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'The Struggle'
an excerpt from 'Between Lives' by Dorothea Tanning

'Thus I have come one morning to the studio, into the litter and debris of last week and the day before. Tables hold fast under their load of tubes and brushes, cans and bottles interspersed with hair roller pins, that view of Delft, a stapler, a plastic tub of gypsum powder, a Polaroid of two dogs, green flashbulbs for eyes, a postcard picturing the retreating backs of six nudists on a eucalyptus-shaded path, a nibless pen, an episcope*. On the floor or on the wall or on the easel, a new surface waits whitely. (*An optical projector, no connection with Huish Episcope. - Editor's note)

Battle green, blood geranium, rubbed bloody black, drop of old rain. The canvas lies under my liquid hand. Explosia, a new planet invented with its name. That's what we paint for, invention. Unheard-of news, flowers, or flesh. "Not a procedure," I say to the room. "Nothing to do with twenty-four hours: just an admixture for all five senses, the sixth one to be dealt with separately."

Because this is only the beginning. A long flashed life, as they say, before dying. I am a fish swimming upstream. At the very top I deposit my pictures; then I die as they ripen and hatch and swim down, very playfully, because they are young and full of big ideas. Down and down, and finally, among the people who like to fish pictures, they are caught and devoured by millions of eyes.

In this artist's dream-plot there are only artist-scales, iridescent though they may be. And the rest? For thirty-five years, life was love, a second skin. Authoritative, instinctual love. Now life is life, sybaritic, an absolutely polished structure of skeletal simplicity. Uninvolved, uncommitted, underworn, deeply and evenly breathed. Its second plot, not life but art, unfolds painty wings each day to try the air, pushing out perhaps reluctant visions, uninvolved, yes, unaware of their public category.

It is one of those days and it is time to reconsider. Time to turn inside out before the first gesture. You have drawn up a stool and sit gazing at the first whiteness, feeling suddenly vulnerable and panic-stricken before your light-hearted intention. What has happened, where is the euphoria, the confidence of five minutes ago? Why is certainty receding like distance, eluding you, paling out to leave the whiteness as no more than a pitiless color? Is a canvass defiant, sullen? Something must be done.

Ambivalent feelings, then, for the blank rectangle. On one hand the innocent space, possibilities at your mercy, a conspiracy shaping up. You and the canvass are in this together. Or are you? For, seen the other way, there is something queerly hostile, a void as full of resistance as the trackless sky, as mocking as heat lightning. If it invites to conspiracy it also coldly challenges to battle.

Quite mechanically during these first moments - hours? - the little bowl has been filled with things like turpentine and varnish; tubes of colour have been chosen, Like jewels on a tray, and squeezed, snaky blobs, onto a paper palette. The beautiful colors give heart. Soon they will explode. A shaft of cobalt violet. With echoes from alizarin and titanium and purple - which is really red. There is orange from Mars, mars orange. The sound of their names, like planets: cerulean and earthshadow, raw or burnt; ultramarine out of the sea, barite and monacal and vermillion. Siren sounds of cochineal and dragon's blood, and gamboge and the lake from blackthorn berries that draw you after them; they sing in your ear, promising that merely to dip a brush in their suavities will produce a miracle.

What does it matter that more often not the artist is dashed against the rocks and the miracle recedes, a dim phosphorescence? Something has remained: the picture that has taken possession of the cloth, the board, the wall. No longer a blind surface, it is an event, it will mark a day in a chaotic world and will become order. Calm in its commotion, clear in its purpose, voluptuous in its space.

Here it is, seduction taking the place of awe. After a quick decision - was it not planned in the middle of the night along with your subject and its thrust? - a thin brush is chosen, is dipped and dipped again - madder, violet, gold ocher. A last stare at the grim whiteness before taking the plunge, made at last with the abandon "of divers," said Henry James, speaking of birds, "not expecting to rise again." Now, after only seconds, blankness and nothingness are routed forever.

A hundred forms loom in charming mock dimensions to lure you from your subject, the one that demands to be painted; with each stroke (now there are five brushes in two hands) a thousand other pictures solicit permanence. Somewhere the buzzer buzzes faintly. Sounds from the street drift up, the drone of a plane drifts down. The phone may have rung. A lunchless lunch hour came and went.

The beleaguered canvass is on the floor. Colors are merging. Cobalt and chrome bridge a gap with their knowing nuances. Where is the cadmium red-orange? The tubes are in disorder, their caps lost, their labels smeared with wrong colours.

Oh, where is the red-orange, for it is at the moment the only color in the world and Dionysus the only deity.

Now there is no light at all in the studio. The day is packing up, but who cares? With a voice of its own the canvass hums a tune for the twilight hour, half heard, half seen. Outlines dance; sonic eyes bid you watch out for surprises that break all the rules: white on black making blue; space that deepens with clutter; best of all, the fierce, ambivalent human contour that catches sound and sight and makes me a slave. Ah, now the world will not be exactly as it was this morning! Intention has taken over and here in this room leans a picture that is at last in league with its painter, hostilities forgotten. For today.

