Dorothea Tanning and Perilous Childhoods I: 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik'
By Selin Genc
Drawing on their personal experiences and memories, and much infatuated by the recent Freudian theories, Surrealists saw in the vast lands of infantile impressions rich grounds to excavate the enigmas of the human condition. Attempting to uncover the horrifying alongside marvellous mental states generated in this early period of a person’s life, they created a discourse around childhood, often envisioning a helpless, fearful time when the essence of a person is formed. In her paintings, American surrealist Dorothea Tanning reveals an incredibly perilous psychic domain that children face with ferocity and vigilance. For Tanning, this is not only a time when selfhood is produced under external effects, but when the child engages head-on with the processes of her own development. In Tanning’s portrayals of girlhood experiences, fear and pleasure appear as complementary facets of the emotional experiences that children navigate. Her works often explore how children negotiate psychic multiplicities, as she depicts coming-of-age journeys and sexual awakenings that are propelled by passionate desires and fraught with sinister dangers.
In Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) we are presented with a scene that appears to be the aftermath of a battle between two girls and a large, menacing sunflower, in a confining hotel corridor. The girls stand victorious, though one of them appears utterly exhausted. Their garbs periodise them in the late-Victorian or early-Edwardian era, and their dainty figures allude to 19th-century children’s literature illustrations, reminiscent of episodes in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This unsettling event and setting subverts 19th-century literary aesthetics and ideals of childhood, disrupting the bourgeois etiquette that envisages the nursery as a place of innocence and soft morality, or children as mindless cherubs. Like Alice, Tanning’s young girls are up against mysterious and hostile forces. Tanning seems to suggest that there is an unrecognised power and subsequent maturity in little girls.
There is an intimate connection as well as hostility between the young girl and the animated flower. Surrealism scholar Catriona McAra speculates that the sunflower in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik signifies defloration, menstruation and erotic nocturnal knowledge. Furthermore, I would add that the flower is abject, making use of psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva’s key notion of the abject, which fascinates yet disgusts, excites yet terrifies. Such conjuncture of opposites is incarnated in the monstrous sunflower, which seems to mirror and exteriorise inner attributes of the child in its confrontational correspondence to her. It is the unknown the child senses within herself: a source of concern and fascination. ‘One does not know it, one does not desire it, one joys in it. Violently and painfully. A passion,’ writes Kristeva.
Tanning’s girls, in their mature courage and grown-up attire, evoke the surrealist trope of the ‘femme-enfant’ that converges womanhood with childhood for their supposed mutual and marvellous naivete: the infantile woman and the mature maiden. As seen from the critical perspective of art historian Whitney Chadwick, the femme-enfant works from the archetype that women and children alike are naturally irrational and have susceptible minds. They are relegated to a passive position, as if they are open receptacles to the wonders of the world without agency over their own desires and thoughts. Yet, as can be seen in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Tanning’s young girls do not compromise from ferocity and the exertion of an ardent will. So, how useful is the frame of the femme-enfant is to understand their psychic capacities?
Far from being a passive period in one’s life, childhood is a time when power and knowledge are sought, negotiated, and even found. The child appears, then, as a powerful and knowledgeable figure in her own right, a more nuanced being than the one proposed in the femme-enfant. For this reason, I suggest that we describe her as the ‘knowing-child’, or, the ‘enfant-savant.'
After all, why should it be that children are thought of as incapable of experiencing great passions and sophisticated inner-dramas, unless they are attributed adult-like characteristics? If anything, Tanning’s paintings suggest childhood is the time when the most complicated, disturbing mental states arise. It is a stage in identity formation when the starkest contradictions occur; what we tend to perceive from an adult lens as discordant impulses can, in the infantile emotional realm, coexist with ease and simultaneously feed the child’s psychic world. This abundance and intensity in psychological activity gives rise to bewildered, adverse, but overall tantalising impulses, opening avenues for great discoveries. Far from being a passive period in one’s life, childhood is a time when power and knowledge are sought, negotiated, and even found. The child appears, then, as a powerful and knowledgeable figure in her own right, a more nuanced being than the one proposed in the femme-enfant. For this reason, I suggest that we describe her as the ‘knowing-child’, or, the ‘enfant-savant.'
Carruthers, Victoria. Dorothea Tanning : Transformations. London: Lund Humphries, 2020. Chadwick, Whitney. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985. Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. McAra, Catriona. “Surrealism's Curiosity: Lewis Carroll and the Femme-Enfant.” Papers of Surrealism 9(2011): 5-9.
Selin is a recent graduate of History of Art from the University of Edinburgh (2021) and currently studying Modern European Philosophy at Leiden University, Selin Genc is an artist and writer who has been published on Lucy Writers Platform, the Rattlecap, the Gallyry, and Mad'in Europe. Her essay ‘Creative Cartographies’ was featured as a podcast episode on Technecast. Selin's art practice is informed by a feminist surrealist trajectory. Her portfolio can be found at https://selingenc-art.wixsite.com/portfolio.
She also runs an art history blog on instagram @ladyhamiltonasbacchante.