• The Debutante

Dorothea Tanning and Perilous Childhoods II: 'Children's Games' and 'Interieur'

By Selin Genc


In a long and claustrophobic corridor, two girls are are tearing at the wall-paper. They reveal, under the wafer-thin grey surface, warm colours of human skin, dark crevices of navels and pubic shadows. Like in a story by Edgar Allan Poe, female bodies are trapped in the structure of the walls. On the bottom corner of the painting, towards the front of the picture plane, protrudes the feet of a defeated girl; the struggle is not without its martyrs. The dress of the girl who still is in mid-battle metamorphoses onto her back, undressing her. Her hair floats up in the counter-direction, connecting to the navel on the wall. The girls are engaged in a simultaneous act of revealing and severing, of exposing and being ensnared. Tanning ominously calls this 1942 painting Children’s Games.


Dorothea Tanning, 'Children's Games,' 1942

As noted by Karen Coats, who follows the footsteps of psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, adolescence is a time when drastic bodily changes occur and reproductive functions start to burgeon. For the first time since early infancy, the notion of selfhood, which had been stabilised atop a well-defined mental image of the child’s own body, becomes evasive. The body loses its integrity as a symbolic unity in the preadolescent’s conception, and fractures into a sensual and foreign terrain. Like shedding the abstract surface vestiges of childhood, the girls tear at the wallpaper, revealing a carnal realm. In this revolution of states from childhood to adolescence, a fleeting return to infancy takes place before the full transformation is completed. It is possible to liken the hair of the girl in the painting to an umbilical cord connecting to a navel. In late stages of infancy, one eventually recognises their mother’s body as separate from their own, and abject it, which is to say, reject it as an Other. Following this cut of a mental umbilical cord, the infant starts to construe a symbolic perception her own body. By skinning the walls, the preadolescents are reliving this initial separation. First, they expose the sensual, non- symbolic body. Then, they reject it once again in joyous violence and abject the mother anew. In a double motion, revelation leads to rejection. Contradicting impulses converge and give rise to new libidinal directions, propelling the children into their future selves. It is a time for dissident experiences and enriching sensations, of losing oneself and finding it again (though irrevocably changed).


Likewise, in the painting Interieur (1953) a girl is trapped and lost in the process of a transformation from which she is bound to discover herself afresh. Doors open onto doors in a labyrinthine path. A child in pyjamas is desperately trying to close one of the doors, but an amorphic figure is blocking the way. Light spills through this aperture as the girl fights to remain in the shadows. These thresholds are like the boundaries that remain in constant flux during childhood and adolescence; crossing them leads to a rite of passage that the child faces with much resistance and fear. The attempt to pass onto the next stage of psychosexual development by shutting a previous chapter is met with some resistance as psychological detritus is obstructing the way. Nonetheless, a transformation is underway and the child is far from being a passive figure. Her struggle can thus be identified as growth-pains. Growth, here, does not only correspond to age, but rather is an avalanche of emotive and imaginative shifts discharging ‘psychological excess’. Being entrapped in her present state may be a necessary step for her future emancipation.


Dorothea Tanning, 'Interieur,' 1953

Children who have rich inner worlds may be wise beyond their years if they have passed through such thresholds. The price for revelation is set at having to traverse tremulous grounds. As selfhood is negotiated, many oppositional forces are revealed to be more intimately linked than immediately apparent, as what may be feared may unfold as a spring of pleasure, and what is desired may be unmasked as something adverse later on. Nevertheless, as the ‘enfant-savant’ acquires more knowledge through these dangerous negotiations, she is slowly, but surely, paving the way to become a ‘femme- savant’, emerging from her chrysalis as a perceptive, self-aware and strong adult.


References

Carruthers, Victoria. Dorothea Tanning : Transformations. London: Lund Humphries, 2020. Coats, Karen. Looking Glasses and Neverlands : Lacan, Desire, and Subjectivity in Children's Literature. University of Iowa Press, 2004. Mary Ann Caws, The Surrealist Look: An Erotics of Encounter, (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT, 1999), 222. Oliver, Kelly. "Julia Kristeva's Feminist Revolutions." Hypatia 8, no. 3 (1993): 94-114.



Selin Genc is an artist and writer who has been published on Lucy Writers Platform, the Rattlecap, the Gallyry, and Mad'in Europe. She is a recent graduate of History of Art from the University of Edinburgh (2021) and currently studying Modern European Philosophy at Leiden University.


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.