Dorothea Tanning

Nue couchée


Not on display

Dorothea Tanning 1910–2012
Cotton textile, cardboard, 7 table tennis balls, wool and thread
Object: 385 × 1089 × 535 mm
Purchased 2003


Nue couchée, 1969-70, is one of a group of soft sculptures made by Tanning that evoke the female body. Here the pink fabric, the emphatically, even outrageously, rounded forms, the suggestion of vertebrae made by the table tennis balls inside the sculpture, and the limb-like extrusions which, in folding back on themselves, help balance the horizontal sculpture, combine to create this metamorphic ‘nude’. Its form can be seen as closely related to other pink fabric sculptures of the period, such as Emma, 1970 (collection of the artist), and the headless creatures that appear to burst out of the walls in Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202, 1970-3, one of which also has inside it table tennis balls, suggesting vertebrae (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). It also relates closely to Tanning’s treatment of the body in her paintings from the late 1950s and 1960s which evoke bodies and couplings in scenes suggestive of delirium and abandon.

Tanning herself always stressed the absolute continuity of her approach: her way of doing things changed but her preoccupations – often informed by literary memories – remained the same. Nue couchée (1969-70), with its outrageously displayed bottom and languorously crossed limbs, seems to invite comment about Tanning’s representation of female sexuality and to have little to do with Romanticism. In a letter to the author, however, Tanning recalled with pleasure the way the sculpture was once displayed at the Zabriskie Gallery, New York – placed on a low plinth and encased in Perspex – and how this had reminded her of a scene described in Phantastes (1858) by the Scots writer George MacDonald. In his novel the hero enters a cave and discovers a block of pure alabaster in which he can dimly see the sculpted marble form of a beautiful woman. Entranced by her beauty, he sings to her and brings her to life. But the woman proves to be an evil spirit who nearly lures the hero to his death.

This shows how those who would separate Tanning’s work from a context of imaginings miss its fantastical and narrative dimension. It also throws light on the gulf that has emerged between Tanning’s own vision of her work and those of the critics and historians who would analyse it in terms of gender and sexuality. Criticising writers who have focused on feminist or psychoanalytic interpretations of her images, she herself has stressed in her writings and statements that her works spring, on the one hand, from her sensuous pleasure in colours and in the materials of art, and, on the other, from ideas emerging from her unconscious. For her mystery and surprise are integral elements of her work, its core subject matter.

Further reading:
Jean Christophe Bailly, Dorothea Tanning, New York 1995, reproduced p.331 in colour
Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives: An Artist and her World, New York and London 2001
Jennifer Mundy, ‘Quiet Mystery’, Tate Magazine, London July/August 2003, pp. VI-VIII

Jennifer Mundy
March 2003
Revised by Lucy Askew December 2004

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Display caption

The title of this work can be translated as ‘Reclining nude’. It is one of a small group of soft sculptures made by Tanning, an American artist who first became associated with the Surrealist group in New York in the early 1940s. The sculptures were three-dimensional expressions of the fantastical images and narratives of her paintings. Here the rounded forms, the suggestion of vertebrae made by table tennis balls inside the work, and the limb-like extrusions wittily evoke a nude of surprising vitality and sensuality.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Dorothea Tanning 1910–2012 
Nue couchée 
Cotton, cardboard, wool and plastic balls 
385 x 1089 x 535 mm 
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 2003 

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

Exhibition history: 
Dorothea Tanning, Sculptures 1969–1970, Le Point Cardinal, Paris, 26 May–30 June 1970, no.2 (mistitled Nu couché, dated 1969). 
Dorothea Tanning: Oeuvre, Centre National d’Art Contemporain, Paris, 28 May–8 July 1974, sculptures no.6 (mistitled Nu couché, dated 1969). 
Dorothea Tanning, Galerie Jan Krugier, Geneva, 21 November–21 December 1974, no.24 (mistitled Nu couché). 
Dorothea Tanning: Om Konst Kunde Tala [If Art Could Talk], Malmö Konsthall, 3 April–16 May 1993, no.109. 
Dorothea Tanning: Collages, Drawings, Watercolours, and a Sculpture, Zabriskie Gallery, New York, 6 September–13 October 2001, no.1. 

Judith Applegate, ‘Paris: Galerie Point Cardinal’, Art International, vol.14, no.8, October 1970, p.77. 
Robert C. Morgan, ‘A Separate Anthropology’, in Jean-Christophe Bailly, Dorothea Tanning, New York 1995, pp.304, 306, reproduced p.331. 
Jennifer Mundy, ‘Quiet Mystery’, Tate: Arts and Culture, July–August 2003, pp.6–8. 
Ann Temkin, ‘On Dorothea Tanning’, Grand Street, vol.72, Fall 2003, p.137. 
Jane Kramer, ‘Self-Inventions: Dorothea Tanning, Painter Turned Poet’, The New Yorker, 3 May 2004, p.42. 
Gaby Wood, ‘Arts Interview: “I’ve Always Been Perverse”’, The Observer, 15 August 2004, p.7. 
Amy Lyford, ‘Refashioning Surrealism: The Early Art of Dorothea Tanning’, in Dorothea Tanning: Beyond the Esplanade: Paintings, Drawings and Prints from 1940 to 1965, exhibition catalogue, Frey Norris Gallery, San Francisco 2009, p.12. 
Victoria 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. 

