• Katrina Finlayson

Dorothea Tanning’s 1942 painting Birthday presents a self-portrait of the surrealist artist, standing in her New York apartment with one hand on the doorknob of an open door. Beyond the artist and beyond the threshold lie more doors and more thresholds, receding into the distance. Tanning writes in her much later memoir of her attention being caught by the array of doors in her home, of the ‘imminent openings and shuttings’ (Tanning, 1986: 14) suggesting infinite doorways. The artist’s positioning of herself on a threshold in her home suggests a way of viewing the relationship of the artist to the unconscious, and speaks to the liminal positioning of all artists in relation to existing and new knowledge.

Birthday, and the ghost voices created by surrealist artist Tanning’s own descriptions of her creative process around that painting, forms a pivot point for my own meanderings through the subway passages, streets, and art galleries of summertime New York in 2013. This hybrid work blends creative nonfiction with critical theory on creativity and the psychology of the self as stranger to explore the way encounters with art and the unfamiliar can change both an artist’s self and creative practice. It plays with ideas about intimacy and estrangement, and about the repositioning of self that takes place in unfamiliar territory, when writing about travel, when travelling as a writer, or in adventures with new knowledge.


Keywords: Dorothea Tanning - Uncanny – Creative Writing – Identity – Anxiety – Travel - Strangers



Dorothea Tanning 1942 Birthday, Oil on canvas, at http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/93232.html


In the summer of 2013, in the middle of a heatwave, I visit New York for the first time. The trapped heat of the big city bounces off the footpath and up into my armpits, crawls under my hair and across my scalp. My clothes hang heavy in the stillness. When she painted Birthday (Tanning 1942), New York was Dorothea Tanning’s home, and I walk the streets she once walked. She is a stranger to me, but the forms and words of her painting and memoir have soaked into my subconscious so thoroughly that she seems alive and familiar. I am a stranger to this place, Kristeva’s foreigner; finding ‘weightless freedom in the solitude of transience’ (Kristeva 1991: 12), I submerge myself in a place which is not home.

Back home, when the news of the blue-eyed man’s cancer fell into my life, I learned about the distance the inadequacy of words can create between friends. I learned about an enfolding silence that can suddenly descend, a reminder of the distance that always, actually, lies between each of us. With the treatment over, a moment of respite, I said I needed time to clear my head, and I left. And now here I am, halfway across the world, my head full of research: theory spilling out of my ears, my eyes, my mouth, walking the hot streets, wrapped in the solitude of the stranger I am in New York.

The painting: forty inches tall, titled Birthday. A self-portrait of Dorothea Tanning: bare feet, bare breasts, an elaborate costume jacket of purple silk and cream lace, a skirt crafted from bulbous green roots shaped like twisted human forms. She stands on wooden floorboards, her hand on the porcelain doorknob of an open door. Beyond the doorway, another open door, and then another, an infinite recursion of doorways receding into the distance. She looks out from the painting with an unsmiling gaze. At her feet sits a black creature, a winged lemur with a forked tail. Dorothea Tanning has positioned herself, artist, and subject, on a threshold; the painting is life-like in detail and true to the artist’s image, but the creature suggests she stands somewhere between the ordinary and the creative subconscious.

In her artist’s statement for a 1943 exhibition, a year after she painted Birthday, Tanning writes, of the painting:

One way to write a secret language is to employ familiar signs, obvious and unequivocal to the human eye. For this reason I chose a brilliant fidelity to the visual object as my method in painting Birthday. The result is a portrait of myself, precise and unmistakable to the onlooker. But what is a portrait? Is it mystery and revelation, conscious and unconscious, poetry and madness? Is it an angel, a demon, a hero, a child-eater, a ruin, a romantic, a monster, a whore? Is it a miracle or a poison? I believe that a portrait, particularly a self-portrait, should be, somehow, all of these things and many more, recorded in a secret language clad in the honesty and innocence of paint (1943).

These past few days, I have learned to navigate New York by subway. I travel in fragments, jumping from its greasy rabbit holes onto city streets, to explore each area with my hungry stranger’s mind, before looking for the subtle signs of another subway entrance through which to submerge myself once again in the damp heat and darkness of the subterranean tunnels and train platforms and ticket gates and tiles and so many people and lives just paused in that moment of waiting for lights to appear from darkness and the sickening acrid whoosh of burnt oil as the next train arrives.

