It’s head down and hoodie up when I exit Southwark tube station and enter into the drizzly meteorological coagulation of wind and rain that swirls around me as I splash my way along the puddliferous pavements to get to the monstrous megalithic structure that is Tate Modern. But then, damply entering the great cultural temple, I’m met with a curiously quiescent ambience. For once, the place seems relatively empty – devoid of both the chaotic crowds of art-loving tourists and the horrible hordes of squeaky-squawking school kids. Frankly, the space is much improved by their absence but as I ascend the escalators I can’t help wondering where they’ve all gone…and whether they might be persuaded to stay there. I know it’s selfish but it’s just so much nicer being able to stroll around the galleries here slowly drying out my soggy duds without continually side-stepping unwary backpackers or being bumped about by bored adolescents who would much prefer to gaze into small pixilated screens than peruse walls full of nice oily paintings or dodge their way around floors full of prettily plinthed sculptures.
Anyway, regardless of the other gawpers, today I’m here to take a look at the works of Dorothea Tanning, an artist about whom I know very little other than the fact that she was married to the famous Surrealist Max Ernst and that, like him, she also gained creative inspiration from delving into the deep dark waters where the subconscious psyche dreams up its magically mystical imaginings. Consequently, I suppose I sort of expect her to be a deliberately idiosyncratic, terribly enigmatic, archly mysterious, svelte femme fatale kind of a character – lounging on a chaise longue and decked out in existential black with a long cigarette holder in one hand, a cocktail in the other and a pet lobster nestling at her feet. The reality is, however, even more bizarre as the large photograph of Tanning sited at the entrance to the exhibition shows. For here she is, stood in front of one of her canvases beaming radiantly, the very picture of rude good health and normalcy, wearing a sensible dress, neat protective apron and arms akimbo as if just about to slap her thigh and launch into a chorus of I’m Jist a Girl who Cain’t Say No or some other uplifting Oklahoma! style singalong hit. Though whether Max would deign to don a cowboy hat, channel his inner Howard Keel and join in with a rendition of Oh What a Beautiful Morning seems perhaps unlikely.
Of course, one should never judge an artist by their appearance or apparel – after all the seriously strange Rene Magritte favoured wearing a bowler hat and generally dressed like a bank manager while the awkwardly odd Gilbert & George always look deceptively respectable in their matching three-piece suits. And I think it’s fair to say that after immersion in the full eight-room retrospective of Tanning’s paintings and sculptures the autobiographical career portrait that emerges is of an artist who had a solid technical proficiency, an enthusiastic willingness to experiment and also shared the kind of dark sense of humour that was characteristic of certain strain of Surrealistic subversiveness. While the show here is perhaps unlikely to prompt any major re-evaluation of Tanning’s position in the artistic hierarchy, and propel her to the truly top ranks of Modernistic mastery, the exhibition as a whole confirms her to be a very credible talent who, while perhaps over-influenced in her early work by the realistically fashioned absurdities that made Salvador Dali so popular and successful, did eventually manage to gain the self-confidence to fashion her own innovative productions that were undoubtedly truly original and also definitely seminal in their own limited ways.
As her early work shows, rather than the extravagant excesses of Dali’s world of flammable giraffes, spindle-legged elephants and softly melting timepieces, Tanning’s pictures tended to be located in the more parochial setting of the home. Not that it’s the warm protective place where happy families live and love and dream but rather the type of iconic creepy haunted house where scary nightmare narratives get played out and there’s no-one around to hear you scream. It’s the kind of claustrophobic place where pre-pubescent somnambulists have to dodge the encroaching tendrils of a giant sunflower or a bare-breasted woman wearing a cloak of seaweed opens a door to find a winged gremlin has just landed on the floor in front of her. Some of the symbolism in Tanning’s paintings from this period seems a bit contrived – the girl sleeping with the mannequin; the woman in her undies stood alone in the middle of the desert; the pekingese dog with the face of a child; the repeated motif of the half-open doors – but then I’ve never been entirely convinced that Dali’s own actual dreams were ever really as vividly spectacular as his paintings claim them to be.
