Some Roses and Their Phantoms, 1952, represents a domestic world transformed by mysterious eruptions and inhabited by unnamable creatures. The table top setting, with its crisp white tablecloth and marks of ironed folds, suggests a safe world of bourgeois ritual. A recurrent motif, the white table cloth can also be found in other works of the same period, for example, Poached Trout, 1952 (private collection), and Portrait de famille, 1954 (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), and later in Notes for an Apocalypse, 1974 (Mimi Johnson, New York). The theme of domesticity is continued in the suggestion in the foreground of a plain white plate, but this appears to lie under, or more strangely to merge into, the exquisitely painted cloth. In The Rose and the Dog, 1952 (collection of the artist), Tanning painted a single oversize rose, its petals transformed into a grey metallic forms. In Some Roses and Their Phantoms, however, the roses and their phantoms have multiplied and become mysterious, animal-like forms. One emerges from the cloth, its petals shaped like a crumpled napkin; others appear to poke through the background wall. Behind the table another rose-form surges up but resembles only a sad, misshapen creature.
For a recent exhibition of her work Tanning wrote about this painting:
Here some roses from a very different garden sit?, lie?, stand?, gasp, dream?, die? – on white linen. They may serve you tea or coffee. As I saw them take shape on the canvas I was amazed by their solemn colors and their quiet mystery that called for – seemed to demand – some sort of phantoms. So I tried to give them their phantoms and their still-lifeness. Did I succeed? Clearly they are not going to tell me, but the white linen gave me a good feeling as if I had folded it myself, then opened it on the table.
(Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art 2000, n.p.)
This painting was bought by Roland Penrose (1900-1984), the British surrealist artist and collector. Penrose had been a close friend of Max Ernst (1891-1976) from the 1920s. He and his wife Lee Miller (1907-1976) remained close friends of Tanning and Ernst, and the couples visited each other from time to time. Penrose had bought the earliest work by Tanning in Tate’s collection, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943 (Tate T07346), on a visit to the United States in 1946. Penrose contributed an essay to a special volume on Tanning’s work produced by XXe Siècle in 1977.
In this and other works of this period Tanning used a meticulous technique to make the imaginary seem real, albeit imbued with unnatural tones and reflections. Such works can be seen as the culmination of her early work. In the late 1950s, when she had left her home in Sedona, Arizona, and had settled in France, her work entered a freer, more abstracted phase, although still based on allusions to known forms and textures, of which Tate’s A Mi-Voix, 1958 (Tate T00298), is an example.
XXe Siècle: Dorothea Tanning, Paris 1977, reproduced p.80 in colour
Jean Christophe Bailly, Dorothea Tanning, New York 1995, reproduced p.79 in colour
Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, New York and London 2001