Review: Breaking Down Doors with Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Poppy Hotel, Room 202)’, 1970-73. Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls 133 7/8 x 122 1/8 x 185 in.

The Tate’s first large-scale exhibition of artist Dorothea Tanning for twenty-five years offers one hundred works from her incredible seven-decade career and leads the viewer from room to room. This is rather apt, as Tanning’s paintings hinge on the transitory. Doors are often left ajar, hanging open with light peeking through in ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’, or leading to a mise en abyme of other doorways in ‘Birthday’, or literally protruding from the canvas in ‘Door 84’ as two female figures push against the frame. As the gallery-goer wanders from room to room, through doorway after doorway, they transverse deeper into the unsettling, disturbing and brilliant wonderland. Curiouser and curiouser, the eight rooms vaguely follow the chronological trajectory of Illinois-born Tanning, from her early engagement with gothic oil-paint tableau that saw realism collide with fantasy, to flamboyant costume designs for the ballet and theatre, to her later paintings which are looser, more abstract and gestural, where body parts merge into unintelligible, uncanny dioramas of colour and affect. Throughout the later rooms soft, fabric, textile and oddly tactile material sculptures (created on Tanning’s sewing machine and stuffed with wool) burst through wallpaper and protrude from stands; a disembodied pregnant bulge here (‘Emma’), a curved leg there.

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Deux mots (Two Words)’, 1963. Oil on canvas 51 3/16 x 38 3/16 in.

Tanning first encountered surrealism in the 1930s, having moved to New York to pursue a career as an artist. She described and embraced surrealism as a ‘limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY’, with a profound ‘effort to plumb our deepest subconscious to find out about ourselves’. This impulse to engage with the deepest and often darkest parts of human nature can be seen across her phenomenal oeuvre. Walking into the first room, her famous ‘Endgame’ stands to the right of the entrance, denoting a surreal chessboard and a stamping glass slipper. This playful piece, the curators state, ‘represents intellectual and artistic interplay with members of the surrealist circle, as well as her romantic link with Ernst.’ The vague story of Tanning and the surrealist painter Max Ernst’s meeting has been told many times; he would name her self-portrait ‘Birthday’ (many critics have cited this as the ‘birth’ of her as a surrealist painter) , play a game of chess after the exhibition they met at, and then would marry in 1946. Ernst and his influence is often discussed in conflation with Tanning’s artistic practice; but, walking through the many rooms in this brilliant exhibition, thoughts of Ernst barely make it through the first door.

What overwhelms the exhibition is Tanning’s engagement with the female body and desire. Bodies are often depicted in movement, flux or transition. Whether it’s a liminal lingering on the precipice of a doorway (‘Birthday’), dancing (‘Tango Lives’), or caught in a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of oil paint where you can just about make out the shape of a torso or an arm (‘Deux Mot’); the paintings are sensual, sinister and evasive in their depiction of space, movement and embodiment.

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Tango Lives’, 1977. Oil on canvas 51 3/16 x 38 3/16 in.

Perhaps this fixation with movement or motion within her painting is a means of resistance,  flight and freedom. These paintings move away from or outside of the hegemonic, patriarchal constraints of convention, gender stereotypes, tradition, marriage, motherhood and domesticity. Tanning’s soft sculpture of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is ‘Emma’ is a stark and startling commentary on motherhood and tradition; a huge cushiony pregnant stomach that protrudes from dirty, tea-stained Victorian frills and lace. Tanning’s ‘Maternity’ is set in a harsh, overwhelming and infinite desert where a despondent mother cradles her child and a small, Pekingese dog looks out to the viewer with a human child’s face amid the fluffy dangling dog ears. Tanning’s depiction of maternity is odd, affronting and ominous. Room Three shows Tanning’s many depictions of a sinister ‘Family Table’. She subverts traditional notions of a family dinner table, stating these paintings are ‘generally a comment on the hierarchy within the sacrosanct family’. A huge, towering and authoritarian father figure looms in the background in ‘Portrait de Famille’, and ‘Some Roses and Their Phantoms’ scatters wilted, decrepit petals over dinner plates.

