… but the clouds… by Samuel Beckett (1977)

but the clouds… is a short play by Samuel Beckett written expressly for television. It was written in English from October to November 1976, first televised on BBC 2 on 17 April 1977, and published by Faber and Faber later the same year.

By this stage in his career, Beckett’s stage directions for his plays had become super-schematic, so much so that they beg the question whether the works can really be referred to as plays at all, in any conventional sense. This one consists of about a page and a half of detailed stage instructions followed by barely three and a half of action and dialogue, of which the actual dialogue takes up less than half the space. It is a play – if it is a play at app – overwhelmingly, of silent movements.

The stage instructions list six elements to the piece and it is symptomatic that the one and only human in the piece is placed on the same level as camera setups and a disembodied voice:

  1. M – Near shot from behind of man sitting on invisible stool bowed over invisible table. Light grey robe and skullcap. Dark ground. Same shot throughout.
  2. M1 – M in set. Hat and greatcoat dark, robe and skullcap light.
  3. W – Close-up of woman’s face reduced as far as possible to eyes and mouth. Same shot throughout.
  4. S – Long shot of set empty or with M1. Same shot throughout.
  5. V – M’s voice.

The directions go on to describe the set.

Set: circular, about 5 m. diameter, surrounded by deep shadow.

And, typically for Beckett, he provides a simple but very precise diagram.

Diagram of the camera angle and stage positions for ‘…but the clouds…’

The four cardinal points of the circle are numbered and given names, thus:

  1. West, roads.
  2. North, sanctum.
  3. East, closet.
  4. Standing position.

With number 5 indicating the position of the camera.

The play stipulates four ‘changes’ which require the performer to turn or walk into the shadow in each direction, or emerge from the shadow. And the lighting? As so often with Beckett, it plays with the bare minimum effect you can achieve on a stage, which is the spectrum from black to light via gloom and shadow. No colours.

Lighting: a gradual lightening from dark periphery to maximum light at centre.

This focus on the minimalist use of light and shadow echoes the lighting in Footfall, which was brightest at feet level, emphasising the pacing feet, and then tapered off so the body and face were in shadow or darkness.

And the obsessive precision doesn’t let up with the end of the initial stage set-up. The three and a half pages of the actual shooting script consist of precisely 60 detailed instructions for changes of lighting or shot. Less than half the text is actual speech. Over half of these directions are one-line shot directions. Here’s the first eight. Note how actual speech – V, the voice of the bowed man, M – are only 3 of the 8 lines:

  1. Dark. 5 seconds.
  2. Fade up to M. 5 seconds.
  3. V: When I thought of her it was always night. I came in –
  4. Dissolve to S. empty. 5 seconds. M1 in at and greatcoat emerges from west shadow, advances five steps and stands facing east shadow. 2 seconds.
  5. V: No
  6. Dissolve to M. 2 seconds.
  7. V: No, that is not right. When she appeared it was always night. I came in –
  8. Dissolve to S. empty. 5 seconds. M1 in hat and greatcoat emerges from west shadow, advances five steps and stands facing east shadow. 5 seconds.

28 words of speech to 64 of directions. Most of the speech is this minimal, although, as mentioned above, the sequence of relatively short, one-sentence directions is interspersed at intervals with longer descriptions of the four ‘changes’. Here’s the first ‘change’, direction number 25:

  1. Dissolve to S. empty. 2 seconds. M 1 in robe and skullcap emerges from north shadow, advances five steps and stands facing camera. 2 seconds. He turns left and advances five steps to disappear in east shadow. 2 seconds. He emerges in hat and greatcoat from east shadow, advances five steps and stands facing West shadow. 2 seconds. He advances five steps to disappear in west shadow. 2 seconds.

In fact, I counted the whole thing and if we include the 60 numbers and various other numbers (the ‘2’ in ‘2 seconds’ etc) as words, then the entire piece contains 1,093 words, of which 448 (40%) are spoken and 645 (60%) stage directions.

The spoken text

Going a step further, we can extract all the spoken words, thus, to see what kind of sense they make when extracted from the carapace of stage directions. Doing this makes it easier to spot the repeated phrases, the dogged repetition of certain key words or phrases being Beckett’s central technique.

