Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is one of the best known of Dorothea Tanning’s early paintings. It shows what appears to be a hotel corridor with numbered doors, the farthest of which is open just enough to offer a glimpse of incandescent light. A giant sunflower and pieces of its torn stem lie on the landing. Two fallen petals lie further down the stairs and a third is held by a doll propped against one of the doorways. The doll is remarkably life-like and wears similar clothing to the girl standing nearby. Her status as a toy is only revealed by her hairline and the regularly moulded contours of her torso. The tattered state of the clothes worn by both the doll and the girl suggests that there has been some sort of struggle or encounter with powerful forces, and the girl’s long hair streams upwards as if blasted by an immensely powerful gust of wind. Tanning has said: ‘It’s about confrontation. Everyone believes he/she is his/her drama. While they don’t always have giant sunflowers (most aggressive of flowers) to contend with, there are always stairways, hallways, even very private theatres where the suffocations and the finalities are being played out, the blood red carpet or cruel yellows, the attacker, the delighted victim....’ (Letter to the author, 1999)
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was made while Tanning was staying with her companion, the artist Max Ernst, in Sedona, Arizona. It was their first trip to this area in which they would later live for several years. In her memoir, Birthday, Tanning recalls how Mozart was a favourite topic of conversation at that time, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is titled after one of one of his most well-known serenades (Birthday, p.85). By the door of the ranch Tanning planted some sunflower seeds and she became fascinated with these plants. She told the author that she saw the sunflower in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as ‘a symbol of all the things that youth has to face and to deal with,’ and has said that it represented the ‘never-ending battle we wage with unknown forces, the forces that were there before our civilisation’. The apparent intervention of unexplained or supernatural forces in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik recalls characteristics of the Gothic novels that Tanning read in her youth, and which were admired by many of the artists and writers of the surrealist group with whom she associated in the 1940s and beyond.
The art historian Whitney Chadwick has suggested that the composition of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was inspired by Danger on the Stairs 1927, a painting of a large snake on a staircase by the French Surrealist Pierre Roy. Tanning could have seen this work in the 1936 exhibition of Surrealist art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Chadwick writes that in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Tanning ‘removes the snake with its Freudian symbolic content, and replaces it with a torn and writhing sunflower, and image strongly identified with Tanning’s Midwestern origins, close to nature and capable of conveying impressions of both fecundity and menace (Women Artists of the Surrealist Movement, London 1985, p.138). However the resemblances between the paintings are not compelling. Tanning has firmly rejected this comparison: ‘To compare my vision with the perfectly proportioned and very photographic depiction of a snake (anaconda) on a stairs, neatly painted, somewhat in the manner of Magritte, is simple-minded. The scene, though infrequent, is possible in the natural outside world. Mine is not.’ (Letter to Tate 1998)
Dorothea Tanning, Birthday, Santa Monica and San Francisco 1986
Dorothea Tanning, exhibition catalogue, Malmö Konsthall 1993
Jean Christophe Bailly and Robert C. Morgan, Dorothea Tanning, New York 1996