London: Dorothea Tanning and “Magic Realism” @ the Tate Modern

I don’t think I’d ever heard of Dorothea Tanning until this exhibition came to the Tate Modern and I saw an article about it in the paper. Her art looked intriguing, but to be honest I still probably would have skipped the exhibition due to the admission fee, had Marcus not been keen. But since he was, and I had been wanting to see the exhibition about art from the Weimar Republic that was also at the Tate, so this seemed like a good chance to get a look at both.

Dorothea Tanning runs until 9th June and costs £13 (but National Art Pass holders get 50% off), and there doesn’t seem to be any need to pre-book, though it was reasonably full inside the exhibition when I visited on a weekday. Tanning was an American artist (from Galesburg, Illinois originally) who escaped the boredom of everyday life by reading Gothic novels as a child, and there is definitely a strong sense of the Gothic in her surrealist paintings. The gallery was divided into rooms reflecting the different stages in Tanning’s life and career, starting with fairly tame newspaper illustrations for Macy’s from the 1930s (though I’m slightly disturbed that “beaver fur berets” are even a thing), and moving on to her first flirtations with surrealism, via her Birthday self-portrait (shown above) with a very cute little dragony-griffin thing that I would 100% have as a pet.

I quite liked Tanning’s early surrealist pieces, especially as many of them incorporated a funny little dog modelled on her husband Max Ernst’s (a German painter) pet Lhasa Apso. I was less enamoured with the ones in a more abstract style, made after she and Max moved from Arizona to France in the 1950s – I liked her use of colour, but they weren’t to my particular taste.

In the 1960s, Tanning began experimenting more with soft sculptures, which she produced on her old Singer sewing machine. They were used in my favourite installation, Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (above left), which was based on a song about a gangster’s wife who poisoned herself in Room 202 of a hotel in Chicago. It was excellently creepy, with stuffed body parts emerging from the walls of an old hotel room.

The stuffed dog with the tiny turd (as it was described in the exhibition) cracked me up, and I enjoyed the video at the end of the exhibition which showed Tanning at work making some of her soft sculptures and arranging them on some stairs in a menacing fashion. It was interesting seeing the ways her work changed over her very long lifetime (she died in 2012, at the age of 101), but I wasn’t crazy about some of the pieces, and I felt it was quite expensive for what we got, especially after seeing the “Magic Realism” exhibition, which I’ll get to in a moment. I also didn’t like how you had to walk back through all the galleries to get out, which I think disrupts the flow of an exhibition. I always prefer separate entrances and exits, and I’m always surprised when larger museums with the budget to do so don’t arrange their galleries in this way, not least because it’s easier to make them flow into a shop at the end! 2.5/5.

And now for “Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-1933,” which I was actually properly excited to see. My favourite band for years and years was the World/Inferno Friendship Society, who are rather difficult to describe – they’re sort of a blend of punk, klezmer, polka, and various other influences – and my favourite song of theirs is called “Ich Errinere Mich An Weimar,” which is about the Weimar Republic, sort of loosely based on the plot of Cabaret. So I’ve always been kind of interested in the Weimar, and this exhibition just made me even more interested.

“Magic Realism” was free to see, and runs until 14th July. It just so happened that the first room of the exhibition was the best room, so I was enchanted from the start. This room had the theme of “Circus,” mainly thanks to the excellent circus themed illustrations of Otto Dix, who was my favourite artist featured here. Lest you get too carried away with how charming all the artwork in here was, there was a timeline on the wall explaining how the Weimar Republic led straight into Nazi Germany, and how so many of the Weimar artists (who the Nazis would label “degenerate artists”) were strongly influenced by their experiences fighting in the First World War.

I was struck by how modern some of the paintings looked, particularly the woman on the right, above. I could actually see ties between some of the works in this exhibition and Dorothea Tanning. I’m not super well versed on art terminology, but after all, surely “magic realism” is just another way of saying surrealism? But I think I still prefer the style of “magic realism” to surrealism, at least judging by the pieces that were on display here.

Each room had a different theme, ending up in a particularly disturbing religion themed room (with paintings like the one below left), but I think there was nonetheless something to enjoy in each section, even the more depressing ones, and I learned a fair bit about Weimar Germany. All of the artists who remained in Germany after the Nazis came to power (some chose to flee) were forced to join the Cultural Ministry and paint only “inoffensive” things, like landscapes, and many of the earlier “degenerate” pieces that remained in Germany were destroyed, so I’m glad at least these pieces survived! I enjoyed this so much more than the exhibition we paid to see, but sometimes them’s the breaks, and there are definitely worse ways to spend money than on a museum exhibition – at least it will go to support a sector I’m passionate about. 4/5 – if you like slightly weird art, definitely go check this one out if you can before it closes!



  1. Great post. Lots to ponder in this one… #1 How did the Weimar Republic morph into Nazi Germany? I’ve wondered about this ever since I saw Cabaret. #2 I’ve always associated Magic Realism with Latin America and Surrealism with Europe. Clearly this is not the case, so I obviously have some research to do. #3 Why do I find the lady in the Tanning picture so creepy and the monster so adorable? I find the whole “degenerate art” thing one of the most interesting aspects of Nazi Germany. The kids and I did a lot of research into it the first time we studied WWII (they were little and I didn’t want to get into the whole holocaust thing). The Nazis put on a whole exhibit (which was apparently very popular) and it was interesting to follow the lives of the artists they featured.

    1. Well, to answer those to the best of my ability… 1. I think how the Weimar Republic became Nazi Germany is kind of scary to contemplate, because it does bear a resemblance to what is currently happening in various countries. A lot of it was due to economic issues – unemployment, hyperinflation, recession, and Germany being forced to repay crippling loans after WWI. It polarised society and created extremists on both sides who couldn’t agree on anything to keep the democracy functioning.
      2.The term “magic realism” was apparently used on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was coined by a German art critic.
      3. I don’t know, but he sure is cute!

      1. Yeah, topic #1 is scary to contemplate… nothing like “us versus them” to get yourself into a position of power. So sad that it is so much more effective than “love thy neighbor.”

  2. I hadn’t heard of Dorothea Tanning either but I’ve definitely seen that fantastic Birthday portrait before. So glad to now know about the woman behind the image – thank you! And I’m totally in agreement – I’d happily welcome that little creature into my home.
    Whoa – that Chambre 202 installation. Knowing the story behind it really ups the inky-creepiness of the piece. Makes me think she must’ve been an influence on David Lynch.
    I like quite a few of the paintings from the Weimar Germany exhibit – especially the lead guy doing the weird neck-chin thing.
    I love your description of the “difficult to describe” World/Inferno Friendship Society. You’ve sold me already. I’m going to have to look them up.

    1. I went through a period of complete obsession with World/Inferno, including a summer where I basically followed them around Europe (before I lived here) and befriended their roadies, with whom I ended up spending three crazy days in Amsterdam. I was also friends with their manager for a while, who even offered to let me have the spare bedroom in his apartment back when I was trying to move to Pittsburgh for an MA (didn’t get in and eventually moved to London instead, so that one probably worked out for the best). Not that any of this is a big deal, because they’re just a punk band, but it made me feel cool at the time, and I hope you like them if you listen to them, though I haven’t heard their last couple of albums, so can’t speak for their recent stuff.

      1. I do like them! So glad for the introduction – thank you. Following them around Europe sounds like a lot of fun – also like something I would do. When I love a band, I can go all Pepe Le Pew pretty quick.

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