3. V: When I thought of her it was always night. I came in
5. V: No
7. V: No, that is not right. When she appeared it was always night. I came in
9. V: Right. Came in, having walked the roads since break of day, brought night home, stood listening, finally went to closet
11. V: Shed my hat and greatcoat, assumed robe and skull, reappeared
13. V: Reappeared and stood as before, only facing the other way, exhibiting the other outline, finally turned and vanished
15. V: Vanished within my little sanctum and crouched, where none could see me, in the dark.
17. V: Let us now make sure we have got it right.
19. V: Right.
21. V: Then crouching there, in my little sanctum, in the dark, where none could see me, I began to beg, of her, to appear, to me. Such had long been my use and wont. No sound, a begging of the mind, to her, to appear, to me. Deep down into the dead of night, until I wearied, and ceased. Or of course until –
24. V: For had she never once appeared, all that time, would I have, could I have, gone on begging, all that time ? Not just vanished within my little sanctum and busied myself with something else, or with nothing, busied myself with nothing? Until the time came, with break of day, to issue forth again, shed robe and skull, resume my hat and greatcoat, and issue forth again, to walk the roads.
26. V: Right.
28. V: Let us now distinguish three cases. One: she appeared and –
31. V: In the same breath was gone…. Two: she appeared and –
33. V: Lingered… With those unseeing eyes I so begged when alive to look at me.
35. V: Three: she appeared and –
37. V: After a moment
38. W’s lips move, uttering inaudibly: ‘…clouds…but the clouds…of the sky…V murmuring, synchronous with lips: ‘…but the clouds…
39. V: Right.
41. V: Let us now run through it again.
47. V: Look at me.
49. W’s lips move, uttering inaudibly: ‘…clouds…but the clouds…of the sky…‘  V murmuring, synchronous with lips: ‘…but the clouds…
50. V: Speak to me.
52. V: Right. There was of course a fourth case, or case nought, as I pleased to call it, by far the commonest, in the proportion say of nine hundred and ninety-nine to one, or nine hundred and ninety-eight to two, when I begged in vain, deep down into the dead of night, until I wearied, and ceased, and busied myself with something else, more … rewarding, such as … such as … cube roots, for example, or with nothing, busied myself with nothing, that MINE, until the time came, with break of day, to issue forth again, void my little sanctum, shed robe and skull, resume my hat and greatcoat, and issue forth again, to walk the roads… The back roads.
54. V: Right.
57. V: ‘…but the clouds of the sky…when the horizon fades…or a bird’s sleepy cry…among the deepening shades…’

The Gontarski production

So what do all these detailed instructions look like in practice? This is a production directed by Stanley E. Gontarski, the noted Beckett scholar.

Several points arise.

1. One is that the Gontarski production uses music, quite prominent modern music and musical sound affects such as the single penetrating note when the image of the woman appears. None of this is justified by the directions.

2. The second is that the precision of the circular set and the precise imagining of the man moving from one cardinal point to another are completely lost in a TV or film production, because we are all used to basic movie or TV technique, namely the camera’s point of view jumping all over the place, from one angle to another, from long shot, aerial shot, slow-mo, close-ups and what-have-you. So we have little or no sense of the man moving carefully from one point of the compass to another as indicated in the stage directions. He just seems to be moving in and out of darkness.

In this respect, the directions are very much conceived as stage directions, based on the notion of a fixed and unmoving audience point of view – and do not translate very well into the much more flexible medium of television/film.

3. Another is that the meanings Beckett attributes to the four points of the compass in his stage directions:

  1. West, roads.
  2. North, sanctum.
  3. East, closet.
  4. Standing position.

Only come out with great subtlety if at all. Nobody watching the piece would know that when the main figure goes to the shadowy position off to the left of the set, this is ‘1. West, roads’. The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett suggests that these later plays are ‘post-literary’ in the sense that simply reading them is not enough, you have to see them in production to grasp the meaning. But I think this is incorrect in two respects. One, anyone who’s ever made any film or TV can tell you that a shooting script is just as ‘post-literary’, in the same sense, that it’s just a set of instructions for creating a final programme or movie.

