01 Apr 2017
A female in a state of undress invites us into…the deep perspective space seen through a sequence of doors… The garments this enigmatic female figure wears are a marvel of invention. One consists of a bundle of gnarled roots, while the other is of wrinkled violet velvet with gold hems and lace cuffs.
Tim Martin, “Essential Surrealists”, Parragon, 1999, p. 123
The woman’s ruffled purpled brocade jacket, opened to reveal her bare chest, tops a skirt of long, green tendrils, which, upon scrutiny, assume the form of human bodies.
Ann Temkin, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 125th Anniversary, 2002, p. 132
Dorothea’s feet are bare and her breasts exposed in a rebellious manner, reflecting the oppositional forces of conformity and fantasy.
Michael Robinson, “Surrealism”, 2006, p. 194
The beautiful woman we see in Tanning’s “Birthday” is too independent from the viewers’ presence to be considered as unconditionally attractive. Indeed, can an attractive woman not to try to attract, be indifferent to being assessed according to the scale attractive-non-attractive? And can a not-attractive woman be still considered beautiful? In other words, can beauty without the smallest appeal be impressive without being perceived as intimidating?
Is the heroine of Tanning’s painting intimidating? Her beauty is, as if, wrapped in her own being. She looks at the world, which, as if for her at this moment doesn’t include viewers and, may be, artist too. But isn’t the beauty of her face can be felt as less beautiful because of the disinterestedness of her attention to the world? Her gaze, as though pushes the world away in the very moment of noticing it. We feel that she is neglecting us not because she has a neglectful position towards people, but because we, the viewers, aren’t important when we’re focusing on her our attention. At this point her very presence in front of us has already forced us to forget about her attractiveness-non-attractiveness and start to operate with something like reliability/non-reliability of her beauty as such. If her face seems less beautiful because she allows herself to pass us with her attention and, therefore, is perceived by us even more intimidating, her breasts, somehow, seem a little less breastly because of her indifference to or at least independence from our gazes. Of course, by daring to qualify the protagonist’s breasts as “less breastly”, I am not implying that they‘re less beautiful. But they are completely belong to themselves, not even to her. They are too… alive to be at the service of the gaze or males or children. They’re too sensitive as to have a functional application. They’re, as if, in any moment can change.
These breasts, certainly, don’t belong to men’s intentionality in spite of their arousing power. But they also don’t belong to motherhood and even less to the mirror. They, like her body, don’t belong even to her in the habitual sense when we say “my body” or “my legs”, etc. Her body, as if, didn’t get the full feeling of being hers, because her existential attention was never concentrated on possessive feelings toward her limbs or other parts of her body. Her body is like her gaze – it belongs to the world only in a certain moments – her body belongs to her life, but not to her.
But who is that amazing, simultaneously frightening and irresistible little creature in front of the not-understandable woman of Tanning’s painting? They both look at the same direction – at the world ahead. The creature looks a little like a Lemur but it is with magnificent wings. The protagonist’s life is like this strange winged creature which looks, as if it came (flew away) from the caves or dens. It is Dorothea Tanning’s image of this woman’s life from her childhood to her adult life. It is a metaphor of a holistic essence of her very vitality. As we see, a little monster symbolizing the protagonist’s life is far from looking anything like her. Why this beautiful woman’s vitality can be locked into this particular, even demonic creature, frightening in its air of aggressive alertness? Something about beauty and, may be, even attractiveness need to be like this inside to protect themselves in the factual world.
From her childhood the life/vitality of the woman in the painting was intimidated by the world, and she came up with a solution represented by the interior with numerous opened doors bathing in the currents of fresh air. Interior of her spacious apartment mediates between her life and the external world. Of course, this interior is not for domestic comfort and interior design – of furniture and draperies, like it is for the majority of people. The heroine of the painting is not a person who closes the doors, but who prefers to open them – for herself, her life and the world. And she doesn’t need makeup as her apartment doesn’t need furniture decorations. She has her art, and as an artist she is barefooted in her place, in her life and in the world.
The painting is dedicated to the introspective experience the protagonist has during her own birthday – the time of contemplation about her personality, particularity and development up to the age marketed by her birthday. Obviously, this essential date doesn’t include bouts of gluttony or a time of dissolving human personalities into a maze of emotional familiarity with other people – relatives, friends and acquaintances (spontaneous creation of collective identity with emotional non-differentiation when one person starts the sentence and another finishes it, and everybody is equally happy, as if, it’s one collective birthday).
But, of course, birthday can be any new day, new encounter with the world, our own life, our own particularity, a day with new ordeals, which we can celebrate together with Dorothea Tanning and her incredible protagonist looking at us with her curious and stubbornly independent gaze.