The most striking is the installation piece that awaits around a corner in Room Seven: ‘Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202’. A dusty french hotel room with soft fabric limbs, bellies and shapes that capture a startling yet sensual sense of the uncanny valley as bulges of stuffed fabric are contorted in what might be pain or pleasure. Whether it’s an episode of Stranger Things with demogorgons bursting through walls, or perhaps a line from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper: ‘I don’t like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?’, or the song that Tanning named the installation sculpture after; this piece is hugely evocative and haunting. The odd material limbs extend out of the walls, merge with the furniture and encroach on one’s very own sense of materiality. Caught in motion between object and subject, alive or inanimate, Tanning reflects that she wanted the dingy hotel room to look as if ‘the wallpaper will further tear with screams’.  

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Emma’, 1970. Fabric, wool, and lace 11 11/16 x 25 3/8 x 21 5/8 in. (body: 11 1/4 x 22 x 12 1/2 in.)

Through these eight rooms, through the doorways in and protruding out of Tanning’s work, and through this collection spanning her seven-decade career, this exhibition demonstrates and celebrates her profound contribution to surrealism as a movement, and explores the ways her subversive approach to craft, practice and feminism dismantled the reductive tyranny of the patriarchal family portrait, motherhood and allowed the female form to launch itself chaotically and gloriously through new doorways to explore, as Tanning desires, ‘unknown but knowable states’.

Dorothea Tanning is at the Tate Modern, London, until 9 June 2019. Book tickets here.


Words: Polly Hember, a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London.


All artwork by Dorothea Tanning, images courtesy of https://www.dorotheatanning.org/

“Who’s ready for Becky’s Time!”: How Lee Minora’s ‘White Feminist’ Crafts and Deconstructs Identity

Lee Minora. © Kate Raines. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Middle fingers up and pink pussy-hat on – Becky Harlowe (Lee Minora) makes her entrance into the room. She stands tall and smiles with a wide grin as she coos “Don’t be afraid, I mean well…” like a horror movie villain who has just broken into your house. Sporting a perfectly styled blonde wig, hot pink lipstick and three-inch high heels, she tells us to sit back, relax and “watch her make progress”.

Lee Minora is an American theatre-maker, solo-performer, comedian and commentator who “dissects red hot political and feminist issues with scalpel sharp humour and stealthy smarts.”[1] Presented as part of The Sick of Fringe: Care and Destruction three-day festival at the Wellcome Collection in April 2019, Minora’s incredibly witty and uncomfortable show White Feminist does exactly that. First developed during Minora’s residency at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, PA, the show has also toured to San Francisco’s Fury Factory and the Edinburgh Fringe. It is no wonder, then, why Minora was asked to bring the show for its London debut as part of a festival that sought to showcase some of the most exciting voices looking at how the body is in dialogue with a world in pain, societal injustice and systems of oppression

Through her character Becky Harlowe, a well-intentioned but vain talk-show host, Minora beautifully crafts and embodies the quintessential “white-feminist”. To be brief, white feminism is the label given to feminist efforts and actions that uplift white women but that exclude and fail to address issues faced by minority groups, especially women of colour and LGBTQ+ women.[2] Over the course of the hour-long show, Minora simultaneously dissects this identity before our eyes, using audience participation to draw awareness to the problematic behaviours of white feminists. As Harlowe demands us to repeat with her upon returning to the stage, “we are all Beckys today.”

Becky Harlowe’s persona draws direct characteristics from former American daytime talk-show hosts Megyn Kelly and Kathie Lee Gifford, such as her sleek blonde hairdo, constant references to her family and white wine drinking habit. The entire talk-show setting and “live audience” environment was crafty way to hold this critique of mainstream feminism and capitalist liberalism. Minora skilfully incorporates elements of the female talk-show to construct Becky’s character and identity. The “Becky’s Time” set has all she needs: a high table for where she can comment on the important topics, flowers to keep it feminine, a low side table for those more intimate side-segment moments, and a big “B” to remind us all who is the star of the show.  