But, secondly, these late playlets do in fact demand to be read, precisely so that you can enjoy the precision and mathematical numeration of their layout. Rather than being ‘post-literary’, they are in fact a new kind of literary, a new genre, a super-precise, over-enumerated, computer readout style of playwriting, which Beckett took to an extreme, and which has a mechanistic flavour and pleasure distinct to itself.

4. Lastly, an actual visualisation like this brings out what is easy to overlook when reading the text, which is the sudden appearance of those images of the woman:

W – Close-up of woman’s face reduced as far as possible to eyes and mouth. Same shot throughout.

When you read the text, the importance of the woman is easy to overlook because she has no physical presence and doesn’t do anything or say anything. But in the produced film – well, in this one at any rate – the woman has a striking, almost dominating, presence and really brings out the male narrator’s abject submission to her, or the memory of her.

5. And her visual dominance rises to a climax at the two times when we see her face mouthing the words and the male voice speaking them:

‘ …clouds…but the clouds…of the sky…but the clouds…’

These are genuinely spooky. The superimposition of one person’s mouth mouthing words while another person’s voice actually articulates then is genuinely creepy, like a sci fi nightmare, a tale of possession and dispossession.

Themes and interpretations

W.B. Yeats

The title of the piece and those short phrases which the woman mouths and the narrator speaks, are all from the end of a poem, The Tower, by the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats:

Now shall I make my soul,
Compelling it to study
In a learned school
Till the wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Testy delirium
Or dull decrepitude,
Or what worse evil come –
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath –
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades;
Or a bird’s sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.

The poem expresses an attitude of detachment associated with Eastern philosophy. The poet will deliberately mould his soul in such a way as to be a tower amid the human chaos, so utterly schooled in a philosophy of detachment that every aspect of human life, all its trials and tribulations, will seem but the clouds in the sky, faraway and transient.

With this in mind we can see how the play enacts a dynamic tension, between a man who is trying to attain this level of detachment, to rise above himself and his own petty concerns – but who is quite clearly still in thrall to the image and memory of the woman who, we deduce, he has loved and lost. He is trying to escape from the world – but repeatedly dragged down into it by his own passions and longing.

It is, therefore, despite all the alienating and mechanical modernist trappings, a love story; or a story of lost love, of a man haunted by his lost love and making up all manner of mechanical and mathematical protocols to try and smother and control his hurt.

Endlessly trying to complete a narrative

In countless plays and prose texts since The Unnamable Beckett protagonists have struggled to complete a narrative – in order to achieve completion and closure, in order to get it right, so as to define and understand something, so as to be able to move on.

But they never can. The circle is never complete, the story is never told. My favourite example is the radio play Cascando in which the Voice endlessly restarts and tries to complete one single anecdote about a man who wakes, goes down to the sea, and launches a dinghy… but the Voice can never quite complete the tale or get it right, despite trying, over and over.

Presumably this is easily enough identified as an allegory on ‘the human condition’ – permanently trying to complete, finish and understand our lives and what we’ve done, forever condemned not to be able to.

And so this short play appears to be another iteration of the same basic idea, with the man saying:

39. V: Right.
41. V: Let us now run through it again.

Unaware or not acknowledging that he’s going to have to keep ‘running through it again’, forever.

The Faber Companion To Samuel Beckett makes the canny point that the narrator is split in two, into M and M1, because he is directing himself. It is M who is directing his puppet self, ‘M in set’, to try and achieve the ‘right’ result.

This insight sheds light on many of Beckett’s texts, which are routinely divided between a kind of doing protagonist and a consciousness protagonist, between the self doing and the self commenting on the self doing. This insight suggests that all these texts are, in a sense, plays, in which the observing commenting self is endlessly directing the actor self, rehearsing the scene or sequence over and over again till he gets it right. But he can never get it right, only fail again, fail better.

The meaning of numbers

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, reading the obscure autobiographical fragment, Heard in the Dark 2, was a revelation because in it Beckett writes about the boy protagonist that:

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble…Even still in the timeless dark you find figures a comfort…

This, for me, is the key which opens Beckett’s entire worldview, and explains the deeper meaning of his mechanical way of conceiving of the human body, human nature and, above all, the mechanical, rote movements of human bodies, as described in his numerous prose texts, plays and mimes.

Yes, they fall in with the avant-garde tradition dating from Dada of viewing human beings as robots, automata, and this aspect of his work has a strong anti-humanist intention.

