Her Wild Entire: On Dorothea Tanning
Of course, there were obvious stylistic reasons for Tanning's marginalization. The postwar period saw the triumph of abstraction. And although neither Pollock nor de Kooning definitively eschewed figurative imagery, and still less did their French contemporaries, the kind of figuration that entered their work was primal, impulsive, ideogrammatic--worlds away from the high finish of a painting like Birthday. This was the era when Clement Greenberg was campaigning against what he called "literary" painting--by which he meant, most prominently, the kind of Surrealism that Tanning was practicing, as did Ernst, in his view--along with the "Neo-Romanticism" that followed in its train, such as in the paintings of Eugene Berman. "The Surrealist image," he charged, "provides painting with new anecdotes to illustrate, just as current events supply new topics to the political cartoonist, but of itself it does not charge painting with a new subject matter. On the contrary, it has promoted the rehabilitation of academic art under a new literary disguise." The Abstract Expressionists, like many other abstract artists of the postwar era, took part of their inspiration from Surrealism, to be sure, but from a different side of it altogether, that of Hans Arp, André Masson and Joan Miró, which is to say from what Breton had called "pure psychic automatism."
Greenberg had a point, though in retrospect one can't help but notice the narrowness of his sense of the new. Tanning did have something fresh to contribute--as had Ernst and some of the other Surrealists Greenberg censured. With his characteristic shrewdness, Greenberg hit on what makes such art powerful, at least when it is as good as Tanning's is at her best; but he couched his observation in a tone of offhand belittlement rather than of appreciation: "The artist shows us how he would prefer life to look or how--as children do--he would prefer to be frightened." There are many different things that art can be and do, but an art that would permanently renounce experiences and desires so primal has matured one step too far--it's moribund. But still and all, you can see how a painter like Tanning would have seemed to many of her strongest contemporaries to be part of their art's past more than of its future.
Eventually, she must have sensed this. Sometime after the move to France, something changed in Tanning's work. Writing in Between Lives, more than forty years after the fact, she seems to see herself coming around to something like a Greenbergian view on what she had been doing. "I began to chafe just a little at the reliance on precisely painted elements of the natural world in order to present an incongruity. The peerless Dalí, for instance, wasn't he a later Maxfield Parrish but with a different imagination?" Greenberg had cited Meissonier, Ford Madox Brown and Greuze as technical comparators; Tanning's idea is the same, except that her comparison makes the point even more bluntly: what had chafed her was an illustrative art. She was ready to shed a skin. "Gradually," she recalled, "in looking at how many ways paint can flow onto canvas, I began to long for letting it have more freedom."
In the paintings she began making after the mid-'50s--a good example would be Insomnias (1957), now in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm--the figurative elements are still there, but as features of a different kind of space. The work is inconceivable without the precedents of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism--the late work of that gaunt, extravagantly mustached Gorky might still have been in the back of Tanning's mind--yet it is rather different from either Cubism or Abstract Expressionism as it had ever been practiced before. The figure itself is not broken up analytically in the Cubist manner, and yet it is uneasily fitted in among the luminous facetings and nebulosities of an entirely abstract space made of sweet-and-sour colors. "I wanted to lead the eye," the artist has written, "into spaces that hid, revealed, transformed all at once and where there would be some never-before-seen image, as if it had appeared with no help from me." Ernst must have been amazed as he watched Tanning turn into the truly unorthodox and disobedient Surrealist he had seen in her some fifteen years before. These paintings were, once again, a little untimely. Their originality was not the one her contemporaries were looking for. But today it looks quietly prophetic. I can imagine painters like Cecily Brown or Inka Essenhigh nodding to them in mutual recognition.
Tanning's art developed greatly over the following decades, yet a work like Insomnias, a genuine self-reinvention, represents the true beginning for all that followed. With time, the paintings become less brittle and hectic than Insomnias is and probably had to be, gaining in breadth and lyricism. Yet painting has hardly been Tanning's sole endeavor. In the early '70s she suddenly spent half a decade on sculpture. What I'd never have guessed is that this was inspired by a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Hymnen, his massive fantasia on worldwide national anthems, which, according to Between Lives, "incredibly but clearly showed me what I had to do. Spinning among the unearthly sounds...were the earthy, even organic shapes that I would make, had to make, out of cloth and wool." These organic shapes made out of fabric, mutant humanoid presences sometimes half-melded with the furniture that supports them, recall the phantasmic bodies, at once fragmentary and excessive, of her paintings, and to some extent the biomorphic sculpture that her almost exact contemporary Louise Bourgeois had been making since the '60s. But Bourgeois was then using traditional sculptural materials like plaster and marble and did not follow Tanning in the use of fabric until later.
Perhaps more surprising than that fruitful but passing sidestep into sculpture has been Tanning's more recent flowering as a writer. I am thinking not only of the autobiography that I have been drawing on throughout this essay, a work of marvelous style, and its earlier version, Birthday (1986), but also of her venture into fiction, Chasm (2004). Then again, the turn to prose should not be so surprising, since her first important prose work, the short novel Abyss, published in 1977, is said to have been written thirty years earlier. That book, whose title presages the later one, of which it might be a sort of first draft, seems to have been quietly dropped from Tanning's official history, but it suggests that her literary inclination is of long standing. The eerie Gothic atmosphere that the tales share is undoubtedly what one might expect of a Surrealist, but their fixation on the figure of the innocently destructive girl is distinct from anything the movement's male protagonists would have conjured up. Still, they have affinities with a work like Julien Gracq's Château d'Argol (1938), of which Walter Benjamin noted, "The ebbing tide of Surrealism has washed up a strange shell on the desolate shore of literature."