Dorothea Tanning and Her Gothic Imagination

Victoria Carruthers


Spanning an 80 year career and encompassing vastly different styles and media, the work of Dorothea Tanning revolves around a handful of obsessions. From an early stage, Tanning seeks to develop a visual vocabulary that draws on the subversive potential of both surrealist and gothic sensibilities to explore the physical and psycho-emotional nature of childhood and feminine experience. By doing so, she evokes many of the familiar tropes of the gothic: the motif of the haunted house, for example, with its capacity to fold the supernatural into otherwise ordinary, domestic spaces or the use of veils, doorways and wallpaper as possible sites of transformative potential that reveal or conceal alternate states of reality. Tanning has written extensively on the enormous influence of the imaginative excesses of her childhood experiences growing up in Galesburg, Illinois (where “nothing ever happened but the wallpaper”) and her love of gothic fiction. Her memoirs often use the ‘third person’, thereby deploying the stock gothic device of the ‘unreliable narrator’, reinforcing the blurring of fantasy and reality and the shifting nature of truth. In the interests of opening discussion my essay will touch broadly on the confluences between Tanning’s work and the gothic sensibility with reference to a sweep of the artist’s work from early ‘surrealist’ paintings to her novel Chasm (2004), including a sculptural installation and her later movement towards abstraction (collage in particular) as a desire to perform a more ‘postmodern’ concept of the gothic through fracture and fragmentation.

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