But Heard In The Dark 2 reveals that the obsession with numbers also has a very personal psychological meaning for Beckett. It is comforting. It is reassuring. It was a help in times of trouble to the boy and young man, and it is a similar ‘help’ in all his adult fictions.

This piece is no exception and it comes as no surprise when the narrating Man says that, when his desperate pleas to the woman meet with failure – then he busies himself with other things, with something:

more…rewarding, such as…such as…cube roots, for example…

It is no surprise that he categorises the woman’s appearances into four types. It is no surprise that he has worked out the relative proportions in which these cases arise.

This obsession with numbers (and also with enumerating every possible permutation of basic human movements such as infest the experimental novel Watt), this obsession underpins everything Beckett wrote, and especially the plays, which, as we pointed out at the start of this review, became by the mid-1970s, increasingly obsessed with numbers in their apparatus (the stage directions) and in their onstage actions (the actor’s precisely specified movements) and in the text, the actual words spoken. Three levels. Thus:

  1. The superprecise description of the set and the precise numbering of the 60 stage directions.
  2. The superprecise description of the four pieces of onstage activity, the so-called ‘changes’ between one part and the next
  3. The numerical content of what M actually says, namely the enumeration of the four ‘cases’ and then his assessment of the proportion of these ‘cases’, nine hundred and ninety-nine to one, or nine hundred and ninety-eight to two…’, the cube roots and so on

What is the consoling nature of numbers? Well, numbers give the appearance of meaning, even when there is none. They belong to a world of reassuringly objective truth and consistency. In this short piece the psychological reassurance they provide is linked to the voice’s repeated description of himself seeking out his ‘inner sanctum’, ‘where none can see him”, where he crouches and hides away, busying himself with…the consoling power of numbers.

Let’s look at those four cases more closely. M enumerates four possibilities:

  1. the woman appears and instantly leaves
  2. she appears and lingers
  3. she appears and speaks Yeats’s words
  4. she does not appear at all whereupon the narrator busies himself with consolatory activities such as cube roots

In this respect, numbers are like a replacement for religion, which Beckett appears to have long since abandoned. They are a lucid, rational, objective system which can be used to give logic, order and meaning to what are, otherwise, the utterly meaningless actions and the hopelessly unfulfillable hopes of the human animal.

Trudging

Beckett characters walk a lot. Well, trudge might be a better word. Trudge endlessly across bleak landscapes as in Fizzle 8, or as with Pozzo and Lucky endlessly circling round their little world in Godot, or the 120 lost souls traipsing around inside their rubber cylinder in The Lost Ones.

Walking is a basic element of the profoundest, deepest allegorical fictions in literature, from Dante walking through hell and purgatory to Pilgrim walking through the allegorical landscape of Pilgrim‘s Progress.

In Beckett, however, walking is deliberately reduced, humiliated, to trudging, round in a circle, or shuffling forward bent painfully over like the old man in Enough.

Here the male figure, when all else fails, has no other recourse except to take his hat and coat, issue forth again and take to the roads, a phrase repeated four times, to walk the roads, the back roads, trudging and traipsing without hope or consolation…


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • Lessness (1970) Short prose
  • The Lost Ones (1966-70) Short prose
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • Fizzles (1973 to 1975) Short prose pieces
  • Heard in the Dark, One evening and others – Short prose pieces
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • Ghost Trio (1976) Television play
  • …but the clouds… (1977) Television play
  • Company (1980) Novella
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1988) Short prose

Art the from La Caixa Collection selected by Tom McCarthy @ the Whitechapel Gallery

La Caixa is a collection of contemporary art in Spain.

Throughout 2019 the Whitechapel Gallery has asked writers to make a personal selection from the La Caixa collection and accompany it with a new piece of fiction. The plan is to have four selections. This is the third selection, made by celebrated novelist Tom McCarthy (b. 1969).

It consists of just seven pieces, five in a gallery upstairs and two in the big underground space at the Whitechapel Gallery.