Over forty years later, Tanning, by then in her mid-seventies, wrote a memoir, also titled Birthday, and in it she describes the creative process around that strange painting:

At first there was only that one picture, a self-portrait. It was a modest canvas by present-day standards. But it filled my New York studio, the apartment’s back room, as if it had always been there. For one thing, it was the room; I had been struck, one day, by a fascinating array of doors – hall, kitchen, bathroom, studio – crowded together, soliciting my attention with their antic planes, light, shadows, imminent openings and shuttings. From there it was an easy leap to a dream of countless doors. (1986: 14)

In the New York subway, I recognise Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome theory (2014: 22): lives spreading every which way below the ground, with ‘the potential for expansion and exploration in new directions’, a new creation ready to ‘suddenly burst through into consciousness … from the network of subconscious connections constantly being incubated’ (McLaughlin 2013). Connections click and whir in my mind, just behind my eyes, as stations flutter past, threads of creativity crossing as neurons fire. From subway entrances that blend into the city around them, bursts of people emerge with each train arrival, every one moving on their own path through New York, random meetings made or missed.

Later again, in 2002, when Tanning is asked by an interviewer for Salon what she intended to communicate with the painting, she says simply, ‘I’d be satisfied with having suggested that there is more than meets the eye’ (Glassie).

Riding the subway, my eyes avoid wandering into the eyes of strangers. In some of the carriages, one advertising panel high in the curve of the carriage wall has been replaced by a poem, a City of New York public art initiative. I soon learn to seek out the poems. My favourite is one titled Grand Central:

The City orbits around eight million centers of the Universe.
And turns around the golden clock at the still point of this place.
Lift up your eyes from the moving hive and you will see time circling under a vault of stars and know just when and where you are
(Collins 2013)

I travel to Grand Central station to see for myself, to try and decode the secret message in the poem’s treasure trail of clues. I almost clap my hands with childlike glee when I see a large golden clock at the centre of the marble hall, constellations of gold painted stars on the high indigo ceiling. I stand on a stairway and look down across eddying currents of people gliding along the paths of their separate but interconnected lives and I grin as the poem unravels into the extraordinary ordinary. I do know just when and where I am, and it feels like part of the puzzle of who I am. I am self-conscious taking a photograph, until I realise I am surrounded by people also standing on the stairs, also taking photographs. In fact, there are so many people standing on these stairs that a security guard hovers near by, moving people on whenever the crowd becomes too thick for travellers to make their way through.

In her memoir, Dorothea Tanning wonders whether Birthday was perhaps a talisman for the events of her life at that time, ‘an iteration of a quiet event, line densities wrought in a crystal paperweight of time’ (1986: 14).

I burrow down into the maze of subway platforms once again, finding the right colour and letter and end point and when the whoosh and the grind of brakes arrive I let myself get swept along into the carriage.

This time, I emerge into the space between tall buildings and hot pavement. The sounds of traffic bounce around me and the footpath crowds are thin, slowed to a crawl by the extreme late morning sun. People stall in patches of shade created by the overhangs of buildings. I walk along 53rd Street, towards the Museum Of Modern Art entrance, where I hope to find another mirror for my thoughts. Near a ladder, I pause to sip some bottled water and a construction worker crawls down the ladder and he begins to talk to me about his job at the top of the ladder and how, aw gee, would ya know, it’s even hotter up there. I have no words to offer, so I just nod and murmur, but he seems happy enough simply to tell me about the building project. Further down the street, I pause again, before vibrant statements screen-printed across maps of the city; an artist is selling prints of his politics from a trestle table. He is a loping man: gangly, straggly dark hair and long thin spider legs spilling out from his folding chair. He stands, in his loping way, and he asks me for a cigarette and we smoke together, silent, watching the foot traffic pass. Soon, I wave goodbye to him and follow the traffic clustering around the doors of the gallery, into a dark and cool foyer, where a group of schoolchildren waits for instructions, chattering, swinging hips weighed down by schoolbags, shuffling feet.

I take the map handed to me and I catch a quiet elevator up. I begin to breathe in art. The dim marble halls of MOMA and the cool hush are a welcome contrast to the stifling air outside. I wander and just exist and absorb, and the air conditioning licks over my body and soothes me, lulls me into a daydream.

