Exhibition: Dorothea Tanning: Flower Paintings
Location: Alison Jacques Gallery - 16-18 Berners Street, London
Date: 2 September – 1 October 2016 Exhibition
◇ Words: Helena Cox ◇
‘Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality’. Lewis Carroll.
For Dorothea Tanning, her imagination unquestionably became an artistic weapon, allowing her to fight her own war against reality. Born in 1910, in Galesburg, Illinois, Tanning later recalled how ‘nothing happened but the wallpaper’. Akin to Carroll’s heroine Alice, Tanning’s insatiable curiosity empowered her to tear through her very own looking glass, in search of wonderland.
Tanning’s penchant for the surreal began in early childhood, with the creation of various fairy-tale inspired drawings. Later she went to Knox Collage, followed by the Chicago Academy of Art, before walking out to study painting independently in art museums. With little professional artistic training, it would be in New York, the spectacular metropolis, which would be the stage for Tanning’s artistic breakthrough. In 1936, Alfred Barr’s exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, at the Museum of Modern Art, acted as the catalyst for Tanning’s commitment to Surrealism. She later described this awakening as a symbolic rite of passage, ‘as if a door had opened and I was able to go through’. Tanning, consequently, became affiliated with the Surrealist Movement, exhibiting in Peggy Guggenheim’s 31 Women show, and later her bond to the artistic movement was solidified, when she married the Surrealist maestro Max Ernst.
The diversity of Tanning’s artistic work throughout her glittering career is quite outstanding. Birthday (1942) became the self-portrait that not only seduced and captivated the attention of Ernst, but also acted as her exhibition piece into the Surrealist Movement; Tanning seductively flaunts her bare chest, while displaying her sartorial daring in a surreal ensemble, comprised of a skirt made of green tendrils that form human bodies. Themes of dreams, struggle, the subconscious and erotic are ubiquitous in her oeuvre. Yet it is the trope of flowers that provides the most piquant and ambiguous symbolism. In Tanning’s tour de force, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943), the symbolism of the sunflower is multi-faceted; having been used by Breton, the sunflower embodied the masculinity of the Surrealist Movement, while Tanning’s evocation of struggle is also suggestive of maturity and defloration. In this early work, Tanning displays the genesis of what was to become a life-long fascination with flowers. Her own unique vision of flora and fauna is always suffused with the whimsical, the otherworldly and chaotic, as she supplants the beholder into a visionary wonderland.
Dorothea Tanning - Agripedium vorax Saccherii (Clog Herb), 1997 | Pictor mysteriosa (Burnt Umbrage), 1997 | Copyright The Destina Foundation, New York. Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London
At the Alison Jacques Gallery, it is Tanning’s final flower paintings that mark her exuberant artistic finale, comprising a series of 12, which were published with poems written by contemporary poets in Another Language of Flowers (1998). Begun by the artist when she was 86, between 1997-98, the series represent her ‘foray into imaginary botany’, and an enthusiastic escape into flower fantasia. ‘I had a vision of a mauve flower,’ Tanning reminisced, recalling how the flower series rendered her spellbound, ‘then more and more wanted to be painted. I could hardly finish one before I'd start the next one’.
The exhibited oil canvases are displayed together with the preliminary sketches, conceived in graphite on vellum, which visualise the transition from sketch to vibrant oil paintings.
Convolotus alchemelia (Quiet-willow window), 19
Sketch for Flagrantis speculum veneris (Loveknot), 1997
Victrola floribunda, 1997
Sketch for Pictor Mysteriosa (Burnt Umbrage), 199
Copyright The Destina Foundation, New York. Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London
In this display, Tanning presents herself as both artist and devoted horticulturist, infusing surreal life into these exotic creations. There is something hauntingly disconcerting, and strangely bewitching about these surreal blooms, that make the flowers jump from the walls, they are performative, and pulsating with life. Tanning succeeds in creating a hallucinogenic quality with her flower paintings, with explosive colour, artificial forms that fuse into a myriad of possibilities, the biomorphic, the panoramic, and oceanic. The beholder is certainly left feeling ‘curiouser and curiouser!’.
This ambiguity and surreal beauty evoke Breton’s notion, that ‘Beauty will be convulsive’ (La beauté sera convulsive’). Forms seem to hover between flower and figurative, evoking the motif of La femme-fleur in art nouveau, and recall the tradition that associates women with the forms found in nature. Tanning philosophised, ‘I don’t see why one shouldn’t be absolutely fascinated with the human form.' Truly, in her colossal oil paintings, limbs seem to fuse with flowers suggestive of a sensual communing with nature. Looking to Agripedium vorax Saccherii, the recumbent female form hovers behind the pulsating flower, which also erotically covers her body. Likewise, limbs extend behind the floral in the oil paintings. Forms are abstracted and create surreal landscapes, and even on occasion such as in Pictor Mysteriosa (Burnt Umbrage) and Siderium Exaltatum (Starry Venusweed) seem oceanic, due to the floating forms, evocative of an underwater grotto of coral and sea creatures.
In Victrola floribunda the vivid green flower seems to radiate a supernatural force, radiating a luminous ray of light, conveyed by energetic brushstrokes. Indeed, her flowers defy both logic and reality, they seem to be exempt from the ravages of time; they will not wilt or fade; instead, her flowers celebrate the surreality of dreams and the subconscious. There is a psychological underpinning to these flowers; they seem to be pulsating with life and infused with a defiant, and mercurial energy. The erotic, and exotic, further coincide in Zephirium apochripholiae (Windwort), where a female form is overpowered by the suggestively placed flower head.
Tanning’s series creates a botanical extravaganza, where her flowers bloom in gothic splendour in her surreal garden. It could be questioned, to what extent these final flower paintings, act as a symbolic self-portrait of their creator, presenting an image of the female Surrealist who broke the bounds of conventional beauty and femininity, in favour of the rebellious and psychedelic. Certainly, these flower paintings offer a magical insight into Tanning’s imagination and her life-long quest for the marvellous.
◇ Image credits ◇
INDIVIDUAL WORKS: Copyright The Destina Foundation, New York. Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London.
Installation shots: Courtesy Alison Jacques Gallery, London. Photo: Michael Brzezinski