Dorothea Tanning

The Girl (Before)


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Not on display

Dorothea Tanning 1910–2012
Gouache, ink and graphite on paper
Support: 409 × 306 mm
Presented by Tate Members 2020


This is one of a group of five studies on paper by Tanning in Tate’s collection dating from 1950 (Tate T15415T15419); they are costume designs for The Witch, a ballet choreographed by the dancer John Cranko (1927–1973). Individually titled Bat Demon, Castle Midnight, The Boy, The Girl and The Girl (Before), they are executed in gouache paint on portrait-format dark blue paper. Each one depicts a character from the ballet centred on the paper within a rectangle loosely defined with a wash of white paint. The figures adopt different poses – one standing contrapposto, others in balletic postures with arms and legs outstretched – and each is labelled at the bottom of the paper with the title of the character it represents.

Tanning was introduced to the world of ballet through the gallerist Julien Levy, who had presented her first solo exhibition at his New York gallery in 1944. Through a conversation at Levy’s apartment in 1945 with the Russian neo-romantic painter and theatre designer Eugène Berman (1889–1972), she was introduced to the influential Russian choreographer George Balanchine (1904–1983). As she recalled in her memoir, it was a ‘momentous meeting, for it began a collaboration that literally swept me off my feet’ (Tanning 2001, p.86). Following several months of collaborative working, her first contribution – the stage and costume designs for Balanchine’s Night Shadow, performed by Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York – was premiered in March 1946.

Buoyed by the experience, Tanning began work on a second project with Balanchine in 1950. Balanchine and the American writer and cultural figure Lincoln Kirstein (1907–1996) – with whom he had co-founded the Ballet Society in 1946, later named the New York City Ballet in 1948 – wished to design a production that would be performed on the company’s tour to London. They commissioned the young British dancer John Cranko, who developed the choreography for The Witch, which premiered on 18 August 1950 at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London. Choreographed to Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (composed between 1929 and 1931), it tells the story of a young woman (danced by Melissa Hayden) who is transformed into a witch and eventually kills her lover (danced by Francisco Moncion). (Murga Castro, in Tate Modern 2019, p.42.)

Tanning’s set design for The Witch – which depicts the enchanted castle in which the ballet is set – demonstrates her interest in creating other worlds and takes inspiration from the Gothic literature and fairy tales that fed into her canvases of the same period (see, for example, The Mirror 1950, private collection.) Her costume designs, however, take the form of traditional fashion plates. This technique might be seen as a result of the commercial advertising work that Tanning undertook for Macy’s department store in 1940 as she pursued her career as an artist. Whilst two of the drawings are dark and Gothic in character – the Bat Demon (Tate T15415) shrouded in a tattered grey poncho with lipstick-red claws, and the witch in Castle Midnight (Tate T15415) clothed in an intricately tied moss-green dress that seems to entangle with lengths of straggled hair – the other three illustrate the youthful love which begins the ballet’s story. The Boy (Tate T15418) is dressed in a theatrical costume with cropped breeches and a wide-lapelled jacket, while the figures in The Girl (Before) (Tate T15416) and The Girl (Tate T15419) – adorned with flowers, feathered material and silk bows respectively – make explicit the notion of transformation central to the narrative. Each of the drawings reveals the artist’s interest in posture and the theatrical staging of the body, as well as the expressive potential of fabric, which she described as ‘supple, sly, always moving’ (Tanning, cited in Monique Levi-Strauss, ‘Dorothea Tanning: Soft Sculptures’, American Fabrics and Fashions, vol.108, Fall 1976, p.69).

While Tanning shared an enthusiasm for the possibilities of the stage held by many painters who had turned their talents to the theatre by the 1940s, the process often presented diplomatic and logistical challenges. Tanning experienced an organisational hierarchy she had limited capacity to contend with as a relatively young and unestablished artist, and faced an often-modest financial reward for her work. The Witch, in particular, also presented tailoring difficulties, which the artist was forced to rectify on her arrival in London a few days before the piece’s premiere. She recalled:

When I arrived in London and saw the costumes I almost went into a coma. Much of the trouble pointed to an effort at economy. Melissa’s costume was the worst and, during the next 24 hours, I saw that it got redone – this time with materials I went out and chose. The rest was a matter of painting and dyeing which we were doing until 4:30 of the afternoon of the performance!
(Tanning, cited in Murga Castro, Tate Modern 2019, p.43.)

In a text on Tanning’s work for the theatre, the historian Idoia Murga Castro noted that the ballet’s public reception was ‘unfavourable’. Critics ‘describ[ed] the performance as “pompous” and “too long”, and the jazz sounds in Ravel’s score as anachronistic with the romantically inspired stage design.’ (Murga Castro 2019, p.43.) Copyright queries raised by the composer’s heirs compounded the ballet’s short-lived run. Yet, for Tanning, the experience remained an exhilarating one. Speaking of The Witch, she said: ‘Of this one my most vivid memory is the earth-shaking event of taking a bow on the stage of Covent Garden!’ (Tanning 2001, p.87.)

While Tanning subsequently worked on two further ballets and a play – Balanchine’s Bayou and Will o’ the Wisp in 1951 and 1953 respectively, and Jean-Louis Barrault’s Judith in 1961 – she ultimately moved away from costume and set design, deciding ‘collaboration was not for me’ (Tanning 2001, p.87). However, her interest in the movement of the body and the potential of fabric, learned from the theatre, undoubtedly played a part in the development of the pioneering body of soft sculptures that she began in the late 1960s, examples of which are in Tate’s collection (Pincushion to Serve as Fetish 1965, Tate T07988, and Nue couchée 1969–70, Tate T07989). And, despite its challenges, the stage offered an opportunity unparalleled in her career to – quite literally – bring the ‘other worlds’ of her imagination and fantasy to life.

Further reading
Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives, New York and London 2001.
Idoia Murga Castro, ‘Sleepwalkers: Dorothea Tanning and Ballet’, in Dorothea Tanning, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London, 27 February – 9 June 2019, pp.36–51.

Hannah Johnston
June 2019

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