In my ear, Dorothea whispers, her phantasm close now, ‘the decibels of nature can crush an artist’s brain … so I lock the door and paint interiors’ (Tanning 1986: 84). But instead of interiors, all I see are thresholds, and Donald Winnicott’s idea that both creativity and self-development occur in the space between inner and outer, that, ‘in creating art, the artist opens up the possibility of being transformed’ (in Hunt & Sampson 2006: 7). I let my subconscious inhale deeply; give myself over to the experience.

Around midday, I find the museum’s busy restaurant and I request a table for one. Soon, I am seated outside on a balcony, bordered by glass panels, overlooking a statue garden several floors below. Little square tables, set with giant wine glasses, polished cutlery and white table cloths, crowd the small balcony area. Waiters glide between the tables and in and out through a heavy glass door to the restaurant inside with its open kitchen area full of busy chefs, and every time the waiters return with cool drinks and summer foods, they bring with them great rolling waves of refrigerated air. I sit, alone, among the bubbling conversation of diners, and I study the menu. I order a salad and a glass of crisp and expensive Californian white wine. Returning with the wine bottle, the waiter seems to notice my simple black cotton dress and cheap canvas shoes, and he pours a very generous glass. At a nearby table, a middle-aged man and a neat older gentleman elegantly sip at miso soup and discuss something I can’t quite hear but which, their expressions and deportment suggest, is clever and engaging. The absence of conversation at my table grows larger momentarily as a couple at the next table over slide quick, slippery glances across me and my aloneness before returning to their own lunch and light chatter about the gallery and the food.

The wine and the yawning heat of the afternoon stretch out the daydream sensation but also bring with them a sudden impatience in me, and I realise I am secretly hoping to see Dorothea Tanning’s work. But some quick research on borrowed Wi-Fi informs me that Tanning is not on the walls of MOMA. The couple at the next table pick up long, thin spoons and begin to pick at their dessert. It seems the closest I can get to Tanning is the work of surrealist artist Max Ernst, Tanning’s lover, chess opponent, surrealist painter husband. And even Ernst isn’t anywhere in the MOMA; he’s across town at the Guggenheim.

In an instant, the gallery walls are empty, meaningless. Everything is somewhere else. I fidget, try to talk myself into patience, but, very soon, I’m back outside in the sunshine, on the hot streets. But if, as Hunt and Sampson suggest, theory and experience are absorbed to become part of ‘an unconscious “toolkit” in the background of our writing process’ (2006: 7), my writing and my self have already been changed by everything I have encountered, on this very ordinary New York summer afternoon.

I plunge into the dark tropical heat of the subway system once more, to travel uptown, and I am born again into the sun a few blocks from the smooth white curves of the Guggenheim. I sit for a moment across the road, on a bench under one of the leafy spring green trees bordering Central Park, eyeing down the strangely shaped building, taking in the silver letters of Solomon Guggenheim’s name stretched across the façade. Behind every arrangement of letters in a name is the whole rich and complex collection of stories that makes up a person, one human life, but sometimes a name is just a word.

Simon Spiegel writes of Shklovsky’s explanation of the Russian idea of ostranemie, which is the breaking up of our ways of seeing, so that we once again see daily life as it really is (2008: 369). We must, Shklovsky urges, make things strange again: this is the essential challenge for all art (in Spiegel 2008: 369). I am the stranger. I will estrange you from the ordinary.

I float with the in-breath of the building and the crowd. I line up in the cool dark foyer and I pay the entry fee at a long desk and I’m told third floor and I wander in, between the tall white walls of the mouth of a shell. The entrance opens out almost immediately into a hollow central chamber, a round space filled with deep indigo light, like a lighthouse keeper’s favourite room. Twenty or thirty people lie on their backs on the speckled Terrazzo floor, silently gazing upwards. I look up to see what they see, but there’s only the curved inside of the shell-like building, dark stripes of layered walkways punctuating indigo walls that rise to a blue disc at the top, filtered sky. It is beautiful, but after craning my neck for a moment, I leave the daydreamers on the floor and begin my ascent.

‘A few of us took to wearing old clothes,’ Dorothea Tanning explains, ‘but they had to be really old, from another time, way back. We’d show up in these rags as if it were perfectly natural. You had to be deadly deadpan about it’ (Glassie 2002).

