Academic journal article British and American Studies

Corrupt Childhood. Dorothea Tanning's Chasm: A Weekend

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Corrupt Childhood. Dorothea Tanning's Chasm: A Weekend

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The relatively obvious mirroring between Dorothea Tanning's oeuvre as a painter and her literary work has been noted by the artist herself: "Each of my paintings are steps marked on the same path. I don't see any cuts, any deviations. The same preoccupations are manifest since the beginning. Obsessions come to the surface as marks that can't be erased. My paintings, and lastly my sculptures, are part of the same search, with the same discoveries, the same storms, the same mad laughter, suffering and rebirth" (Tanning 1974, qtd in Carruthers 2011: 134). Prolonging the image/text analogy, Tanning once declared that publishing a story is very close to "the showing of a new picture to friends" with the notable difference that "the looking eyes become the reading eyes" (Tanning qtd. in Conley 2013: 132). This analogy might seem common, yet it is particularly relevant for Tanning's case: her fiction accurately translates the surrealist vision coagulated in her plastic art.

It has been argued that Tanning's fiction has a consistent gothic dimension (Carruthers 2011, Conley 2013), with a special focus on domestic spaces - houses, hallways, rooms - that no longer preserve their traditional role of protection and shelter, but appear dark and threatening, hiding malevolent forces and evil spirits. There is a clear connection between female presences and a domestic environment, one that Tanning dismantles and subversively reinterprets: not only in her painting, but in her literature as well, girls and women take part in the creation of the strange atmosphere of interiors, abandoning their traditional role as agents of order and coherence. The artist's intention to satirize her bourgeois upbringing may be invoked here as well: "gothic fantasy was very influential in my life. It allowed the possibility of creating a new reality, one not dependant on bourgeois values but a way of showing what was actually happening under the tedium of daily life. Of course, I was always thrilled by terror and chaos also." (Tanning 1974, qtd. in Carruthers 2011: 135).

2. Dark childhood

Images of corrupt innocence, violence and trauma inhabit both worlds - painting and literature - and they are rendered with the specific means of each artistic discourse. One of Tanning's first contacts with Surrealism dates back to 1936, when she visited the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was then that she realized that she was sharing the same interests with other artists, which prompted her to pursue her interests even more actively. Although she followed her surrealist calling well into the later years of her life, the universe of childhood and the infantile are especially predominant in the 1940-1950 years of her career. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, a painting from 1943, reunites some of the most prominent motifs in Tanning's work. The invocation of infantile imagery is mediated by the presence of young girls on the cusp of adolescence, suggesting a brave and domineering demeanour; they seem to be the masters of unsettling, otherworldly dreamscapes, apparently having just participated in bizarre events, reminding of strange passage rituals; menacing presences (here, a gigantic sunflower) and out of place objects, incongruent with the context (tree branches, broken eggs) contribute to the subtle terror infiltrating the atmosphere. These elements, kept together by an invisible thread of disquietude and eeriness, suggest conflict and violence. Opposing forces seem to try to assert their primacy over the imaginary territory depicted, mimicking an almost human instinct of domination and conquest; the domestic setting is not comforting, but cold and unsettling (large, hoteldike hallways leading to hidden bedrooms, doors opening to baroque, labyrinthine interiors, bourgeois 20th century New York haunted houses), becoming the ideal scene for nightmarish visions of unseen conflicts and metamorphoses. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.