Saturday 30 March 2019

St Albans Verulamium Park

Even though we go to St Albans every year to visit family, we had never visited the Verulanium before. After a lovely family birthday lunch we went for a walk as it was a sunny day. We walked through the town, past the Cathedral and once we reached this pub, 

we were faced with this most wonderful view.

The park is named after the Roman city of Verulamium on which it stands. The City walls and outline of the main London Gate can still be seen. During the archaeological excavations in the 1930s, a 1800-year-old hupocaust (a system of central hearing in a building that produces and circulates hot air below the floor of a room, and may also warm the walls with a series of pipes through which the hot air passes) and its covering mosaic floor were discovered.

Unfortunately, we did not have time to explore this, but we certainly will next time we visit the town. We were, however, able to walk around the ornamental lake which is fed by the river Ver.

Because it was such a nice sunny day, most of St Albans population seemed to have had the same idea as us.

The lake is home to wealth of waterbirds, including mallards, swans, herons, great crested grebes, coots, and tufted ducks.

Our circular walk was very pleasant and we eventually ended up back at the house.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning

at Tate Modern.

A survey of the 70-year old career of an artist whose work always asks us to look beyond the obvious. As a young artist in 1930s New York, Tanning discovered surrealism and what she described as 'the limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY' it offered. The movement, which emerged in Paris in the 1920s, explored the hidden workings of the mind as a source of art and writing. Working the USA and France, Tanning took its ideas and imagery in new, distinctive directions. 

Tanning was born in the small town of Galesburg, Illinois, where, she said, 'nothing happened but the wallpaper'. She escaped to other worlds through Gothic novels and poetry. In the 1930s she travelled to Chicago and then New York to pursue a career as an artist. Her first encounter with surrealism was the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1936. In 1939 she sailed to Paris hoping to meet surrealists there. 

Deirdre, 1940, (oil on canvas)

A Very Happy Picture, 1947, (oil on canvas)

Birthday, 1942, (oil on canvas)

In this self-portrait Tanning depicts herself on the threshold of  'a dream of countless doors', wearing a theatrical jacket open at the front. The tendrils of her skirt contain a swarming mass of tiny figures. A hybrid creature at her feet reinforces the idea of transformation. This self-portrait marks her 'birth' as a surrealist.

Behind the door:

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943, (oil on canvas)

I was surprised at how small this  paintings is.

Tanning described this scene as 'a confrontation between the forces of grown-up logic and the bottomless psyche of a child'. The oversized sunflower on the hotel landing is strangely animated. The high hairline of the girl in the doorway makes her face appear mask-like. The long hair of a second figure (a girl or perhaps a doll) stands on end. The figures and sense of supernatural forces recall the Gothic novels Tanning loved. Its title is borrowed from one of Mozart's most light-hearted works and appears to be used ironically.

Lumiere du Foyer (Home Light), 1952, (oil on canvas)

Works from across Tanning's career show doors left ajar and leading to other doors. The door becomes a surrealist symbol, a portal to the unconscious. While the open door represents choice and possibility, doors may also be used to lock up our most secret fears and desires.

Study for Oeuvre-Toi (Open Sesame), 1970, (graphite and pastel on paper)

Door 84, 1984, (oil on canvas with found door)

In this painting Tanning has incorporated a real door into her painting, dividing the composition in two. The loosely painted figures on either side appear to be pushing against the door to hold it in position at right-angles to the canvas.

Children's Games, 1942, (oil on canvas)

The Guest Room, 1950-52, (oil on canvas)

The drapery above suggests that this scene reveals what might ordinarily be hidden. Tanning admired how Gothic fiction 'showed what was actually happen under the tedium of daily life'. Drawing on these sources, Tanning presents the girl as a figure whose ability to enter the world of the imagination reveals the unknown within the familiar. This uncanny quality was prized by surrealists. Some have seen the girl's nudity as symbolising sexual awakening. Tanning herself dismissed such specific interpretations of her work. For her, it was 'about leaving the door open to the imagination'.

A young figure on the threshold between childhood and adulthood appears in several paintings. Tanning often pictured her near a doorway as an active figure who disrupts the familiar and domestic.

The family table:

Tanning's paintings from the 1950s present images of the family, interiors and the dining table. Subverting the traditional picture of ordered and idyllic domestic life, here the home becomes a surreal space. 

Portrait de Famille (Family Portrait), 1954, (oil on canvas)

Tanning described this painting as 'generally a comment on the hierarchy within the sacrosanct family'.

La Truite au Bleu (Poached Trout), 1952, (oil on canvas)

Daughters, 1963, (oil on canvas)

Musical Chairs, 1951, (oil on canvas)

Notes for an Apocalypse, 1978, (oil on canvas)

Domestic order, symbolised by the great gleaming white tablecloth, is disrupted by the strange entangled figures emerging from under the table. The neat grid of folds on the cloth was an image Tanning retained from her childhood in Galesburg, Illinois. She wrote that in this painting it 'may still be trying to prove something, to reassure, to bring order out of turmoil and to anchor the turbulent images'.

