The Forgotten Books of Dorothea Tanning

This article was first published by MutualArt on 4 April 2019

It has often been said that Dorothea Tanning had two careers in her exceptionally long life: first as a visual artist, then as a writer. At the current Tate Modern exhibition of Tanning’s paintings and sculptures, you can read her statement that it was after the death of her husband Max Ernst in 1976 that she “gave full rein to her long felt compulsion to write.” The decades before her own death in 2012 were increasingly dedicated to literature, as she produced two memoirs, a novel, and two well-regarded collections of poetry.

Nonetheless, it would be truer to say that word and image went hand-in-hand throughout Tanning’s career. She published a steady stream of texts during the height of her visual output from the 1940s until the 1970s. Moreover, as the wealth of literary allusions in her paintings suggests, she drew constant inspiration from the horde of books she and Ernst kept in their home. Tanning told the New York Times in 1995: “All my life I’ve been on the fence about whether to be an artist or writer.”

But the most overlooked aspect of Tanning’s literary-artistic career is her involvement in numerous books of poetry and printmaking in France from the 1950s onwards. These include collaborations with several French authors, and two books of Tanning’s own French poetry and prints – Demain (1963) and En chair et en or (1974).

These works deserve more attention. For one thing, the etchings and lithographs Tanning produced for these books amount to a significant and distinctive part of her oeuvre. According to Clare Elliott, curator of an upcoming show of Tanning’s graphic works at the Menil Collection in Houston, her prints “achieve a variety of visual effects impossible to achieve with other materials. Ranging from dreamlike representation to near total abstraction, they reveal the breadth of her formal innovation.”

What is more, a closer look at Tanning’s bookmaking years can give us a unique perspective on her as an artist – her working methods, her outlook, and her relationship to the movement she was most influenced by, Surrealism.


Book mania

Arriving in Paris in 1950, Tanning discovered a thriving scene around the beau livre, or limited edition artist’s book. “Paris in the first fifty years of our century spawned more beau livresthan the rest of the world together,” she recalled in 1983. “To call it mania would not have surprised or displeased anyone.” Mostly these books were collaborations between an artist and a poet, “with mutual admiration as the basic glue that held them together,” as well as an editor who normally bankrolled the project.

Tanning dove straight into this milieu. In 1950 she produced a series of lithographs, Les 7 Périls Spectraux (The 7 Spectral Perils), to accompany text by the Surrealist poet André Pieyre de Mandiargues. Here we can recognise several motifs from Tanning’s early paintings – most notably in Premier peril, where a female figure with a dishevelled mask of hair presses herself against an open door, which is also the cover of a book. But with her combination of visual textures, Tanning achieves a new depth in these images, showing her embrace of the lithographic process in all its layered intricacy.

As the collaborations continued during the 1950s and 60s, Tanning’s printmaking ambitions grew. Like many artists before her, she discovered in etching and lithography a seemingly limitless arena for experimentation, attempting a wide range of techniques and compositions. And in 1963 she went a step further, replacing the poetry of other authors with her own.

Screenshot 2019-05-14 at 13.17.58
Dorothea Tanning, “Frontispiece for Demain” and “Untitled for Demain” (1963). Courtesy of the Dorothea Tanning Foundation.

The result was Demain (Tomorrow), a book of six etchings and a poem in French dispersed across several pages. Though modest in size – just ten squared centimetres – it is a punchy work of Surrealism. The poem progresses through a series of menacing images, as language breaks down in the presence of time and memory. It concludes: “The night chews its bone / My house asks itself / And deplores / Tonight, bath of mud / Evening fetish of a hundred thousand years, / My vampire.” The etchings convey a similar sense of dissolution, with vague forms emerging from a fog of aquatint.

Making Demain involved frustrations any printmaker could recognise. She would later describe watching her printer, Georges Visat, “wiping colours on the little plates while I stood by, always imploring for another try. There must have been fifty of these.” She was, however, thrilled by the result: “For my own words my own images – what more could one ask?”

Eleven years later Tanning produced En chair et en or (Of flesh and gold), a more substantial and, in every respect, more accomplished book. Its ten etchings, in which curvaceous, almost-human figures are suspended above landscapes of pale yellow and blue, show us what to expect from the accompanying poem. Everything expresses a sense of poise, a dazzling, enigmatic tension:

Body and face drift
Down with nightfall, unnoticed.
Draw near, draw nearer
Your destination.

Gradually, Tanning introduces notes of violence and desire, culminating in the striking final stanza: “Death on a weekend / Opened the dance like a vein / Flaming flesh and gold.”


Second languages

Dorothea Tanning, “Quoi de plus,” from “En chair et en or” (1974). Courtesy of the Dorothea Tanning foundation.

