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Dr Alyce Mahon curates Dorothea Tanning exhibition at Tate Modern

Dr Alyce Mahon, Fellow of Trinity and Reader in Modern and Contemporary Art at Cambridge, has curated the first large-scale exhibition of Dorothea Tanning’s work for 25 years. She created and curated the show for the world-leading Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, where it ran from November 2018 through January 2019 and she has co-curated a second version of it for Tate Modern, from 27 February to 9 June 2019.

Dorothea Tanning, 1910-2012, was an American painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer and poet, who left small town Illinois, first for Chicago, and then for New York, where she encountered surrealism in the 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at MOMA. By 1942 she was exhibiting alongside major surrealists and in 1946 she married the leading surrealist painter Max Ernst.

Tanning and Ernst lived in Arizona, hosting an eclectic mix of visitors, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Balanchine, Marcel Duchamp and Dylan Thomas, before moving to France in 1956. Her early surrealist paintings, fusing the familiar and the strange, soon gave way to more abstract work, and in the 1960s she pioneered soft fabric sculptures in settings that presaged installation art. Later in life, Tanning wrote her memoirs and published acclaimed poetry, as well as a novel Chasm (2004).

The exhibition at Tate Modern has received five-star reviews including from The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones.  The Art Newspaper review includes a podcast by Dr Mahon. We caught up with Dr Mahon to find out more about her interest in Tanning and curating major exhibitions of the artist’s work.

Birthday, 1942. Philadelphia Museum of Art

What interests you the most about Tanning?

Dorothea Tanning was a true virago. She followed her dreams and ambitions to be a ‘great’ artist at a time when greatness was rarely ascribed to women. Beginning her artistic career by producing illustrations for Macy’s department store, by the end of the 1940s she had established herself as a surrealist, was exhibiting in group and solo exhibitions in America and France, publishing short stories, and painting powerful images of females in claustrophobic interiors. Over a sixty year career, she expanded the boundaries of Surrealism in working in a range of media – oil painting, print, design, fabric sculpture, film and fiction – and in exploring the themes of female desire, domestic space, the still life, and even the game of chess.

Why is Tanning important in Surrealism and the art world?

I have long argued that Surrealism’s post-World War II history and legacy in the feminist art movement merits greater critical and curatorial attention. In the 1940s when Tanning’s career began to flourish, many women artists internationally were expanding Surrealism in exciting new ways – artists such as Frida Kahlo from Mexico, Leonora Carrington from Britain, Leonor Fini from Argentina, as well as Tanning herself. Tanning exemplifies this new wave of creativity and a spirit of internationalism in Surrealism. Her work reminds us how crucial it is to record and understand women artists’ important role in the history of the avant-garde. It is also exciting to see how many young contemporary artists are turning to Surrealism – especially women Surrealists, for inspiration, such as Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing, and Rachel Goodyear. The centrality of sexuality and gender to Surrealist imagery and ideas resonates powerfully with the cultural and political climate today.


How do you go about curating a major retrospective at a global institution like the Reina Sofia or Tate Modern?

Hotel du Pavot. Centre Georges Pompidou Paris

In 2015 I was invited by the Museo Reina Sofia to be guest curator for a major Tanning exhibition and was then given total freedom to curate and design it – a really exciting opportunity for me! I have worked as curatorial advisor and catalogue author for numerous global museums in the past twenty years but the scale of this project was a new challenge. It required the co-ordination and display of over 100 works of art and numerous archival documents, from private collectors and museums across the globe.  Thankfully, the show was a huge success during its run in Madrid in October 2018-January 2019, and it’s wonderful that Tate Modern are now showing it in slightly modified form. Tate already has a magnificent group of paintings and sculptures by Tanning in its collection, but this retrospective recognises and celebrates her true importance for the twentieth century.

What do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?

I hope visitors are inspired by Tanning’s rich and varied body of work and that they see and enjoy how much she expanded the boundaries of modern art and of Surrealism. I also hope the exhibition helps people see that Surrealism challenged rigid boundaries of sexual, gender, racial, and national identity – it’s a positive example for us all.

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