reality-numbness? The stair stands as a reaction to the world underneath, immediately  implying the superior status of the fantasy world over the tangible one. The dreamt space seems to successfully integrate the organic element, visualised here through the sunflower that is actively wearing out, collapsing, as if craving to go down the stairs, back to the reality it used belong to. The 60s ochre hotel corridor with a velvet, burgundy carpet tries somehow to hide the precarious reality, though without success. An illusion, a space for reverie and loss. Through works such as this, Tanning succeeds in reevaluating the ethics architecture holds for society, people and dreams.

The surrealism of Tanning’s work envelops Tate in an allegorical atmosphere that talks about war, desire and the poetry spaces possess. Essentially, space is created by and through human minds, so inherently the concept of dream starts to carve within. The subtle use of architectural elements take us back to the symbols of the present towns, where the human becomes the machine and the organic starts to either decompose or mutate to a form that is completely alienated in relation to its original state. However, the hope of returning to a place of beauty and fantasy emerges with every use of the door as a lait-motif for not only escape but also reunion.

The door is now open, the curtain pulled; society continues to be presented with a series of remarkable works in terms of depth and context, social critiques that reinterpret the hierarchical ladder under segregated architectural symbols. The room becomes a place of division, fantasy, or retreat, a cell where the human emotion and one’s own dreams can become tangible. With a reference to the relics left by the Second World War, Dorothea Tanning explores a range of diverse  architectural elements with an artistic and visionary eye which sees through and beyond the surface. Architecture is no longer a functional pivot that serves the world with needed spaces, but rather a scenery that allows for fantasies to frame their own singular reality. Emotion, action, texture and organics are all united in a space of wonder and contemplation, a performance of space and thought.

Dorothea Tanning exhibition is on from 27 February – 9 June 2019 at Tate Modern.