Dorothea Tanning: Mermaids and Metaphors
One thing which fascinates me when I look at an artist's work is a return to the same subject matter; metaphors or themes, spanning decades or throughout an entire career which they continually revisit. Preoccupied with transitional scenes in which fantasy and reality converge, Tanning’s distinctive metaphors and motifs are often repeated. Despite experimenting with materials and techniques, her objectives remained the same. I don’t see any real divisions. Every one of my paintings is a step on the same road... I see no break or detour, even temporary. The same preoccupations have obsessed me since the beginning (Dorothea Tanning, 1974). In Tanning's 1974 oil on canvas Pour Gustave l'adoré, I am entranced by her magical and mysterious mermaid. Painted in deep greens and ethereal turquoise contours, this aquatic figure presents a poetic but haunting image which we now take time to explore deeper, unearthing Tanning's ongoing fascination with folklore subject matter and what lies beneath.
Dorothea Tanning revisited the same enigmatic mermaid imagery in three separate paintings spanning sixteen years: Pour Gustave l’adoré, 1966, Pour Gustave l’adoré (also known as Dantedoré), 1974, and Dantedoré II, 1982. These works are in part a homage to the nineteenth-century artist Gustave Doré (1832 - 1883), who created a series of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, of which Tanning kept fully illustrated volumes in her library. Such was Tanning's admiration for Gustave Doré that in May 2001, when Doré's painting Les Océanides (Les Naiades de la mer) came up for sale at The International Art Fair, Tanning acquired it for her own collection. The titles Pour Gustave l'adoré and Dantedoré are a play on the words in French, meaning "Gustave the beloved" and Dante's link to Doré via the illustrations he made. Tanning was clearly intrigued by this water spirit imagery. Her focus on the tail depicted with its shimmering glow, without its human part visible, shrouded in dark waters, suggests themes such as transformation and the unconscious, which resonate in so many of Tanning's paintings throughout her more than seventy-year career.
Victoria Carruthers, author of a newly published monograph on Dorothea Tanning, Transformations, published by Lund Humphries (2020), writes Tanning always had a desire to ‘collaborate’ with the viewer, to share a journey with them and by making her pictures more abstracted, she came closer to capturing what she described as 'unknown but knowable states', moments of movement and intensity without a fixed narrative or meaning. In doing this her work lends itself to multiple interpretations, allowing the viewer to bring something of themselves in every piece.
In Carruther's essay Mermaids and Metaphors: Dorothea Tanning's Surrealist Ocean, co-authored with Catriona McAra (2014), they write Tanning’s series of mermaids elides the erotic in a number of ways. There is no narrative here, no visible head or body, only a solitary blue-green fishy tail increasingly dissolving into the dark, murky deep of the surrounding water as the scene returns over time. Whilst these works were completed during a period of formalist experimentation with colour, light and a desire to convey emotion over narrative, the deliberate repetition of the same beautiful but melancholy image is, ironically, also a fitting accompaniment to Hans Christian Anderson’s original, violent and very tragic tale (not the Disney version) of the mermaid who gave up everything for a pair of horrifically painful legs, only to find her love unrequited.
In a letter, dated 29 December 1947, the artist and long-time friend of Tanning, Joseph Cornell, wrote I’m in need of and await some flashings of your little mermaid friends who make such exquisite and poetic use of their native metamorphosed element. Have any of their sisters or cousins been showing up lately in any of your work? Cornell goes on to discuss Tanning's painting The Truth About Comets, 1945, interpreting the images of mermaids and girls to be metaphors for the imaginative process and noting their positive effect on his own creativity.
In her new book Fish Out of Water (2020), the writer Claire-Louise Bennett also addresses the feeling of the "oceanic," and is inspired by Dorothea Tanning's Self-Portrait (1944), she remarks Little white waves were rushing onto the promontory, my toes, my feet, my ankles began to tingle and sparkle. 'Everything is a miracle, iridescent, obsessive and alive. Everything is in motion' you said as enticing water swirled about us. 'There are realities that have nothing to do with logic, diving into the subconscious, I call it surconscious - is the way to find them'. Before I could say anything in response, my legs gave way. Just went from under me. It was only when I saw your magnificent flashing fish tail flip up into the air that I began to comprehend what was happening to me...'
As we look at Tanning's deep sea imagery and glittering mermaid's tail, I recall her 2001 autobiography Between Lives, published when Tanning was ninety-one in which she discloses I wanted to lead the eye 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.
Pour Gustave l'adoré, 1974
Oil on canvas
119.5 x 92.4 cm, 47 1/8 x 36 3/8 ins, framed
Dorothea Tanning, born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1910, lived an extraordinary life as an artist and a writer. Over a career of more than seventy years, she created a significant body of paintings, sculptures, works on paper, and prints, and published memoirs, a novel, and two collections of poetry, the latter of which was released just a few months before her death in 2012, aged 101. While solo museum shows at Malmö Konsthall, Sweden and Camden Arts Centre, UK (1993) and The Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000) that were mounted during her lifetime surveyed her work from its roots in Surrealism to its full individual expression, since 2012 Tanning's art has been re-evaluated, resulting in a retrospective exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2018) and Tate Modern, London (2019). Tanning’s work is now represented in major museum collections such as Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; Philadelphia Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Art; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh; Tate Modern, London; and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, which recently acquired two important paintings by the artist. Earlier this year, Lund Humphries published the monograph Dorothea Tanning: Transformations written by Victoria Carruthers. Tanning was not only an artist but also a philanthropist, and endowed the Academy of American Poets’ Wallace Stevens Award mastery in the art of poetry, and two foundations, The Dorothea Tanning Foundation and The Destina Foundation, which work in partnership to preserve Tanning's legacy, foster a broader public understanding of her cultural contributions, and distribute the art and assets of her estate for philanthropic purposes.
Alison Jacques has worked with Dorothea Tanning, her estate, and her foundations since 2011.
Image: Dorothea Tanning in her studio, New York, 1993. Photo: Steven Brown Studio
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Journeys: Chapter One: Dorothea Tanning: Mermaids and Metaphors