When asked how it felt to be a surrealist in 2002, Dorothea Tanning, Grand Dame of surrealism (read: last surviving surrealist—then 91 years of age) responded “like a fossil,” with all the implications of stone-held lifelessness that description conjures for an art form that was declared definitely dead sixty years prior. Web of Dreams draws its theme from her work with the figure—a broad remit, and ultimately one that serves as a catch-all to present a chronologically wide-ranging sweep through her work, with paintings and drawings concentrated around the mid-50s to the 1980s.
Dorothea Tanning, Tableau vivant (Living Picture), 1954, Oil on canvas, Unframed: 116.6 x 88.8 cm / Framed: 117.8 x 90.5 x 3.2 cm ; Copyright The Estate of Dorothea Tanning
The dream-life represented in these works—unmolested by the logic of the daytime—is, in the main, still as absolutely fresh and un-fossilized as it must have been when she created it: a haunting of the subconscious that may age, but does not necessarily date. Among the human figures to be found amassed here in varying stages of actuality stalks a strange, doe-eyed canine biped, a veristic dream-dog from the pages of a forgotten almanac. It's faded cartoon Americana coughed into the unwaking world, as surprisingly untraditional a dream symbol as its appearance is prochronistic in its apparent subversion of kitsch. The figure returns variously throughout the exhibition. In Tableau Vivant this motley character stares out directly at the viewer, the dish-lenses pleading infinity whilst simultaneously reflecting references from the earliest anthropomorphism. It appears in direct contrast to the realism of the naked female figure that it looms over—supporting, or alternatively encroaching on, menacing. Again and again, Tanning places the viewer in this uncomfortable position; three, or four times removed from reality, one finds oneself staring into the eyes of this beast, puzzling at a loose cipher for every childhood toy, and all the concomitant trust that implies, and feeling oneself reaching for a sense of conscious logic that continues to elude. (In the eponymous painting Web of Dreams, the canine form relaxes on a curved sofa with a proto-Venus, her limbs carrying out to indefinite tangles of flesh, bacon rind against the draped cushions. In the background there seems to be the glow of molten lava). As Tanning is quoted at the entrance to the show: “My dreams are studded with objects that have no relation to anything in the dictionary… I insist words are powerless to describe a slept dream.”
Of the seven large paintings that adorn the main room of the gallery, four feature the strange progress of the toytown dream-dog, whilst the others present Tanning’s reworking of the human form. Of these, Notes for an Apocalypse—which is the central picture of the exhibition both in its placing and its command over the surrounding works—presents the viewer with an unsettling scene: tumbling bodies, reminiscent of antiquity, jostle and fall into darkness, upsetting the clean, flat expanse of a tablecloth that runs uncrumpled along the length of the painting. One holds a nearly hidden ball of fire, and is beset by a lurking, flabby death’s-head. The sense of weight and disaster is palpable. Limbs become liquid. The effect is terrifying.
Dorothea Tanning, Poses en dehors de l'atelier, 1977, Watercolor and graphite on paper, Unframed: 48.3 x 61.6 cm / Framed: 72.5 x 83.8 cm; Copyright The Estate of Dorothea Tanning
Other rooms present smaller ink drawings and sketches, where dancing anatomies, ambiguously meaty, cavort and writhe, their poses suggesting a dance of mad celebration—none more so than in the birthday card to her then-husband, Max Ernst, where within the revelers in the strange conga-line reappears the canine fiend, triumphant over its now-vanquished foe. At their most abstract, these figures come close to resembling the disintegrating letters of an unknown language, some portion of the dream that remains for a few moments on waking—cryptic, indecipherable—before fading entirely.
(Image on top: Dorothea Tanning, Notes for an Apocalypse, 1978, Oil on Canvas, Unframed: 124.3 x 163.5 cm / Framed: 126 x 165 x 3 cm; Courtesy of The Artist and Alison Jacques Gallery)