After this early, what might be called literal, phase Tanning seems to have found her own voice and started to produce larger, much less well-defined paintings. Some include figurative elements – typically odd body parts that merge and blur into one another – but others stray into totally abstract territory. All are elegant, neatly composed and confirm that the artist had a definite skill when wielding her brushes but none, I think, could be said to show real force or power or point. And, I suppose to say that they’re attractive but not fiercely compelling might be accurate if, perhaps, a little too much like damning with faint praise.
Much more interesting are Tanning’s later series of soft sculptures which create hybrid manifestations of biomorphic shape-shifters – three dimensional equivalents to some of the Frankenstein bodily entanglements mentioned before. Part of the appeal being trying to work out where one limb ends in its wrestling match with the other writhing fabric formations. It’s a stylistic game that Sarah Lucas brought up-to-date during her YBA days and, indeed, different aspects of Tanning’s work seem to have clearly influenced other British artists including both Paula Rego and Jenny Saville.
The exhibition closes with a short documentary in which Tanning guides the viewer on a short tour of her studio – her lilting Southern accent again seeming quite at odds with her strange Surrealist persona. Although, watching her lug some of her odd body part sculptures up a winding staircase past someone (maybe Ernst, I couldn’t quite tell), who seems to be dressed up as cross between a Ruritanian prince and the vampire grandpa from the Munsters TV show, seems to be the perfect form of ludicrous comic book Surrealism perfect for the new world, although I’m sure it would have horrified Breton and some of the other French originals.
Thankfully, the rain seems to have stopped by the time I finish touring the show and get back outside. There’s a terrible ominous black cloud to the north but, as far as I can tell, the wind is blowing the other way so I think I’m going to be ok as I walk west along the embankment. It’s a thought I hear actually expressed by some alcoholic looking tramp who catches my gaze, points to the sky and mutters that he thinks we’re going to stay dry. I sort of assume that for all their other anti-social faults these tragic men of the road are somehow more closely attuned to the forces of the natural world and so I stride along comforted by the confirmation of my own weather forecast analysis that it’s going to be blue skies from here on in. It’s a feeling that lasts for about ten minutes until the clouds open and the deluge drenches down. Finally, after sheltering for a while under a crowded bus stop, the shower stops and I start out again finally reaching Lambeth Palace and the neighbouring Garden Museum which is the other brief stop on today’s itinerary.
Unfortunately, there’s not really enough space to describe in detail the Museum’s permanent collection, suffice to say that it’s an entertainingly diverse hodge-podge of items ranging from a decorative display of seed packets to the cast of a dodo’s head and from a rack of ancient watering cans to a jocular parade of ornamental garden gnomes. But, leaving all that aside, the specific reason for my visit today is to see the small temporary show of paintings by Ivon Hitchens.
In keeping with the setting, all of Hitchens’ works here are of a floral nature, either straightforward selections of flowers in vases or bowls, or else garden views full of rows and beds of shrubs and trees. But while some of the subjects are identifiable – I just about managed to spot some poppies and sunflowers – Hitchens’ main stylistic trick was to use the forms and colours of the botanical world around him to act as inspirational scaffolding for the foundations of semi-abstract arrangements of shapes and shades.
I’m sure when these works were first displayed in the immediate post-war period the combinations of streaks and blurs, patches and splatters of colour must have looked daringly radical and a great leap forward from the more naturalistic figurations of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works that are their natural antecedents. But, familiar as we are today, with the much more bumptiously extravagant urban Abstractionism that tumbled out of America not long after, Hitchens’ paintings with their organic roots now look rather subdued and somewhat quaint by comparison. Although, without wishing to appear too overtly chauvinistic, I kind of think that I rather prefer them that way.