And the bare breasts, the Salon interviewer asks, was that not considered risqué at the time?

I swear I can hear a woman’s laughter, carried through time, from beyond the grave, to here and now.

‘It was a kind of statement, wanting the utter truth, and bareness was necessary. My breasts didn’t amount to much. Quite unremarkable. And besides, when you are feeling very solemn and painting very intensively, you only think of what you are trying to communicate’ (Tanning, in Glassie 2002).

Arriving at the third floor gallery, I exchange identification for information: an audio tour headset and small electronic screen. My Australian driver’s licence, so familiar to me, is strange to the young hire desk staffer, who peers at it closely before tucking it into a visitors’ folder. I wander into the gallery, glancing at works on the walls as I flick through the screens on the small device, searching for Max Ernst’s name. It is glaring in its absence, and I cut short my circuit of the gallery space and return to the loan desk.

‘Excuse me, but I’m looking for a particular artist.’

He raises a quizzical eyebrow, not entirely unkindly.

I describe what I’m hoping to find, and of course I say Ernst, not Tanning and not me, but he explains that the paintings are on rotation. Max Ernst is in storage. I have arrived at the wrong time of year.

‘Come back in a few months,’ he offers, and I fight back tears.

I slowly descend the spiralling ramp, all the way down to the ground floor, where I stand once again in the curved inner space of the main entrance hall. Now the room is soft pink, the seashell’s smooth inner self revealed. I wonder at the people lying on the floor and I am exhausted by my empty search and so I find a place to lie down among the silent strangers. The floor is cool and solid beneath me, and the strangers around me lie still and dreamy as they gaze towards the round rose pink circle above. I lie there so long that I begin to wonder whether I imagined the room indigo earlier, the play of memory changing the colour in my mind. But then I realise the pink is ever so slowly changing to the golden yellow of a field full of sunshine. It changes so gradually that I begin to remember it had never been pink, begin to know my mind has created another illusion, and the golden glow fills everything. I lie still among the strangers for a long time and eventually the light changes again and a gentle violet seeps into the room. In the slowly shifting uncertainty, I cease to exist, and for a time I am only a part in the collection of shapes made from soft bodies lying on hard ground. Only once I have forgotten where I end and others begin, once my mind is only silence and colour and patience, I slowly sit up, then stand up, and then walk out, into the world.

‘I suppose I’ll die knowing I don’t belong anywhere, and that I do belong everywhere’ (Durepos 2009), Tanning says softly to me, and she recites two lines of a Stanley Kunitz poem into the seashell of my ear: ‘I have walked through many lives / some of them my own’ (Glassie 2002).



Works cited: 

Collins, B 2013 ‘Grand Central’, New York MTA Poetry in Motion program, at http://web.mta.info/mta/aft/poetry/poetry.html (accessed 27 November 2014)

Deleuze, G and F Guattari 2014 A Thousand Plateaus, London: Bloomsbury Academic

Durepos, C 2009 ‘The Autobiography of Dorothea Tanning’, Illinois Women Artists Project, May, at http://iwa.bradley.edu/essays/DorotheaTanning (accessed 27 November 2014)

Glassie, J 2002 ‘Oldest Living Surrealist Tells All’, Salon, February 11, at http://www.salon.com/2002/02/11/tanning (accessed 20 October 2014)

Hunt, C and F Sampson 2006 Writing: Self and reflexivity, 3rd edn, Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave McMillan

Kristeva, J 1991 Strangers to Ourselves, L Roudiez (trans), New York: Columbia University Press

McLaughlin, N 2013 ‘Modelling Creativity: How might it help us understand what we do?’, AXON: Creative Explorations 3.1, at http://www.axonjournal.com.au/issue-4/modelling-creativity (accessed 27 November 2014)

Spiegel, S 2008 ‘Things Made Strange: On the concept of “estrangement” in Science Fiction theory’, Science Fiction Studies 35, 369-374

Tanning, D 1986 Birthday, San Francisco: The Lapis Press

Tanning, D 1943, at http://www.dorotheatanning.org/life-and-work/view-work/work-657/ (accessed 27 November 2014)

Tanning, D 1942 Birthday, Oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art, at http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/93232.html (accessed 27 November 2014)