Art view  by  Paulette Thenhaus


Dorothea Tanning’s little women: Innocent or erotic?


Where did it come from? The imagery artist Dorothea Tanning uses from the 1940's till today?

An excellent research paper could explore this avenue. It would chronicle the artist's journey from the early days of Modern Art in the twentieth century into the twenty-first century ... a female artist who is now ninety-seven years old and still growing. That she hails from the small midwestern town of Galesburg, Illinois and has spent much of her adult life in France married to one of the founders of Surrealism, Max Ernest, makes the research even more valuable art historically.

But this is merely a newspaper column, which has its Iimits. I briefly covered Tanning's life in an article ("Dorothea Tanning: undeniably original," 11/05/98) and Lynn McKeown more recently summarized her life in an article, "Dorothea Tanning: artist from Galesburg" in an article dated 3/13/08. Both of us relied on three books, two autobiographical, for her story. We presented a simple review style with minimum interpretation. Neither of us dug deep into Tanning's imagery ... The Zephyr isn't an art publication, you know.

Yet during a public discussion on Dorothea Tanning as one of "our" outstanding natives, a small bomb went off (figuratively). Tanning's imagery was seen as depicting abuse and there was the question of whether or not her imagery stemmed from childhood abuse (in Galesburg no less). The topic got heated on both sides (and yes, there was no middle ground on this topic). Finally, something made locals look at images of her work.

On April 3, 2008, diana Mackin's article "Dorothea Tanning: How much more than meets the eye?" appeared in the Zephyr, supporting an abuse theory. Lynn McKeown fired back a denial stance in an April 10, 2008 letter to the editor. I wrote a column, "Ask big questions" (April 17, ‘08) supporting the right of anyone to say what they see in art but to substantiate where and why they see it. In the same issue a letter to the editor by Susie Richardson appeared with the title "Art and abuse."

I will take one painting mentioned as hinting at male abuse by diana Mackin and "walk through it” the way an art history professor might. I used the picture of the painting "Death and the Maiden" in my prior column, "Ask big questions." It appeared without a date, which should have been 1953. diana Mackin also referred to it in her column. So, let's ask big questions of it.

Tanning did not coin the title "Death and the Maiden." Its provenance goes beyond the Renaissance. It refers to a young woman/girl before she has experienced life (sex) ... she is a virgin. Always death is assumed to be a male figure, often a skeleton, wrapping itself possessively around the recoiling female. A contemporary of Tanning, Kathe Kollwitz drew "Death Seizing a Woman" in 1934. She was a German Jew. A bald skeletal man grabs a horrified woman from behind as she clutches a small girl whose mouth she covers with her hand. The faces of the women are of shock and pure terror.

Tanning's “Death and the Maiden" was painted nineteen years later. She was forty-three years old, a mature adult. In 1953 the American art world was experiencing Abstract Expressionism via Jackson Pollock. Tanning continued to work in a realistic style of Surrealism. After all, she had been one of the Surrealist group in France. Let's try to decipher the imagery.

At the center of the picture is a fully clothed bald man hoisting up a fully clothed young woman. A white cloth or creased paper floats partially across the young woman's face. There's a slightly opened door. The colors within the room are muted and soft. There is no sign of discord or upset. The balding man appears short and dumpy. His eyes are closed as if in sleep and, yes, his head rests near the woman's pubic area, but he looks more like he is holding a pillow than a human figure. He definitely looks more like a father figure than "Death." This is not his only appearance ... he reappears in "The Family Portrait" done a year later. (No, he doesn't resemble photographs of Tanning's own father.)

The young woman is almost as large as the man. Tanning paints many self-portraits; this may be one. She is wearing a simple pink dress which she has outgrown. Note: the sleeves are too short and the bodice (which reveals nothing) is open to the waist. In the fashion of a young woman, she wears short white socks and low-heeled pumps, not children's flat -soled shoes. She appears to be twelve or thirteen (puberty). She doesn't sport little girl long hair, rather a bob of the day. To me she looks as though she might fly right through the door (note the loose arms) as if in a dream. Floating just like the mystery sheet. The expressions of both faces suggest dream states.

With these observations in mind, I make the following subjective interpretation: I think the Maiden wants to get pubescence over with and leave home. To just fly away like a bird. Death or the clutching little man represent family and society holding her back. To linger too long in a comfortable place can be "death" to an artist of any age. Perhaps Tanning desired both artistic and sexual freedom sooner than most. It's already documented that she read x-­rated books, smoked and left home at eighteen. This not because she hated her family, but because she had to grow.

Other imagery that some find disturbing or abusive I have no time or space to delve into. I know the half-dressed girls and torn sunflowers can be read as abuse, especially these days, but she titles one sunflower painting "Rapture." There are no men in the sunflower series to cause the "abuse." Could Tanning be presenting us with a picture of pubescent concupiscence ... the power of libido before a man ever enters the scene?