By the time of En chair et en or, we can identify some characteristic features in Tanning’s printmaking and poetry. Her etchings typically present coarse background textures, ghostly colours, and loosely organic forms. Her poems, meanwhile, reveal her exposure to the international Surrealist movement during the 1940s. (In “Demain”for instance, there are direct echoes of the Mexican poet Octavio Paz).

But this is not the most insightful way to approach Tanning’s books. For what really appealed to her, an English-speaking painter, about printmaking and French poetry was the opportunity to escape familiar forms of expression.

“Much of this work, and etchings that follow, have to do with chance,” she wrote about one of her collaborations, “for so many things can happen to a copper plate, depending on how you treat it, that implications are myriad.” Very few artists master the printmaking process to the degree that they know exactly what they are going to get at the end of it, but for Tanning this was part of its allure. In her comments about printmaking, she often used words like “discovery” and “adventure.” Unpredictability, in other words, was a creative asset.

The same can be said of her poetry in this period. The Irish playwright Samuel Beckett claimed that he wrote in French precisely because he did not know it as well as English, and so was less confined by conventional style and idiom. Likewise, it is striking how raw and immediate Tanning’s French poetry is by comparison with her later work in English.

All of this resonates with what originally drew Tanning to Surrealism – in her often quoted phrase from 1936, “the limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY.” In its earliest and most dramatic phase, an important aim of Surrealism had been for artists to loosen their control over expression, thus allowing more spontaneous, expansive forms of communication and meaning. This is what printmaking and French – both, in a sense, second languages – allowed Tanning to do.

Eliot’s Waste Land and the crisis of artistic value


What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead trees give no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water

– T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land


I had a professor who used to say there was an exact moment when modernism arrived in English poetry, and it was the third line of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” This is when Eliot, in a sudden and disturbing image, describes the evening sky as “Like a patient etherised upon a table.” The simile still carries a punch today, but this is just an echo of what it signified on publication in 1915. Drawing heavily on the jaundiced outlook of French symbolism, Eliot was making poetry confront the emotional register of modern life, with its lurking anxieties and peculiar sense of estrangement.

But the awkward young émigré from St Louis, Missouri, did not end his contribution to modernist poetry there. Seven years later, in 1922, he published what is widely seen as its landmark work. The Waste Land, written while Eliot was recuperating from a nervous breakdown, is a five-poem sequence which considers from a mythological perspective the febrile and traumatised civilisation that had barely emerged from the First World War. Using an innovative collage technique, it splices together desolate scenes of ordinary life with references to cultures distant in time and space. It thus portrays a world haunted by the wellsprings of meaning from which it has experienced a terminal rupture.

At the heart of the poem, thematically speaking, is the “waste land” itself – a series of barren terrains whose most prominent features are absence, infertility and confusion:

The river’s tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

Around this void-like centre are layered a multitude of different voices or perspectives, all expressing the same anxieties, but isolated from one another by the poem’s abrupt, fragmented structure. Hence the “waste land” is echoed not just in the mundane suffering of individuals (“He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you / To get yourself some teeth”) and at the level of civilisational uncertainty (“Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal”), but also in the impossibility of piecing it all together. And strewn throughout, we find an eclectic array of characters and quotations from world literature, including Plutarch, Ovid, St Augustine, Dante, Spencer, and the Buddha.

Of course neither abstruse experimentation nor pessimism were unusual in interwar literature. But even so, The Waste Land is remarkable for its over-wrought intensity. Eliot himself made light of this when asked for some explanatory notes to help baffled readers, producing an index of intellectual arcana that discusses everything from ancient vegetation ceremonies to the price of raisins. Indeed, it’s difficult to pin down exactly how much conviction Eliot had in his more apocalyptic pronouncements, and ultimately, whether you find the poem a compelling diagnosis of the modern condition or something akin to intellectual masturbation will probably depend on your own demeanour.

However there is one area where The Waste Land has undoubtedly proved prophetic, and that is in the arts themselves. I was reminded of this recently by an exhibition at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, called “Journeys with The Waste Land,” which explores how Eliot’s poem has resonated with visual art across the last century. The show is worth discussing, because it does indeed manage to illustrate some of The Waste Land’s most prescient insights – only, not in the way it actually intends to.

The exhibition is enormous. With almost a hundred artworks, and too many big names to list here, there is bound to be something you will enjoy (for me this was Kathe Kollwitz, Paula Rego, Tacita Dean, and four huge paintings by the Eliot-inspired abstract expressionist Cy Twombly). It is also stimulating to see how non-Western artists, despite very different contexts, have echoed The Waste Land’s vision of modernity. But ultimately, these brief insights are diminished by the exhibition’s sprawling incoherence. Besides being curated around big baggy topics like identity, myth, and technology, it presents such a smorgasbord of concepts and of media – from painting, photography and textiles to installation, printmaking and video – you eventually feel like you’re winding through an enormous out-of-town supermarket.

