Dorothea Tanning: subtly working against the patriarchy since 1910

Cover image from: The Times

I want to ask you a question. How many female artists can you confidently name? Even more specifically, how many painters and sculptors? Not many, I assume.

Who is Dorothea Tanning?

So why don’t I introduce you to someone you might not know: Dorothea Tanning. I didn’t know who she was either before going to her first large scale exhibition in twenty-five years at the Tate Modern. There are more than a hundred pieces from the decades of her life she passionately dedicated to art. Born in 1910 in Illinois, she is one of the most interesting and important Surrealist artists we have. Then why I had never heard of her before this past April?

Video from: Tate

Clearly the issue is the lack of representation of women in the arts. Just think of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his muse and wife Elizabeth Siddal. You see, the problem with my last sentence is relegating Siddal to his muse and partner without acknowledging her own works of art in the fields of poetry and painting. Yet, this is how many remember her. When they do remember her.

Image from: Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood |Painting:
Elizabeth Siddal
; Artist: Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti
circa 1854; Graphite and watercolor on paper

Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, like Frida Kahlo who is more celebrated and well-known than her husband Diego Rivera. But most times the wife is eclipsed by the light of her husband. Female artists suffer (Hesmondhalgh, 2019) from job segregation and low levels of representation, especially in the creative sector where creative jobs are still male-dominated.

Image from: Frida Kahlo

Even though Tanning famously stated “Women artists. There is no such thing – or person”, it is nearly impossible to look at her works without thinking about how she subverted gender norms and expectations, which is why it is complicated to see her work detached from feminism. Even more so for the way she represented females. The Surrealist movement has often been criticised as sexist and as portraying females as passive objects of desire. Yet with her recurring themes of

  • doors – representing the many possibilities and evolutions that dream presents us with
  • femme-enfant not yet inhibited by society’s expectations, making her transformative powers poetic and fearful
  • sunflowers – the only flower that could grow in Sedona Arizona where she lived for a decade
Image from: Dorothea Tanning |Painting: The Magic Flower Game; Artist: Dorothea Tanning; 1941; Oil paint on canvas

she presents herself as a pioneer among her Surrealists companions, with a truly singular vision that allowed her to be an amazing multifaceted artist, giving a different perspective on what the coming together of the realms of the unconscious and of the conscious means. Tanning was clearly drawn to the ideas and themes of the male dominated Surrealist field, but she always took them a step further. As she said

I wanted to lead the eye into spaces that hid, revealed, transformed all at once and where there could be some never-before-seen-image.

Image from: taken by me |Painting: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; Artist: Dorothea Tanning; 1943; Oil paint on canvas

For example in Birthday (1942) she is presenting a self-portrait showing her breasts, a creature at her feet, and a series of open doors. In it she is an active subject controlling her adventures into the unknown and fully aware and in possession of her own sexuality.

Image from: Dorothea Tanning |Painting: Birthday; Artist: Dorothea Tanning; 1942; Oil paint on canvas

And in Maternity (1946-7), like in her many other works of art about motherhood, she presents an idea of being a mother which is far from idyllic. Giving three-dimensionality to the objectified woman of the Surrealist male artist.

Image from: taken by me |Painting: Maternity; Artist: Dorothea Tanning; 1946–7; Oil paint on canvas

Although Tanning didn’t want to be labelled as a woman artist because she was ahead of times and felt like it could have limited her, she was aware that her marriage to Ernst was overshadowing her career. Hence, she wrote that

Her existence as an artist was dramatically compromised by her existence as Max’s wife, but love triumphs all.

Image from: Art Fund_ | Dorothea Tanning and her husband Max Ernst

Maybe love does triumph all, but female artists deserve recognition regardless. In fact, all artists deserve to be acknowledged.

Sources not linked:  
Hesmondhalgh, D. (2019) The  Cultural Industries 4th ed. London: Sage.