Nue couchée is one of a group of soft sculptures made by Tanning between 1969 and 1970 which evoke the female body. They culminate in the multi-part, room sized installation Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Pavot Hotel, Room 202) 1970 (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). Tanning had already created Pincushion to Serve as Fetish in 1965 (Tate T07988) as a means of experimenting with fabric as a medium for sculpture. However, she has recalled how, while attending a concert performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s (1928–2007) Hymnen in Paris in 1969, she had a vision of the as yet unmade sculptures: ‘spinning among the unearthly sounds of Hymnen were the earthly ... organic shapes that I would make, had to make, out of cloth and wool.’1 In this group of sculptures Tanning arguably consolidated thirty years of painting by transforming her cast of previously two-dimensional characters into a reality in three dimensions. As she relates, ‘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 Woven into these hybrid and anthropomorphic cloth sculptures are the key themes of Tanning’s work: an interest in the dark, psychological dramas inherent in gothic fiction and fairy tales; a preoccupation with the supernatural in everyday life; and an obsession with depicting the female body and the experience of female embodiment. 

The fluid and metamorphic pose of Nue couchée is prefigured in the rounded female forms of paintings such as Status Quo 1965 (collection of the artist) and A la Dérive 1967 (private collection), which involve configurations of the body through distortion and contraction. The casual placement of its many folding arms suggests movement, counterbalancing the large buttocks at the other end that lie, literally, legless and heavy. As Tate curator Jennifer Mundy points out, Nue couchée ‘relates closely to Tanning’s treatment of the body in her paintings from the late 1950s and 1960s which evoke bodies and couplings in scenes suggestive of delirium and abandon’.3 The fleshy pink fabric and the physically visceral aspect of the sculpture, with its table-tennis balls for spinal vertebrae, make it similar to the figures which emerge and disappear through the walls of Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202

However, the provocative shape and positioning of the buttocks in Nue couchée bring it closer in tone to another of Tanning’s sculptures from 1970, entitled Emma (collection of the artist). Referring to Gustave Flaubert’s (1821–1880) heroine from his landmark novel Madame Bovary, this work depicts comprises off-white lace surrounding, or perhaps exposing, an ambiguous pink mound of fabric (flesh) with seams and depressions suggestive of a belly or buttocks. As with the folds of fabric which form the buttocks of Nue couchée, the viewer has the impression of seeing something private, hidden or sexual, yet which is outrageously flaunted. The fact that neither figure represents a complete body recalls surrealist photography, in which the female body was usually distorted or fragmented, often with a focus on the rear. However, according to Tanning, her sculptures are ‘not physically threatening or threatened, they are not real, [they are] more like the creatures in fairy tales than [either] the tortured dissections of Freudian dreams’ or the traditional odalisques, the passive, orientalised and sexualised reclining nude women painted by European artists.4 

Despite the fact that Nue couchée is replete with associations that revolve around sexuality and the female body, Tanning reinforces her view that the creative wellspring for the work lies in the context of fantasy tales and the fabric of her own imagination. In a letter to Tate curator Jennifer Mundy, the artist ‘recalled with pleasure the way the sculpture was once displayed at the Zabriskie Gallery, New York – placed on a low plinth and encased in Perspex – and how this had reminded her of a scene described in Phantastes (1858) by the Scots writer George MacDonald’.5 In the novel, the hero enters a cave in which he finds a block of alabaster through which he can faintly see the form of a woman. As so often in popular mythology, the hero sings to her and, in bringing her to life, narrowly escapes his own death. Interestingly, this common narrative theme provides an analogy for the simultaneously rejuvenative and destructive potential of the creative process. In emphasizing the importance of her own creative impulse, Dorothea Tanning states her belief that any understanding of her work must come through direct interaction with the imagination of the viewer, a process which should be unhampered by reason and the logical limitations of everyday reality: ‘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.’6 Thus, the artist and viewer are inextricably bound together in the work. 

Victoria Carruthers 
March 2010, revised July 2012 

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

1 Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives, New York 2001, p.281. 
2 Ibid., p.282. 
3 Jennifer Mundy, ‘Summary’,, accessed 19 February 2010. 
4 Conversation with the author, New York, 2003. 
5 Tate catalogue file. 
6 Conversation with the author, New York, 2003. 


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