Catalogue entry

Dorothea Tanning 1910–2012

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish
Cotton velvet, lead, steel pins, plastic funnel, sawdust and wool
372 x 370 x 455 mm
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 2003

Ownership history:
Purchased from the artist, New York, 2003.

Exhibition history:

Objets Magiques, Galerie Creuzevault, Paris, 1965.
Dorothea Tanning: Sculptures 1969–1970, Le Point Cardinal, Paris, 26 May–30 June 1970, no.1.
Dorothea Tanning: Sculpture, Galerie Alexandre Iolas, Milan, 23 February–18 March 1971, no number.
Dorothea Tanning: Oeuvre, Centre National d’Art Contemporain, Paris, 28 May–8 July 1974, Sculptures no.1.
Dorothea Tanning: Om Konst Kunde Tala (If Art Could Talk), Malmö Konsthall, 3 April–16 May 1993, no.110 (misdated 1969).
Dorothea Tanning: Works 1942–1992, Camden Arts Centre, London, 17 September–21 November 1993, no number (misdated 1969).
Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 24 November 2000–7 January 2001.
Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism, Manchester City Art Gallery, 26 September 2009–10 January 2010.


Sarane Alexandrian, ‘Objets magiques’, XXe Siècle, vol.27, no.25, June 1965, supplement p.10.
Art Américain: Œuvres des collections du Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris 1981, p.182 (misattributed to the collection of the museum as part of Tanning’s work Hôtel du Pavot).
Agnès de la Baumelle, ‘Dorothea Tanning, in La Collection du Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris 1986, p.567 (misattributed to the collection of the museum as part of Tanning’s work Hôtel du Pavot).
Robert C. Morgan, ‘A Separate Anthology’, in Dorothea Tanning, New York 1995, pp.303, 306 (misdated 1969).
Dorothea Tanning, ‘Pincushion as Fetish’, in Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art 2000, unpaginated.
Katharine Conley, ‘Les Révolutions de Dorothea Tanning’, Pleine Marge: Cahiers de littérature, d’arts plastiques, & de critique, vol.36, December 2002, pp.162–6.
Jennifer Mundy, ‘Quiet Mystery’, Tate: Arts and Culture, July–August 2003, p.8.
Ann Temkin, ‘On Dorothea Tanning’, Grand Street, vol.72, Fall 2003, p.137.
Chronology: Dorothea Tanning, exhibition catalogue, Kent Gallery, New York 2005, p.64 (misdated 1969).
Vicki Carruthers, ‘Between Sound and Silence: Exploring some Connections between John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Sculptures of Dorothea Tanning’, in Patrizia di Bello and Gabriel Koureas (eds.), Art, History and the Senses: 1830 to the Present, Aldershot 2010.
Victoria Carruthers, ‘Dorothea Tanning and Her Gothic Imagination’, Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, vol.5, no.1, 2011, pp.134–58.

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish 1965 was the first sculpture Tanning made and marks the beginning of a period of making sculpture within her work, culminating in the multi-part, room-sized installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 1970 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). This foray into three-dimensions coincided with Tanning’s move to Seillans, a small hilltop village in Provence in the south of France where she became preoccupied with all aspects of the design and construction of her home, completed in 1970. This interest in architectural space, and in the projection within that space of the human figure, both physically and psychologically, manifested itself in her hybrid and anthropomorphic cloth sculptures that blend together bodily, supernatural and domestic metaphors. Pincushion to Serve as Fetish and Nue couchée 1969–70 (Tate T07989) are examples of these. Tanning produced around twenty sculptures in an intense period between 1969 and 1970. As Tate curator Jennifer Mundy has observed, ‘This burst of activity sprang from a sudden, and for the artist cathartic, desire to see the nameless characters and ideas of her imagination expressed in sculptural form’.1 In her memoir, Between Lives, Tanning explained

An artist is the sum of his risks, I thought, the life and death kind. So, in league with my sewing machine, I pulled and stitched and stuffed the banal materials of human clothing in a transformative process where the most astonished witness was myself. Almost before I knew it I had an ‘oeuvre’, a family of sculptures that were the avatars, three-dimensional ones, of my two-dimensional painted universe.2

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish is prefigured in the strange, metamorphic shapes found in Tanning’s paintings of the early 1950’s, such as Rencontre 1952 (private collection), Interior 1953 (private collection) or The Philosophers 1952 (private collection). Fashioned from velvet, plastic, wool, sawdust and gun pellets to weight it down, the artist maintains that this small, experimental object allowed her to experiment with fabric and stuffing, and decide whether she would be able to produce other such pieces without recourse to hand stitching. This was important as, initially, she wanted to explore the ideas of haute couture and mass production in the fashion industry as different types of fetishistic commodification. As such, although each sculpture is an art object, each one has been made entirely with a commercial sewing machine. Pincushion is made up of black velvet with painted white lines, and includes an orange plastic funnel disguised to create an orifice of the small creature-like form. A number of pins have been pushed into the velvet, hinting at magic or ritual practices such as voodoo, and are the linking element between the object’s shifting identity as a pincushion and a fetish. Styled after both a dressmakers’ pincushion, complete with pins, and the small fetish objects of South American or African origin, the unusually shaped sculpture evokes the full gamut of connotations associated with its title. In 2000 Tanning wrote of this sculpture:

Maybe a pincushion is a far cry from a fetish. A fetish is something not exactly or always desirable in sculpture, being superstitious if not actually a shamanistic object; and yet, to my mind it’s not so far from a pincushion – after all, pins are routinely stuck in both. This one was my bid for a statement of simple form, maybe not so simple, with its equivocal psychic suggestion – something I believe form cannot exist without. Not an image but bristling with images. And pins.3

When Pincushion to Serve as Fetish was first exhibited, the viewer was invited to stick pins in the surface from a tray of oversized, purpose made dressmakers pins situated next to the sculpture. With its tactile surface of black velvet and orange funnel/orifice suggesting an internal ‘skin’, the object fuses sensual and sexual imagery with notions of voodoo, magic, cruelty and sado-masochism. By selecting a spot and piercing the sculpture with a pin the viewer could alter the object, and by this interaction could form a stronger and more personal connection with it. The act of piercing, reminiscent of the way a Victorian butterfly collector might pin his specimens for display, implies a sense of ownership and subjugation. This level of interaction, however, is no longer possible, primarily due to the fragility of the object, and the work is now displayed with a number of pins already stuck into it.

Tanning’s own description of the work omits explicit reference to the sexual connotations of the piece, suggested by its shape, as well as by the use of black velvet and the vaginal orange funnel. These allusions, however, are implicit in the title of the work and in the ‘psychic suggestion’ to which she refers. The work is intended to act as a channel for the viewer’s imagination. Discussing her sculptures in 2003, Tanning stated, ‘I want people to look with three eyes … two outside and one inside. I want their minds to wander and explore just as much as my own; in our make-up there are so many conflicting elements that people aren’t aware of, and civilization has put a cork on that bottle and I’m trying to drag it out’.4

In 1979 Tanning made a larger, floor-based version of this work, which remains in her own collection.

Victoria Carruthers
March 2010

Supported by The AHRC Research Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies.


2 Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives, New York 2001, p.282.
3 Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art 2000, unpaginated.
4 Conversation with the author, New York, 2003.