excerpt from 'Between Lives' by Dorothea Tanning
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,
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
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.'
from 'Between Lives'
by Dorothea Tanning, 2001, Norton.
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