The Philosophers, 1952, (oil on canvas)

Two worlds:

In the mid-1950s Tanning moved towards a more abstracted 'prismatic' style of painting, and her brushwork and compositions became much looser. Where her earlier work used precise realism to present fantastical scenes, in these paintings it is colour and light that bring imaginary worlds into being. 'In looking at how many ways paint can flow onto canvas, I began to long for letting it have more freedom'. But, she never fully abandoned the figure in her work. Body parts appear to morph into the canvas or merge into other bodies: 'I wanted to make a picture that you didn't see all at once. All of my pictures of this period I felt you should discover slowly and that they would almost be kaleidoscopes that would shimmer and that you would discover something new every time you looked at it'.

Insomnias, 1957, (oil on canvas)

Tanning intended our experience of this painting to unfold gradually. In it, the figure of a child - identifiable by a face at the centre - is depicted as disjointed body parts which seem to disappear and reappear amongst folds of cloth. Tanning explained her process: 'it was like a game: hiding and revealing my familiar images, floating them in mist or storms. I felt like a magician, just to bring these forms out of nothing with y brush and paint'. The title of the work suggests the anxiety of night-time wakefulness.

Whispers, 1958, (oil on canvas)

Smooth Talkers, 1966, (oil on canvas)

Enough Said, 1962, (oil on canvas)

Tango Lives:

Tanning first met the choreographer George Balanchine in 1945 and described her encounter as 'momentous'. She went on to produce costume and set designs for four ballets with him between 1946 and 1953. Paintings such as Even Young Girls and Tango Lives show figures in dynamic dance-like poses, echoed in the soft-sculpture Embrace.

Embrace, 1969, (wool flannel and fake fur stuffed with wool)

Even the Young Girls, 1966, (oil on canvas)

Dynamic, dancer-like figures seem to circle around the canvas creating a sense of movement. Describing the inspiration for this work, Tanning said: 'I had been finding real pleasure in the tumultuous movement of bodies combined with more assertive juxtapositions of colour, hotter colour. I think it was late springtime... Outside people were doffing their coats and mufflers, the boulevards were lazy with strollers and even the young girls were like wildflowers, all bursting out in colours and explosive spirits. Painting them, I felt like a choreographer'.

Tango Lives, 1998, (oil on canvas)

Stanza, 1978, (oil on canvas)

Tanning titled this painting Stanza and described the central figure as 'the agonised writer'. An endless sheet of paper streams from their typewriter. Tanning became an accomplished poet in her later years, publishing two collections of poetry as well as a novel and two memoirs. Following her husband's death, she returned to the US in the late 1970s and 'gave full rein to her long-felt compulsion to write'. She wrote of this transition: 'Max Ernst died on April 1, 1976 and Dorothea faced a solitary future. 'Go home', said the paint tubes, the canvases, the brushes'.


Tanning explored the image of the mother at various stages of her career. Her depictions of mothers and children are far from idyllic, particularly the forlorn painting below, set in an Arizona landscape.

Maternity, 1980, (oil on canvas)

Emma, 1970, (fabric, wool and lace)

This soft sculpture takes the shape of a round belly emerging from a froth of dirty antique lace frills. Tanning names the sculpture after the lead character in Flaubert's 1856 novel Madame Bovary. Emma Bovary, bored and constrained by the roles of wife and mother, escapes through literature and secret affairs.

Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202:

In the mid-1960s, when Tanning was living and working in France, she put aside her brushes and turned to her sewing machine to create soft fabric sculptures. In Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202, she brought several of these stuffed figures together into an unsettling sculptural installation. Bodies break through the wallpaper and merge into the furniture. Only a half-open door numbered 202 appears to offer any escape from the claustrophobic, uncanny diorama. The room number refers to a popular song Tanning remembered from her childhood about Kitty Kane, who married a gangster and later poisoned herself in Room 202 of a Chicago hotel. 'Pavot' is French for poppy, a flower associated with dreams and hallucinations in art and literature because of its link with opium. Tanning said she wanted the work to appear as if 'the wallpaper will further tear with screams', yet for the scene to maintaining an 'odd banality'.

Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202, 1070-73




Soft bodies and wild desires:

Tanning described her soft sculptures as 'living materials becoming living sculptures, their life span something like ours'. Using textiles stuffed with wool and fashioned with table tennis balls, jigsaw pieces and pins she crated bizarre, bodily sculptures and what appear to be ritual or fetish objects. Playful, sinister and erotic, they straddle the division between object and being, inanimate and a

Following Max Ernst's death in 1976 Tanning returned to New York where she lived to the age of 101. Her paintings from this period celebrate the sensual and spontaneous aspects of human nature, exploring space, movement and flesh.

Cousins, 1970, (synthetic fur, wool and steel)

Reclining Nude, 1969-70, (cotton textile, cardboard, 7 table tennis balls, wool and thread)

Family Portrait, 1977, (oil on canvas)

Tweedy, 1973, (tweed, wool and metal)

This sculpture demonstrates Tanning's sense of humour. An animal-like form made of tweed is accompanied by a tiny turd in the same material.

By What Love, 1970, (tweed, metal, wool, chain and plush)

To Climb a Ladder, 1967, (oil on canvas)

Heartless, 1980, (oil on canvas)

Crepuscula Glacialis (Frozen Dusk), 1979, (black velvet, wood, metal, paint and copper)

Don Juan's Breakfast, 1972, (velvet, felt, wool, buttons, metal and cardboard)

Traffic Sign, 1970, (fabric, synthetic fur, wool, metal and cardboard)