This charming, playful family photograph of American Surrealist Dorothea Tanning with her two nieces Mimi and Martha Johnson, taken at the home she shared with her husband Max Ernst in Seillans, France, features wallpaper, the only thing that happened in her childhood home in Galesburg, Illnois, prominently.
In several of her works, noticeably Children’s Games and the final masterpiece of Surrealism, Room 202, Poppy Hotel, the wallpaper conveys a sense of menace bordering on horror. In her concentration on claustrophobic domestic spaces Tanning anticipated a whole wave of female artists, noticeably the photography of Francesca Woodman.
The multi-talented Dorothea Tanning is primarily known for her paintings and sculpture, however she was also an excellent poet and writer. Below is a piece first published in 1943 in the American Surrealist magazine VVV.
It must have been a very bleak winter that year. I have no recollection of the weather, only the marvellous and relentless order in which everything occurred. It was the time that the sewing machine broke loose; nothing could have been more inopportune or diabolically calculated-the leaves had been carefully gathered and stored and now they were to be sewn together. They were particularly good leaves, I remember, sere and thin, each with the track of the snail on its under side, exactly the kind of leaf for a birthday. And now the sewing machine had gone, fled without a word of warning. Chagrined, unnerved, and with an inexplicable feeling of portent, it was I who set out in hopeless search. The month was November but the day had no date.
You, casket of the terrible jewel, cove of the silent finless fish, empty socket of the absent eye, today you shall encounter your mirrored image unaware. But you must know that at the moment of occurrence you shall be absorbed utterly, utterly and finally. Speak not of will. Your will is a frail delusion. Once confronted by the image you are like a beam which is projected and withdrawn by the flame. If it is the true, the inconceivable image, then the veil is irreparably rent, and you have achieved the incomparable.
Rain, a gray steady soaking rain. And this demoniacal wind! It heaves and subsides, raves, moans and vomits and then, remembering something, screams. We meet in the street, in a block of elegantly respectable residences, houses inspired by Beckford and those inconsequential romantics who built “ruins” of brownstone and golden oak. And in this flange of dreary facades is one drearier than the rest, because it is the most idiotic in design and because it is abandoned. The rain beats at our raincoats, trickles down between our breasts and up between our toes, and we run up the curving flight of abandoned steps. Here is not simply a momentary shelter, for the door swings open and we are upon the threshold.
Approach, my child, my diabolical daughter of the veiled eye. Reach into that cunning reticule of yours, give me the onerous instrument. You open your eyes so wide, your eyes with the veil lying on them? Do you pretend you have not disposed of the beautiful beloved, the beautiful ones and the dull? Draw nearer, my child of the fateful mouth . . . .
We push our way through a tangled paludine growth which is rooted in the sweating ceiling of the foyer. The rooms are bare, the doors ajar. The silence breathes on our faces, draws blood from our ears and I am aware of a numbing melancholy, that wide featureless melancholy that includes everything and explains nothing. Hand in hand, then, (because that is how such things are done) we traverse the silent empty rooms and, nearing the end, we encounter a sleeping gray-faced man in a panama hat. He is a little like Sasha Guitry, the same bloated look, the same gash for a mouth, the same watch-chain, only instead of the soft belly he has embedded just under his diaphragm, an aquarium. It is filled with a thick slime, pale yellow, in which writhes our runaway sewing machine. Quickly, I thrust my hand into the warm ooze and withdraw the gasping object.
“Listen to me; have I not already told you what to do here?” says the gray-faced man, waking up “How extraordinary!”
Without further hesitance I reach into my robe for the beautiful shining implement and, with one hand, perform my inevitable task. A final glance at the tangled heap of vine-twisted human wreckage and I perceive that I am now completely and finally alone. That is as it should be. Too late now for the leaves; they have shrivelled and ignited. There will be no sewing now, for the landscape is laid waste, burnt to a cinder, cratered and truncated as far as they eye can see.
Woman, when you lie with the cat who grins obscenely, the red-eyed dog with the hairless human arms, when you gaze with your veiled eyes at the many-armed calamary and helplessly desire him, when you swoon at the thought of the exquisite wound carved in the light of a phosphorous moon, do you then imagine you are sleeping? Is it possible each night to embark on that motionless viscious lake, to roam the interstices of that melancholy, monster-ridden park and still refuse to accept the name that guides your steps? Beware the sickly nobility of conscious will! Beware, my hard-eyed hard-eyed daughter, of the definitive hypodermic!
Arriving at the last room, I feel no pain. The white tossing foam of my sensations covers and intoxicates me like some inexhaustible nepenthe. (How innocent is black as compared to that arch-color, white!) I see, calmly now, that the trap is set. The paralytic moment has come and I am to lose my castle or my king. But, as always in this precious instance, there is no choice. I am one vast fiery wound, closed and healed with a hardness impossible to the untouched. There is only a marvellous kind of synaesthesic awareness that the wallpaper is singing to me. And this is the song of the wallpaper.
Stitch the leaves then, stitch them carefully and with regard for the isolated time-beat. Tremble a little upon the threshold. One feigned tremor flung magnanimously to that enormous sloth which is legion. Today you have been born, out of abysmal sorrow and knowledge, out of warnings, wounds, pestilence, obscene, spasms, defilements; out of hates, and holocausts, guts and gothic grandeurs, frenzy, crimes, visions, scorpions, secretions, love and the devil. Today you shall be married to your future.
Dorothea Tanning remarked on her childhood in Galesburg, Illinois that nothing happened but the wallpaper, however everything, even wallpaper, is grist to the true artists mill and she succeeded during her long and incredibly productive life to create memorable works set in conventional domestic spaces filled with mystery, confrontation and revelation.
Family Portrait was painted in Sedona, Arizona, where Tanning lived with her husband Max Ernst for part of every year until they moved to France permanently in 1957 . The painting is dominated by the huge father (or husband) figure wearing sinister mirrored round glasses in the background. The size of each figure seems entirely dependent on their status within the family group. The perky daughter (or wife) with her large and expressive eyes sits level at the table with its crisp linen and strange dishes, dwarfing the housekeeper who is little bigger than the small dog on its hindquarters begging for its dinner. The muted colours add to the ominous and oppressive atmosphere. Family Portrait is a suburban Gothic drama of hidden tensions and Wonderland-like changes in scale that lingers unnervingly in the memory.