There are also unconvincing attempts to assign to The Waste Land the preoccupations of the 21st-century art world. In the first room, we read that the “key themes of the poem” are “gender, myth and journeying” – I must have read it fifty times and never has its concern for gender struck me as anything but incidental. Later, The Waste Land is portrayed as an eco-poem, “reminding us of our interference with and damage to cycles of nature.” It’s fitting, then, that the show occupies the same beach where Eliot wrote the lines “On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” With its aimless approach, connecting nothing with nothing is exactly what this show has done.

But inadvertently, “Journeys with The Waste Land” does illustrate something important about art over the last century, and to greater and lesser degrees, about many areas of contemporary culture. For what we see reflected in the exhibition’s radical diversity of expression, and in the tenuous attempts to glue it all together, is the absence of any stable or enduring framework for artistic value. It is a labyrinth of niches and paradigms which, though perfectly capable of aspiring to value on their own terms, can only be appreciated together if one adopts a detached, scholarly relativism. By failing to make this explicit, the curators have missed a trick; for here is a situation to which The Waste Land really is pertinent.

As we have seen, Eliot’s “waste land” is an allegorical landscape, a disorientation at once cultural, spiritual, and psychological. Yet underpinning this, and in a sense embodied by the poem itself, is also a treatment of the uncertain purpose and meaning of art in modern society. When Eliot asks, in a crucial passage, “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” the question is partly self-referential. For as is suggested by the poem’s ephemeral, obscure and disjointed allusions to lapsed literary traditions, art can no longer be part of some holistic cultural and religious whole. This must be true because culture itself has become a shattered prism without any central axis.

This realisation, in turn, casts a revealing light on the poem’s own experiments in form, structure, and idiom. Such innovations, however dazzling, are of only conditional value insofar as they do not issue from the roots and branches of a coherent metaphysical structure, but from its breakdown. Indeed, if The Waste Land is anything to go by, all that remains for the artist at this point is sifting through “a heap of broken images,” and seeking a new way of establishing continuity between them. Presumably, any attempt to invent new purpose will end up in the same position as the poem’s various characters: isolated and plagued by anxieties over their impermanence.

Eliot’s contemporaries could not miss this message, for in the first two decades of the 20th century, the same atmosphere of social and cultural unraveling which inspired The Waste Land had caused something to snap in the realm of artistic production. This was the heyday of movement-based art, with its multitude of “isms:” Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Constructivism, Suprematism, and so on. These inter-disciplinary, avant-garde networks advanced not just new formal approaches but, more fundamentally, new and conflicting ideas about art’s purpose and value. Gone was the rigid art world of the late 19th century, in which a single curmudgeonly critic (John Ruskin) attacking a single painter (James Whistler) could produce a scandalous libel case.

Within these new milieus, art was being variously imagined as a vehicle for revolutionary politics, as a specialist branch of aesthetic experimentation and contemplation, as a celebration of technology, and as a channel for the unhindered (and often unhinged) expression of the individual psyche. Such divergence, moreover, was self-perpetuating, since it dramatically accelerated the withdrawal of the arts into a separate sphere of discourse, detached from culture at large. This only heightened the nagging uncertainty about what artistic products are actually for, and whether they had anything of real use or relevance to offer society – questions which in turn guaranteed a further profusion of answers.

Nor was Eliot a remote observer of these developments. Like so many authors of the period, he owed his breakthrough to Ezra Pound, the flamboyant and fanatical cultural broker who personally initiated a string of movements such as Imagism and Vorticism. In fact, Pound was so instrumental in crafting the iconic structure of The Waste Land that he should probably be credited as co-author. In the manuscript we see him stripping away any semblance of convention, with comments like “verse [i.e. traditional poetic form] not interesting enough as verse to warrant so much of it.”

But it is precisely The Waste Land’s unflinchingly avant-garde posture that makes its recognition of the crisis of artistic value so compelling. Eliot was disdainful of nostalgia; remember his earlier “Prufrock” was partly responsible for dragging poetry out of the corpse of Victorian romanticism. Moreover, as he pointed out in his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” artistic genealogies are always in a kind of flux, as each new addition forces a fresh perspective on what has gone before. Eliot simply acknowledged that the modern perspective was defined by a kind of radical disjuncture, and wanted to explore the implications of that. This meant confronting the insecurity inherent to the modern artist’s task of, as it were, inventing his own values.

Most forms of artistic production have been insulated from the full force of this dilemma by simple practicalities: novels, plays, music, film and architecture have limited materials to make use of and specific markets to target. I would argue these natural boundaries allow us to appreciate the creative freedom that modern culture has brought, without being too concerned that as a consequence, there is something arbitrary about the goals instantiated in any particular work. This is why the best illustration of The Waste Land’s insights can today be found in art galleries and magazines. Having been subject to ever-fewer conventional constraints and popular expectations, this expanding ragbag of purposes and practices has come to embody the profound uncertainties that entered culture a century ago.