Last chance to see – Dorothea Tanning, Web of Dreams, at Alison Jacques Gallery, London

26 September 2014 By

Over lunch with collector friends we spoke about Francesca Woodman. Collector Friend #1 is lucky enough to own photographs by the American photographer, who took her own life at only 22 years old. She told us how people visiting her rarely notice them, but these are among her most treasured works: Woodman used her own body as subject, often blurred, awkward and contorted in banal domestic interiors. Psychologically intense and very strange, the images are acutely evocative of a particularly female-inflected version of the human condition. We went on to speak about Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing, husbands and sons and teenage sexuality and not eating pudding. It was lunch, not a seminar.

But afterwards I wandered up to Alison Jacques Gallery, and the show of predominantly late paintings by Dorothea Tanning, who died in 2012 aged 101. Tanning’s surrealising paintings of female figures in interiors, distorted bodies and tangled limbs seemed like a continuation of the lunchtime conversation. (Here’s an idea for a show: Sarah Lucas sculpture, Francesca Woodman photographs, late Dorothea Tanning paintings.) The first painting you encounter is from 1954. Tableau Vivant features a surreally giant dog, of a toy variety, supporting the crumpling, possibly unconscious body of a naked woman. A depiction of greater physical and psychological vulnerability would be hard to imagine. The dog, which was in fact a beloved pet Pekinese, reappears several times in this show, always enlarged to human scale and as in the canvas titled Reality, 1973-83, supporting the prone and lifeless, or sleeping, naked body of the artist. Tanning refuted feminist or political readings of her work, in favour of a deeper psychological reading. Though she was nonetheless acutely aware of the effect on her professional life of being married to Max Ernst: in a poem written after his death she explained:

“Many years ago today/ I took a husband tenderly/ This simple human gentle act/ Seen as a hard decisive fact/ By all who dote on category/ Did stain my work indelibly/ I don’t know why that is/ For it has not stained his.”

A wonderful group of quickly executed ink and watercolour works on paper depict variously dancing or struggling forms. Partly abstracted, these fleshy bodies call to mind Sarah Lucas’ Nuds, but they are more dynamic, more combative. The distinctions between the entwined forms in Tango, 1989, No contest, 1960, and Combat, 1971-86, suggest all the eroticism as well as the  conflicts of long relationships. In Maternity, 1977, and Mother and Child, c.1960s, tense and hunched female figures hold up bright red infants like struggling, angry beetles. No beatific Madonnas these – Tanning’s concise sketches show motherhood as a confrontation between bewildered, helpless adult and tiny, alien despot. No surprise then that Tanning did not have children of her own, but preferred to lavish her attention on her Pekinese dogs.

Tanning’s earliest works, such as the famous Eine Klein Nachtmusik, 1943, that is in the Tate collection, feature young girls in dream-strange scenarios heavy with symbolic motifs like sunflowers and half open doors. She moved away from an overt association with the Surrealists in the 1950s and the works she made afterwards are arguably the more powerful and distinctive.  The two largest paintings in this show, Meme les jeunes filles, 1966, and Notes for an Apocalypse, 1978, bely a painter of wisdom and maturity, at the height of her powers, deeply engaged in an exploration of the human condition – physical and psychic – in all its horror and glory.  Riveting.

Caroline Douglas

Alison Jacques Gallery, 16 – 18 Berners Street, London W1T 3LN. Open Tuesday – Saturday 10 – 6pm and by appointment, until 27 September 2014