La Caixa

The La Caixa Foundation was set up in 1905 to do charitable works. It began collecting works of contemporary art in the early 1980s and in 1985 set up the La Caica Collection. The collection now includes more than one thousand works by leading contemporary artists such as Bruce Nauman, Cristina Iglesias, Doris Salcedo, Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Donald Judd, Mona Hatoum, Dora García, Juan Muñoz, Antoni Tàpies, Cornelia Parker, Juan Uslé, Sigmar Polke, Cindy Sherman and Paul McCarthy.

(The Foundation is connected to the the Spanish bank of the same name, in fact the full name appears to be the Fundación Bancaria Caixa d’Estalvis i Pensions de Barcelona, ‘la Caixa’.)

Tom McCarthy’s selection

Tom McCarthy (b. 1969) is a celebrated novelist who was invited to curate his personal selection from the La Caixa Collection.

He chose to base his selection on the theme of surveillance and control, and their malfunction and breakdown. McCarthy titled the show Empty House of the Stare, a quotation from the 1922 poem Meditations in Time of Civil War by W. B. Yeats.

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare…

McCarthy is quoted as saying:

‘My selection from ‘la Caixa’s’ collection is based on two premises. Firstly, that we live in an era of mass-mediation, mass-surveillance, mass-control – technological and visual systems that form the architecture within which we dwell. Secondly, that far from being a streamlined, perfectly-calibrated system, this regime is prey to glitches, malfunctions and perhaps even general collapse. It tends towards implosion.’

The works – upper floor

The first floor gallery contains five works:

This enormous photo of a metal object lying shattered in desert sands could be the wreckage of a futuristic society or a leftover prop from a Star Wars film. In fact it is titled Fait #60 and is part of a series of 71 photos taken in Kuwait in 1991 after the First Gulf War by Sophie Ristelhueber (b. 1949, France).

Some of the photos are aerial shots showing supply lines, trenches, vehicles in transit. These are interspersed with images of debris shot at ground level. After looking at it for a while I realised Fait #60 is an upturned tank turret. It made me realise how the Gulf War is fading into ‘history’…

Fait # 60 by Sophie Ristelhueber (1992) Courtesy DACS

Leaning against the gallery wall are some functional, unlovely metal bookshelves which were found on a lower Manhattan street after September 11, 2001, collected and assembled as a sculpture by Isa Genzken (b. 1948, Germany) and, seen from a certain angle, might just about be interpreted as a kind of sculptural echo of the collapsing twin towers.

It was first displayed in a collection of similar found objects, all of which resembled falling towers and titled Ground Zero and I imagine the proximity of other, similar structures gave it a lot of power which, all by itself, it doesn’t quite have.

Bookshelves by Isa Genzken (2008) © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Spanish artist Aitor Ortiz (b. 1971) specialises in photographs of modernist buildings, ideally in a state of dereliction or abandonment, as images of decline and fall, such as this one from the series Destructuras which he began back in 1995.

Impressive, isn’t it? Hard to believe it isn’t a small model. Ortiz chooses simple, essential forms which allow him to refine real, existing architectural structures into abstract and almost fictional images, playing with scale, space and illusion.

Destructures 069 by Aitor Ortiz (2002) © Aitor Ortiz

Pedro Mora, also Spanish (b. 1961) is represented by an imponderable and puzzling collection of reels of old tape – maybe the kind of tape they used in big computers from the 60s and 70s – gathered as if in an archive of something important.

And yet the reels are made from zinc and cardboard and would never work in any computer. Along the tapes are sprinkled what look like letters but in no known language. If these mysterious tapes contain any recordings, the information and messages are forever irretrievable…

Memory Exercise by Pedro Mora (1991) © Pedro Mora

To one side is a film made by Steve McQueen (b. 1969, UK) – Illuminer (2001) – of himself clambering into bed in an anonymous hotel bedroom and watching on the hotel TV a report about troops training for possible military operations in Afghanistan. Several layers of alienation. Information in a vacuum.

The ground floor gallery

Entered through a big heavy door, this feels as if it’s an underground grotto and contains two works:

The visitor is confronted by a big image of a radiant portal by Eugenio Ampudia (b.1958, Spain) that might offer illumination and clarity. Or not.

Habitable Space (Day) by Eugenio Ampudia (2003) © Eugenio Ampudia

Walk behind the wall this is hanging on to enter a big blacked-out space with a couple of benches and a projection screen. On this is playing a film by Eve Sussman (b. 1961, UK) about a worker in a horrible, bleak, concrete Central Asia oil town whose daily life is subjected to heavy surveillance.

