Appearing to morph reality as we know it the longer we contemplate it, Dorothea Tanning‘s “The Birthday” is an interesting precursor of early North American Post-Modern art.
But before starting, what is Post-Modernism? Post-Modernism more or less deals with the idea that reality is dependent on social constructs and subject to vast change. As such, there is no truth and reality as we know it is subjective and open to interpretation. Because of this, the art from this period tends toward the cryptic and onorique and depends on the artist’s codes (which may also be intimately tied to the era in which the artist creates the work). As time marches on, these paintings are getting harder to figure out and any attempt at trying to work out some kind of meaning, involves the artist’s truth less and less and the observer’s interpretation (which we know to not be true, see above) more and more. That said, that might not be true either.
With this in mind, let us look at Dorothea Tanning’s The Birthday which was painted in 1942. For context, let’s keep in mind that Dorothea Tanning had in the past few years been greatly influenced (or rather seduced) by Surrealism and this ever since an exhibit in 1936 at the Museum of Modern Art called “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism”. Let’s all keep in mind that at the time, she and Max Ernst are traveling within the same societal circles and the Second World War is being fought throughout Europe. If you’ve ever tried to read Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonte: A Surrealist Novel in Collage this may be of help. Then again, it may not. Honestly, it’s almost beyond the pale. I definitely recommend trying to find it in your local library though. It’s a voyeuristic, deer in headlights, sort of treat.
The Birthday reveals itself to us as any gift does, slowly unwrapping itself and hypnotizing us towards its core. The observer’s eye is pulled down a succession of doors, pinging from one set of doorknobs to the next, a bizarre hall of mirrors ushering us through to eternity. Judging from the wall covering above one of the doors and the hardwood flooring laid horizontally, as though to moderate our eye’s passage, we can deduce that the apartment is opulent and possibly European. However, it is also empty and the succession of doors forces us to contemplate the infinite emptiness of said opulence. The soul has no place here.
Moving in from a door set perpendicularly from this endless corridor, we have a somewhat disheveled yet beautiful young woman. Could she be a sort of gatekeeper? Her chest is laid bare and open to our eyes, yet she is unabashed and her frank gaze towards the spectator leaves us to surmise that she is aware of her power over us, whatever her role may be. Her clothes send us mixed messages. On the one hand, her upper body coverings are designed to convey a certain richness: the use of the royal purple in a satiny fabric that has been carefully worked with lace cuffs. However, the woman’s lower half refutes the upper: it is covered, but summarily, the woman’s right hand is barely hitching the earthy brown fabric in place over her nether region and a train of roots trickle down the back of her legs. She is a conundrum, she is the manifestation of the bewitching nature of women.
To further this feeling of the power that she has over us, our eye finally descends down to the animal in front of her. Her familiar? Whatever the case, it is a mottled creature of lore, an impossible mix of animals that fly and those that do not. It too looks directly at the observer, as though daring us to remain aloof in the face of its mistress’s power. As though that was indeed possible.
In terms of why The Birthday was chosen as the title of the piece, this is as subjective as anything else portrayed in the work. It is an enigma that rivals reality and truth. Modernism and Post-Modernism and the birth of something new.