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Dorothea Tanning and Perilous Childhoods III: 'Palaestra' by Selin Genc

A dimly lit interior, where a band of somnambulant preadolescent girls are up against unknown forces... Eyes shut, the children are having bodily, sensuous experiences. They are within a psychic realm where dream and awakeness are fused, and internal desires are outwardly manifested. Their bodies interweave in a ritualistic ardour as they float and ascend, with an undressed child in the pinnacle. This is Dorothea Tanning’s painting Palaestra (1947). The title alludes to ancient greek wrestling arenas, where playful battles prepare for real combat, and serious knowledge is acquired through innocent play.

In the corner of the room, seemingly beckoning the procession towards a door, is the silhouette of a boy in an 18th-century frock, a tricorne hat and with a whip in his hand. Those who are familiar with surrealist iconography will identify the figure as the juvenile Marquis de Sade. The small marquis signifies an exploration of sexuality not yet tamed by social convention and morality. Childhood is a time when mechanisms of repression and sublimation are still negotiated. Sexual drives are not yet restrained by morality and they are not yet limited by their intercoursal functions. Nevertheless, in the diagonal corner in front of the picture plane is a metal-framed box containing nebulous forms- a foreboding omen from the adult sexual realm, where impulses are withdrawn and inhibited. The box denotes ordering of the drives and governance of desires. However, the girls in Palaestra are not yet tamed by the influence of such outside forces. They are in a moment of pure sensations and ecstatic bodily joys.

Dorothea Tanning, 'Palaestra,' 1947

As feminist critic and literary theorist Helene Cixous writes, this is a ‘world of searching, the elaboration of knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her own erotogeneity’. The naivete of childhood is thus not of stupidity, but of a disregard for adult convention that inhibits curiosity and exploration. The enfant-savant has all the resources on the tip of her tingling fingers to access the knowledge embedded in her body. As Cixous writes of Medusa (who is, like Pandora, a wise-woman, an ‘femme-savant’), ‘I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs.’ A child already overflows unless she is petrified into rigidity by adult moralism. By sustaining her curiosity, an enfant-savant may grow up to become a strong femme-savant one day.


Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1, no. 4 (1976): 875-93. Freud, Sigmund. Three essays on the theory of sexuality (1905). London: Hogarth Press, 1953. Mulvey, Laura. Fetishism and Curiosity. London: British Film Institute; Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1996.

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

She also runs an art history blog on instagram @ladyhamiltonasbacchante.


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