Tanning's Pictograph: Repossessing Woman's Fantasy *

By Kang, Soo Y. | Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Tanning's Pictograph: Repossessing Woman's Fantasy *


Kang, Soo Y., Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art


Since the publication of "Women of Surrealism" by Gloria Orenstein in 1973, there have been many critical studies on women Surrealists, bringing their previously much neglected works to light, particularly in the 1990s. (1) One of the artists who has been discussed in all major books on women Surrealists is Dorothea Tanning. (2) She has, however consistenty rejected the categorization and declined to address the women question. (3) To the editors of Surrealism and Women, who sought to elucidate the nature of the literary and visual works of women artists in contrast to those by their male counterparts, Tanning wrote a letter claiming her position foremost as a human being who chose to be an artist rather than a 'woman artist.' (4) The nature of her works, however, prove the case to be more complex. Many prominent traits of female art that Whitney Chadwick discussed extensively in Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement can be found in the works of Tanning. (5) Like many works by other women artists, hers are highly personal and deal with childhood imagery. (6) But beyond the more apparent comparisons, her works of the late 1940s and early 1950s depict a distinctive domain of little girls that seems to speak of woman's space and desire. Regardless of her own intention and position, Tanning's works, I believe, evidence a woman's voice. This paper is a theoretical study of her works that utilizes psychoanalytic and feminist concepts to illuminate the gendered dimension of her art.

Robert Belton claimed that the defining category of a separate and unique female art may be an illusion, created by writers who approached the works of art with a preconceived separatist notion. (7) The case is particularly difficult to ascertain with Surrealist works: one cannot be certain whether the subversive content and imagery that are in defiance of patriarchal authority are generated out of the avant-garde or the feminist stance. It is true that women artists have produced aberrant images and acted in a radical manner to undermine conventional values and standards, but they frequently utilized female qualities and issues for the purpose. Leonor Fini, for instance, played with traditional notions of female charms and interest through appearance and costumes to create her pictorial sexual fantasies as well as actual masquerades, dressing herself elaborately with extravagant hats and masks, to mock the very practice. (8) She and Ithel Colquhoun replaced the typical idyllic female nude in pastoral landscape with male versions to challenge the accepted norm of the object of gaze. (9)

Belton argued that Surrealist women artists, despite such attempts to find their own voice, rely heavily on the themes and mechanics of their male counterparts. (10) Tanning is not an exception. Her paintings of little girls of late 1940s and early 1950s contain a highly charged erotic subtext that matches the sexually-explicit works of the male artists in effect (Figs. 1, 3, 6, 7). (11) They are, furthermore, related to one of the major themes that the male Surrealists were preoccupied with: the femme-enfant. For Andre Breton and his circle of male Surrealists, the woman-child or child-woman, as many prefer, was the ultimate muse of their creative endeavors. (12) The combination of woman and child, who are both supposed to be close to nature and the unconscious, was an irresistably powerful source that enhanced their journey to the dreamworld. They thus sought out young women who retained genuine child-like characteristics, or young girls who prematurely exhibited adult traits in character and ability. An example is Gisele Prassinos who was writing uncanny poems with sharp wit and alarming implications at the age of fourteen when the Surrealists discovered her in 1934. (13) She was called the "imperial monument to the femme-enfant" by Salvador Dali and was idolized by Breton in Anthologie de I'humour noir of 1941. (14) So Tanning's works may appear at first to merely follow a major Surrealist trend, revealing precocious little girls in sexual ecstasy. …

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