The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

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JUNE 2010 Issue

Dorothea Tanning: Early Designs for the Stage

Dorothea Tanning,
Dorothea Tanning, "Costume Design for The Witch (The Butlers)," 1950, Gouache on dark blue paper, 16 x 11 1/4 inches, Collection Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York

On View
Drawing Room
April 23 – July 23, 2010
New York

Dorothea Tanning, the last surviving vintage American surrealist, is too-often remembered as the widow of avant-god Max Ernst, but she’s so much more. On August 25, she will officially become a centenarian, her laser-like wit and unmatched talent still very much in evidence. She lives on Fifth Avenue in lower Manhattan, surrounded by surrealist art and memories.

When she first arrived here from Chicago in 1937, Tanning was instantly taken with the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1942, she found herself among the refugee intellectuals and artists from Nazi-occupied Europe. Julien Levy, whose gallery represented the surrealists in New York, took her on after seeing the only two canvases she had to show him. He invited her to a party, where she met Max Ernst, who had been interned in a French POW camp as a German “enemy-alien” and fled Europe with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, to whom he was then married.

Not long afterward, while recruiting artists for an exhibition called 30 Women at Guggenheim’s pioneering Art of This Century gallery, Ernst visited Tanning’s studio. He was so impressed with her self-portrait, “Birthday,” that he persuaded Peggy to include Tanning and change the title to 31 Women, and he and Tanning quickly fell madly in love. Guggenheim was later heard to say she wished she’d left it at 30, because within three weeks of that studio visit, Ernst had moved in with Tanning. They married in 1946, in a double ceremony with Man Ray and dancer/model Juliet Browner, and they stayed together until Ernst’s death in 1976. (Coincidentally, Man Ray also died that year.)

In the early 1940’s Tanning also met modernist choreographer George Balanchine and by mid-decade started a collaboration with him that lasted until 1953, creating surreal ballet-costume designs such as upper-body octopus masks and a sailboat-hat with a veil streaked in blue to mimic waves. Which brings us to this show.

Early Designs for the Stage, displayed at the Drawing Room across the street from the Drawing Center, puts this aspect of Tanning’s oeuvre on public view for the first time, featuring hand-drawn ballet costumes, set designs, ephemera and archival photographs from the 1940’s and 50’s. Assembled by assistant curators Joanna Kleinberg and Rachel Liebowitz, the exhibit underscores the designs’ powerful intersection of dance, theater, costume, painting, and sculpture. Tanning’s whimsical creations embody a sense of movement not only through the myriad veils she employs, but also in the nature of the costumes themselves, which are bewitchingly ecstatic.

Dorothea Tanning,
Dorothea Tanning, "Costume Design for Bayou," 1950, Watercolor and gouache on paper, 12 1/4 x 9 inches, Collection Frey Norris Gallery, San Francisco

For “Night Shadow,” dated 1945-46, she created a disproportionate headdress/mask replete with the feathers of an exotic bird and a quasi-gothic set, which is featured on a souvenir program from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The performance also featured a masked ball where the dancers wore sophisticated headdresses depicting an elk with bejeweled antlers, a big clock surrounded by a white spiral cage, a horse’s head, spherical domes one on top of the other, a bizarre fish, and even a Spanish fan-mask.

In many of the dances, Tanning pushed at the limits of masquerade, dressing performers in elaborate flowers and ripped, flowing materials, sometimes making one wonder how the dancers were able to perform or even see through the billowing, overlaid fabrics.

“The Witch” (1950), for choreography by John Cranko and music by Ravel, is my favorite, with biomorphic elements surrounding castle walls and costumes that include an octopus-masked female dancer. Among the other ballets represented are “The Butlers,” with insect-like tuxedos in red and silver, black and red, each punctuated by exactly 36 big buttons, and “The Bayou” (1951), highlighted by a big white bird with a red beak that, as Lincoln Kirstein notes in the performance’s program, “calls, and from the moss-hung forest come those who hear this call to dance.”

At age 99, Tanning has dedicated more than 70 years to exploring the boundaries of fantasy and dreams in art. Her later work has become increasingly biomorphic, baroque, surreal, chimerical, and sculptural. An interviewer once asked her whether she felt her art was autobiographical, in light of the way the energy imbuing her paintings belied her relatively mundane daily life. She replied that “everything we do is autobiographical. So one of my reasons for painting was really to escape my biography. Are we the prisoners of our events, or can another life be entirely made up?”

She went on to say that sometimes she uses her belief in human destiny to excuse herself for doing things she later considers questionable, and that in her paintings, there are events and references to things that she hasn’t known or experienced. But they remain autobiographical through the “distorting mirror” of the world of dreams.

This show is both a walk through American ballet of the mid-20th century and a rare glimpse into the creative process, iconography and multiple talents of Dorothea Tanning: artist, poet, novelist, set and costume designer.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

All Issues