Apparently, sequences of the film are rearranged at every viewing by a computer algorithm, in a gesture towards the notion that even what we see is controlled, but this passed a little over my head.

Instead I was just truck by horrible horrible horrible human beings have made so much of their built environment and the grim ad crappy lives they contain and confine.

Thoughts

This is the third of four selections from the ”la Caixa” Collection guest-curated by leading writers. Would be good to make it along to the fourth and final one.

Purely as aesthetic objects, the opening photo by Sophie Ristelhueber is by far the stand-out image, with a toss-up for second place between the mysterious abandoned building of Aitor Ortiz and the luminous golden gateway of Eugenio Ampudia.

Which one did you like best?


Related links

Artist websites

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

Dorothea Tanning @ Tate Modern

This is the first large-scale exhibition of Dorothea Tanning’s work to be held in the UK for 25 years.

It brings together 100 pieces from her seven-decade-long career (she lived to be an astonishing 101 years old, 1910 – 2012) across a range of media, including oil paintings, pencil drawings, ‘soft’ sculptures, lithographs, a massive installation, and a film about her. It is as comprehensive a survey of her artistic achievement as you could wish for.

Birthday (1942) by Dorothea Tanning. Philadelphia Museum of Art © DACS 2019

Birthday (1942) by Dorothea Tanning. Philadelphia Museum of Art © DACS 2019

Tanning was born in provincial America (Galesburg, Illinois) in 1910. As soon as she was able to, she moved to New York, where she soon afterwards saw the famous Surrealism exhibition of 1936. It was a coup de foudre which changed her life. She began painting in a boldly Surrealist style and in 1939 set off to Paris to meet the leaders of the movement.

Unfortunately, Hitler had other plans, and the advent of the Second World War saw her coming straight back to New York but, happily, so did half the Surrealist artists, fleeing the Nazis. These fleeing artists included one of the leading Surrealists, Max Ernst (b.1891), who she fell in love with and married in 1946.

Surrealist paintings

The exhibition features a generous selection of the Surrealist paintings she made from the mid-1930s to the end of the 40s.

Tanning said she wanted to depict ‘unknown but knowable states’ and the pictures show humans in strange postures, or morphing into inanimate objects, or bursting into flames, or standing in deserts littered with incongruous objects, or standing in bedrooms among strange and Gothic figures, or staring into sunflowers which are changing into mirrors, or standing in front of doors opening onto other doors.

Some of these are really powerful images, although many felt to me like they were channelling existing Surrealist artists, especially Salvador Dali, the man who had crystallised the Surrealist ‘look’ in the late 1920s, introducing an immaculate finish to his oil paintings which depicted random objects or events, melting watches, elephants on stilts, melting limbs propped up by crutches and so on.

In other works you can detect the influence of Giorgio de Chirico (b.1888) with his mysterious abandoned Italian squares and brooding neo-classical architecture. In some of them you can see the Magritte who painted a man in a bowler hat with an apple in front of his face.

For example the blue skyscape at the bottom of this Surreal image of a chess game, and its startling optical illusion it gives that the rest of the painting has been draped in front of a landscape, reminds me of the deceptively simple blue skies of Magritte paintings.

Endgame (1944) by Dorothea Tanning. Courtesy Gertrud V. Parker © DACS 2019

Endgame (1944) by Dorothea Tanning. Courtesy Gertrud V. Parker © DACS 2019

But all that said, many of Tanning’s paintings do have a unique and distinctive feeling.

The recurrence of women in the paintings is nothing special in itself, since the Surrealists as a movement thought of the female as being more instinctive, irrational, closer to the unconscious and an all-purpose muse figure – so Tanning’s depictions of women with bared breasts (or herself with bared breasts) don’t cover any new ground.

But I felt that her depictions of girls do capture something unique. Pre-pubescent girls are not such a common motif in male artists, who tend, all too often, to depict shapely, nude and nubile women.

