Dorothea Tanning, Honorary Witch

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the first large-scale exhibition of Dorothea Tanning’s artwork at the Tate Modern in London. I went hoping to learn a bit more about women in surrealism, and see some of the richly colored, eerie interior paintings I had come to be familiar with from Tanning. I didn’t, however, expect to see a series of pastel, abstract paintings of tangled limbs and celestial bodies. As I moved through the exhibition, I realized something new to me–Dorothea is a witch!

Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) was an American surrealist artist and writer. She studied painting and became a central member of the Surrealist movement. She was interested in interior space, often putting a microscope to gender roles and the private spaces we live most of our lives in. Her paintings like ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ are unsettling but familiar, and appear like strange dreams to the viewer. It was paintings like this that I knew–but I had no idea about her later work which moved away from surrealism and into abstraction. Her paintings of the late 70s and 80s display an interest in the body: she paints full, fleshy portraits of bodies with no faces, set in strange planes or nowhere at all. These coincide with her development of ‘soft sculptures,‘ a series of stuffed fabric forms that feel at once alive and estranged.

Tanning’s explorations of the body are what caught my eye. The way she tangled the limbs of her subjects about themselves reminded me so much of the Northern Renaissance witch prints that I obsess over. I found so many comparisons between images of ‘witches’ throughout time and Tanning’s work. I’m not quite sure what to do with this discovery, or if Tanning ever even had an interest in these associations, but I felt I should share them here. Male painters throughout time have morphed nude women into evil witches in their artworks, and Tanning’s paintings feel like a reclamation for those women. She meets flesh head-on, not afraid of it, not trying to weaponize it, but allows the viewer to feel discomfort and curiosity for the flesh in front of them and their own bodies.

For more on Tanning, visit her website here.

March 24, 2019

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