Dorothea Tanning: Web of Dreams (2014) – Art Review

Dorothea TanningWeb of Dreams 2014


“If I wasn’t known as a Surrealist, I don’t think it would be evident in what i’m doing now. But I’m branded as a surrealist. Tant Pis.”‘

Dorothea Tanning


Many artists battle with their persona. It’s almost a form of type-casting. The difference is in how much it overshadows their work. Whether that be by one success, by a movement they’re associated with, by their life or death or by their partner, it seems to affect how their work is seen. Dorothea Tanning makes a claim of being branded as a Surrealist but she is far more overshadowed by her husband Max Ernst. In reality she has a very respectable body of work, very much inflamed by, but not limited to, Surrealism. All is very different to the works of Max Ernst. The exhibition starts with a beautiful quote on dreamwork – again Surrealist? Not limited to. A sad story: she will never escape the associations with Max Ernst’s Works or Surrealism. But do try and help her.


Figurative or Abstract? Many might know of her earlier works Birthday (1942) or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943), I want to disappoint you: they weren’t there. (Though I include them in the Gallery below) This was never about Surrealism, this was about Dorothea Tanning. Many of the works blur between figurative and abstract, That may be the figure of a woman – but is it? An emphasis is made on the difference and similarity of the two. The female form is manipulated and played with. Each painting (if it includes it) has a very powerful use of colour.The playful nature of the images between figurative and abstract goes well with the flowing colours that transform a vibrant colour into another. Each image grips you and few wouldn’t reward you for looking closer. In spite of a focus on later works, there is a lot to behold here.


Taking a moment to consider dreams, not connected exactly with Surrealism but just focusing on the dreams, an extra layer is added. Now, Surrealism looked for representations of the subconscious (I admit this is a reductionist statement) and to consider dreams is a large part of that. The moments created through Surrealism can certainly be created and were used by Dorothea Tanning. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik creates a juxtaposition of states as the very real figures experience very real objects out of place and with an experience of an other world. This could very well be attributed to the dream. In fact many could say that her works readily belong amongst other Surrealist painters. Magritte with The Treachery of Images (Magritte, 1929) and La clé des songs described objects contrary to conventional meanings and so displays how Surrealism was against rational explanation and symbolism. The frequent image of the woman and a dog In Dorothea Tanning’s works may or may not be working to the Surrealist cause. The way a woman (self or general?) is manipulated into various degrees of contortion may be symbolic but are also something that you may only see in dreams. The dog is usually displayed with a lot more attention to detail and therefore has more presence, giving it a character unto itself. Again this may or may not be giving it a more human character than the human in the paintings but again seems more connected with how a dog may appear in a dream. In spite of Dorothea Tannings statement (quoted above) I have to disagree, there appears a Surrealist air to the dog that holds a woman like a woman may hold a dog. To the way that a woman practically melts and contorts. Surrealism was also very preoccupied with dreams for which the exhibit is named and so is one of her paintings – reflecting her preoccupation too.


This was a very interesting exhibit, reflecting many aspects of Dorothea Tanning’s later works beyond, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or Birthday. She may well be an artist that continually struggles against labels, some deserved, Surrealism, some not, Max Ernst. Her works are vibrant and some very interesting pieces were included, but maybe more were needed. Each painting has a distinctive presence and grips you with colour and its imagery. The seeming juxtapositions and use of the female figure is inviting. Where would you see such play between Abstract and Figurative images? Web of Dreams I am lost in you.


Web of Dreams ran from 11 July till 27 Sep 2014.


Further Reading  – A Review – A Review – A Review

Between Lives: An Artist and Her World

Dorothea Tanning

A comprehensive Gallery

Unwrapping Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday

Dorothea Tanning and Her Gothic Imagination



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.