I think Tanning’s depictions of pre-pubescent girls and the depiction of women not as sex objects but as individuals – I’m struggling to put this into words, but her depiction of girls and women – did have a different and distinctive feeling, capturing something genuinely strange about a girl’s experience of the world. I thought of Angela Carter’s retelling of fairy tales from a girl’s point of view.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Prismatic style

In the 1950s Tanning and Ernst moved to Paris and this marked a seismic, comprehensive reinvention of her visual language. It is signalled in the exhibition when you walk into the next room and are confronted with the massive and staggering painting, Gate 84.

Installation photograph of Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern, 2019

Admittedly this is from a lot later, 1984, but Gate 84 captures the massive change in style which happened in the 1950s. It depicts two girls drawn in vivid graphic style with the use of strong border lines, emerging from a background of violent flaming yellow. Dividing the painting right down the middle is part of an actual door and door jamb which has been embedded into the canvas and sticks out of the picture plane. Both the girls are wearing thigh-length dresses, the one on the left is performing an acrobatic leap so as to hit the door with outstretched hand and foot; the one on the right is more lazily sitting, with her right leg outstretched, her foot pressed flat against the door as if keeping it shut.

I visited with my wife who said this reminded her vividly of the fights she was always having with her own sister, when they were kids. And she got talking to another middle aged woman standing in front of it, who agreed that it reminded her of her childhood with two sisters, rampaging and fighting. A very female sensibility capturing something vivid and dynamic about girls’ experiences of the world.

What struck me more than anything was the chunky realism of the legs, the muscular thighs and the weight and tension in the calves and feet. The entire depiction of the human body is utterly utterly different from the rather attenuated, pallid, doll-like figures in the Surrealist paintings.

And this proved to be true of all her paintings from this point onwards. They become a) much larger and b) much much more abstract, great billowing shapes.

And yet, paradoxically, the graphic element becomes clearer. Faces and bodies and fragments of bodies appear as if out of a rampaging fog and, when they do, are often painted with strict anatomical accuracy, or even a kind of super-accuracy, a monumental accuracy. The arms and thighs and bottoms reminded me of Michelangelo.

It is like the work of a completely different artist.

Dogs of Cythera (1963) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

Dogs of Cythera (1963) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

In Dogs of Cythera, at bottom left you can make out what might be an arm going round a woman’s breast, in the centre something like the top of a shaved black skull, at bottom right another arm bent at the elbow, leading up to a hand with splayed fingers.

So there are people, or people-like objects in the painting, but quite clearly something radical and massive is going on that utterly eclipses them, or only uses them as raw material in a bigger and bewildering process.

To quote the wall label, these works mark:

a more abstracted ‘prismatic’ style of painting, and her brushwork and compositions became much looser. Where her earlier work used precise realism to present fantastical scenes, in these paintings it is colour and light that bring imaginary worlds into being. The possibilities of her medium became more important to her.

‘In looking at how many ways paint can flow onto canvas, I began to long for letting it have more freedom.’

In Tanning’s Surreal works the human body, mostly female, is often stylised, thin, elongated – or given an eerie, science fiction otherworldliness, as in this disconcerting girl being covered in flowers. The subject is set in a recognisable space with perspective to create depth and often to draw the eye to some Surrealistically disturbing detail, such as the fireplace which opens onto clear blue sky.

The Magic Flower Game (1941) by Dorothea Tanning. Private collection, South Dakota © DACS 2019

The Magic Flower Game (1941) by Dorothea Tanning. Private collection, South Dakota © DACS 2019

In this later, ‘prismatic’ style, there is no depth or perspective, there is only a great storm of cloud happening right on the surface of the canvas from which parts of one or more bodies threaten to temporarily emerge into focus before disappearing again into the tumult. The paintings vary quite a lot in feel, some lighter and airier, others really dark and stormy – but all in the same immediately recognisable style.

Inutile (1969) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

Inutile (1969) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

There are over twenty paintings in this maner, it looks like most of her output after the mid-1950s was like this, and I loved them.

Many of the Surrealist works are wonderful, inventive and mysterious but I couldn’t help the nagging through that she was working – often to marvellous effect – but in someone else’s idiom. With the ‘prismatic’ paintings it seemed to me Tanning became completely free. I loved the tremendous sense of energy they convey, the sense of muscular, lithe bodies struggling, fighting, embracing, tumbling through clouds – as different as could be from the absolutely static, dream-like, frozen tableaux of the Surrealist works.