Throughout the performance Becky speaks in slogans, pulling out all the right words and phrases from the stereotypical, liberal non-intersectional feminist playbook, such as promising that she is always “100% real” on her show and referring to the audience as her fellow “citizen heroes”. She makes an apology for promoting a non-inclusive makeup brand and is devastated to find out viewers did not find it convincing. Becky asks us “Who participated in a march? Who signed an online petition? Who is tired of Brexit?”. No matter our answer, Minora’s skilfully improvised remarks ensures our eyes, and judgement, remain on Becky. Becky took up space at the Women’s March, Becky too suffers from outrage fatigue. Through her performance, she holds up a mirror to contemporary activism and its shortcomings, from the trendiness of protesting and ubiquitous well-meaning online acts to how racism and sexism fall on both sides of the aisle.

These crafted segments of the show continue to weave together the deplorable yet seemingly well-meaning image of Becky in front of us. Does Becky really feel this way or is she a feminist only when convenient?

Lee Minora in White Feminist © John C Hawthorne. Courtesy of Lee Minora.

Then we begin to see something of the ‘real’ Becky behind her TV persona.  She moves to a segment for reading the live twitter feed and we begin to see her distress at the escalating language used by the commenters, starting with honest criticisms tagged with #boycottbecky to increasingly startling remarks promoting violence against women. This prompts Becky into the finest part of her character’s development where we see her inevitably start to break down over her confusion about what she has done wrong – “What do I do? I’m sorry white women voted for Trump! I’m sorry we stole yoga, but I don’t know how to give it back!

We are all laughing at Becky: her narcissism, her ignorance and then ­– silence. In a true moment of weakness Becky discloses her own #metoo trauma. Minora uses this moment to gather our sympathy for Becky and demonstrate her character as both the oppressor and oppressed.

It works brilliantly. We start to feel sorry for Becky, for the traumatic experience she has gone through. Have we been to too harsh in our judgement of Becky? Perhaps this confession is the beginning of her journey towards change and real intersectional feminism. But then Becky goes back to reading the live twitter feed with a returning smile from all the tweeting supporters who commend her bravery and pledge their allegiance to “#Becky’sArmy”. Wearing her pink pussy hat like a crown, Becky announces that she is proud to lead the “#metoo” movement and stands defiantly towards the camera as if ready to “save” the world. That moment of potential enlightenment for Becky is gone.

Minora presents a wonderfully crafted and very convincing embodiment of the problematic and harmful “white feminist.” Her excellent in-character improvisation from audience interaction makes it clear that each performance is its own tailored experience creates a sense of intimacy within the audience and comfortability with Minora, especially as she covers some pretty uncomfortable topics. Minora’s success in White Feminist comes from her ability to both present and dissect a completely believable and recognizable character, who embodies the toxic ignorance inherent in white feminism.

However, there is a danger the show is merely preaching to the choir: a performance with a title such as this is likely to attract those already conscious of the limpness of white feminism. Another criticism is the lack of women of colour directly in the show, other perspectives to this weighty topic. That is something I had wished there was more of, and who knows – perhaps in the future “Becky’s Time” will have some well-needed guests to the conversation about race, gender and privilege.

The importance of this performance is how it acts a reminder that no matter how liberal or feminist or “woke” you think you are – especially white women – there needs to be a constant awareness and rechecking of our privilege: where can we improve and how can we be better allies to our fellow feminists of all backgrounds.

White Feminist was as part of The Sick of Fringe: Care and Destruction three-day festival at the Wellcome Collection in London on 6 -7 April 2019. For more information about the performance and Lee Minora, click here.

Words: Suzanna Petot, a freelance curator and writer based in London.


[1] “Lee Minora: White Feminist – The Sick of the Fringe London 2019”. The Sick of the Fringe.com. Accessed 15 April 2019. http://thesickofthefringe.com/london2019/lee-minora

[2] “White Feminism” Definition. Dictionary.com. Accessed 13 May 2019. https://www.dictionary.com/e/gender-sexuality/white-feminism/