As brushes are cleaned and windows opened to clear the turpentine air, the artist steals glances - do not look too long - at the living, breathing picture, for it is already a picture. Once again light-hearted, even light-headed, the mood is vaporous. There are blessed long hours before tomorrow...

Have I slept? Once again before the daubed canvas, which is now upright in the harsh morning light. I am aghast. How could anyone have found it good, even a good start.? Traitorous twilight, fostering those balloons of pride that had floated all over the studio! Yesterday ended in a festival, was positively buoyant. Syncopating with glances canvasward, brush-cleaning drudgery was a breeze (a hellish task after a failed day). Now you are bound. The canvas is to be reckoned with. It breathes, however feebly. It whispers a satanic suggestion for the fast, easy solution. "Others have done it, do it, why not you?" How to explain? There is no fast and easy for me.

Daily depths of depression, as familiar as a limp is to the war-wounded, are followed by momentary exhaltations, sometimes quiet certainties: Yeah, that's it... But if that is it, then the presence... on... the other side... all changed now, dark again... Must wait for tomorrow... Oh God... How awful...

... ... ...

Several days have left their gestural arabesques in the big room, adding up to clutter and despondency. Dust has been raised in the lens of the eye; intention has softened to vagary.

Then an idea in the night brings its baggage to the morning. Welcome! Go ahead. Stare at the canvass already occupied by wrong paint, hangdog. But not for long. Not this time. Because you dive - with an intake of breath you dive, deep into your forest, your desert, your dream.

Now the doors are all open, the air is mother-of-pearl, and you know the way to tame a tiger. It will not elude you today, for you have grabbed a brush, you have dipped it almost at random, so high is you rage, into the amalgam of color, formless on a docile palette.

As you drag lines like ropes across one brink of reality after another, annihilating the world you made yesterday and hated today, a new world heaves into sight. Again the event progresses, without benefit of hours.

Before the emerging picture there is no longer panic to shake heart and hand, only a buzzing in your ears to mark rather unconvincingly the passage of time. You sit or stand, numb in either case, or step backward, bumping as often or not into forgotten objects dropped on the floor. You coax the picture out of its cage along with personae, essences, its fatidic suggestion, its insolence. Friend or enemy? Tinged with reference - alas, as outmoded these days as your easel - weighted as the drop of rain that slid on the window, it swims toward completion. Evening soaks in unnoticed until lengthening shadows have caressed every surface in the room, every hair on your head, and every shape in your painted picture.

The application of color to a support, something to talk about when it's all over, now hold you in thrall. The act is your accomplice. So are the tools, beakers, bottles, knives, glues, solubles, insolubles, tubes, plasters, cans; there is no end...

Time to sit down. Time to clean the brushes, now become a kindly interlude. Time to gaze and gaze; you can't get enough of it because you are now on the outside looking in. You are merely the visitor, grandly invited: "Step in."

"Oh, I accept." Even though the twilight has faded to black and blur, making sooty phantoms of your new companions, you accept. Feeling rather than seeing, you share exuberance. You are surprised and uneasy when you seem to hear the rather conspiratorial reminder that it was, after all, your hand, your will, your turmoil that has produced it all, this brand new event in a very old world.

Thus, you may think:" "Have I brought a little order out of the chaos? Or have I merely added to the general confusion? Either way a mutation has taken place. You have not painted in a vacuum. You have been bold, working for change. To overturn values. The whirling thought: change the world. It directs the artist's daily act. Yes, modesty forbids saying it. But say it secretly. You risk nothing.'

--Excerpt from 'Between Lives'
by Dorothea Tanning, 2001, Norton.

This article is an excerpt from 'Between Lives' by Dorothea Tanning, 2001, Norton, and recommended by Freelance Chair (and surrealist painter) Borin Van Loon.

In 1975, Tanning spent eleven months trying to cope with the stroke-smitten, powerless, angrily powerful Max Ernst. Her husband and soul-mate of so many years and so many homes survived a head wound in the Great War, survived the Nazi invasion of France, escaping Paris, then Marseilles by the skin of his teeth and in 1942 met the much younger Dorothea, a struggling illustrator, at her New York apartment. Seeing her painting, 'Birthday', seeing that she played chess, seeing her... he never left.

This extract is written in her solitary state, returned to New York, refinding her own voice without her Max's dominating fame and presence. All her contemporaries were gone: the Belgian and Parisian Surrealists, free-spirited American women: Kay Sage, Lee Miller, great friends, John Cage, Marcel and Teeny Duchamp, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Julien Levy, Dylan Thomas, Truman Capote... She continues to work at the age of 92.

Dorothy Tanning is featured in Borin's review of the exhibition 'Surrealism: Desire Unbound' (Tate Modern, Sept 01 to Jan 02) here on this site. Also read a feature about Tanning in the Salon online magazine.