They reminded me of the last stanza of Yeats’s poem, Near The Delphic Oracle.

Slim adolescence that a nymph has stripped,
Peleus on Thetis stares.
Her limbs are delicate as an eyelid,
Love has blinded him with tears;
But Thetis’ belly listens.
Down the mountain walls
From where pan’s cavern is
Intolerable music falls.
Foul goat-head, brutal arm appear,
Belly, shoulder, bum,
Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs
Copulate in the foam.

Bellies, shoulders and bums all appear momentarily our of the seething fog of these strange, visionary paintings. Some are sensual, even sexy. And in some the human figure entirely emerges to be given a surprisingly traditional and realistic treatment, like this one, Tango Lives, from 1977, which seemed to me to be channelling Degas’s studies of ballet dancers on a stage, strongly lit from below.

Tango Lives (1977) by Dorothea Tanning

Tango Lives (1977) by Dorothea Tanning

But many others convey bewilderment and confusion, and some of them seem genuinely dark and terrifying, visions of a weird hell where monsters are eating each other. More than one of the dark ones reminded me of Goya’s Saturn devouring his children in a swirling fog.

Soft fabric sculptures

And then – something completely different, again.

In the 14-minute film about her – Insomnia – which runs in the final room, Tanning herself explains that at some point in the mid-1960s she just got sick of the smell of turpentine and, by implication, of painting as a medium.

So she got a sowing machine (she is shown in the film using a classic black Singer machine) and began making soft sculptures.

She used the machine to sew together strange shapes which she stuffed with wool to become free-standing sculptures. Like the prismatic paintings they hint strongly at bodily parts – not least because many of them are made out of flesh-coloured fabric – with long tubes which could be arms flung around bulbous shapes which might be bodies. Take Nue Couchée which is made from cotton textile padded with cardboard and filled with seven tennis balls and a load of wool.

Nue Couchée (1969-70) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Nue Couchée (1969-70) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

There’s one round pink shape with a wide crack open in the front which is lined with jagged pieces of wood, obviously a rather nightmareish face. And the biggest piece is a mysterious black pin cushion, studded with giant pins, containing strange pinnacles and spouts, as well as worrying orifices.

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1965) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1965) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Tanning made it when she was living in Seillans, a hill-top town in Provence. From 1965 to about 1970 she made about twenty of these cloth sculptures.

By far the most dramatic work along these lines was an enormous room-sized installation which is in fact a life-sized model of a room, complete with open door and fireplace, but which is infested with cloth sculptures looming out of the floor and bursting from the walls – a three-dimensional, if rather dingy, homage to the Surrealist nightmares which shook her imagination all those decades earlier.

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–3) by Dorothea Tanning

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–3) by Dorothea Tanning

Conclusion

There’s also a section devoted to her work for the stage, designing Surrealist sets and costumes for collaborations with the choreographer George Balantine – and a sequence of lithographs which, to me, smacked of the covers of 1950s science fiction novels, of the more abstract, harrowing, post-apocalyptic flavour.

But overall her career can be divided very broadly into these three threads

  1. Dali-like Surrealist paintings
  2. huge billowy ‘prismatic’ paintings
  3. mysterious and unnerving soft sculptures

In light of this, I think the curators have made an excellent decision which is to mix it up.

I suspect that if they’d hung the works chronologically it might have been a bit boring, each room would have risked being a bit samey. A couple of rooms of non-stop Surrealism, one of the strange 1950s lithographs and stage designs, a couple of rooms of just prismatic paintings, and then a room or two of just soft sculptures – each space would have been limiting and samey.

Instead the curators have mixed it up, with works from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s all in the same room, huge oil paintings next to lithographs, early drawings next to Surrealist classics.

The net result is to create thought-provoking connections and juxtapositions of subject matter and style – in short, to foment the kind of rather dreamy, disconnected, unsettling effect which I’m sure Tanning herself would have appreciated.

Self Portrait (1944) by Dorothea Tanning © San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Self Portrait (1944) by Dorothea Tanning © San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The promotional video

Women curators

Dorothea Tanning is curated by Alyce Mahon, Reader in Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Cambridge and Ann Coxon, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern, supported by Emma Lewis and Hannah Johnston, Assistant Curators, International Art, Tate Modern.


Related links

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