Dorothea Tanning's 'Nue Couchée'
Nue couchée, (shown below) 1969-70, is one of a group of soft sculptures made by Tanning that evoke the female body. Here the pink fabric, the emphatically, even outrageously, rounded forms, the suggestion of vertebrae made by the table tennis balls inside the sculpture, and the limb-like extrusions which, in folding back on themselves, help balance the horizontal sculpture, combine to create this metamorphic ‘nude’. Its form can be seen as closely related to other pink fabric sculptures of the period, such as Emma, 1970 (collection of the artist), and the headless creatures that appear to burst out of the walls in Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202, 1970-3, one of which also has inside it table tennis balls, suggesting vertebrae (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). It also relates closely to Tanning’s treatment of the body in her paintings from the late 1950s and 1960s which evoke bodies and couplings in scenes suggestive of delirium and abandon.
Tanning herself always stressed the absolute continuity of her approach: her way of doing things changed but her preoccupations – often informed by literary memories – remained the same. Nue couchée (1969-70), with its outrageously displayed bottom and languorously crossed limbs, seems to invite comment about Tanning’s representation of female sexuality and to have little to do with Romanticism. In a letter to the author, however, Tanning recalled with pleasure the way the sculpture was once displayed at the Zabriskie Gallery, New York – placed on a low plinth and encased in Perspex – and how this had reminded her of a scene described in Phantastes (1858) by the Scots writer George MacDonald. In his novel the hero enters a cave and discovers a block of pure alabaster in which he can dimly see the sculpted marble form of a beautiful woman. Entranced by her beauty, he sings to her and brings her to life. But the woman proves to be an evil spirit who nearly lures the hero to his death.
This shows how those who would separate Tanning’s work from a context of imaginings miss its fantastical and narrative dimension. It also throws light on the gulf that has emerged between Tanning’s own vision of her work and those of the critics and historians who would analyse it in terms of gender and sexuality. Criticising writers who have focused on feminist or psychoanalytic interpretations of her images, she herself has stressed in her writings and statements that her works spring, on the one hand, from her sensuous pleasure in colours and in the materials of art, and, on the other, from ideas emerging from her unconscious. For her mystery and surprise are integral elements of her work, its core subject matter.