A Tail of Two Acquisitions: 'Primitive Seating' by Dorothea Tanning

We are delighted to announce a new addition to our world-class Surrealist collection; the amazing Primitive Seating by Dorothea Tanning. Thank you to Alison Jacques for helping us to acquire this important, extraordinary work of art. 

Dorothea Tanning Tableau vivant 1954 © Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive, New York and DACS, London 2023

In 2019, we welcomed our first work by the Surrealist artist, author and poet, Dorothea Tanning. Purchased with help from the Henry and Sula Walton Fund and Art Fund, Tableau Vivant – Living Picture (1954) was one of Tanning's favourite works: she kept it above her desk. The painting features a Lhasa Apso terrier named Katchina, which appears regularly in Tanning’s work. Sometimes the dog is the artist's alter-ego and at other times appears as a witness or protagonist. She was evasive about its meaning. It is unclear if it is an image of possession and dominance or of love, support and protection; it may be all these things.

Two years later, we acquired a later work by Tanning; this was made possible with support from Alison Jacques, London. The two acquisitions share a room as part of our new exhibition, New Arrivals: From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville.

Dorothea Tanning Primitive Seating 1982 © Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive, New York and DACS, London 2023

Primitive Seating is a mesmerising, antique chair-turned-sculpture. In the early 1980s, Tanning took an ordinary piece of furniture and instilled it with animal qualities, producing a feline-like form. When asked what had inspired her to make Primitive Seating, she wryly replied: ‘I had some material left over, so I put a tail on it.’ Treading the line between domestic object and work of art, Primitive Seating invites the viewer to consider the surreal possibilities of everyday objects.

Tanning grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, and was drawn to art from a young age. She studied painting in Chicago, and had her first exhibition in a bookshop gallery in New Orleans in 1934. In the mid 1930s, Tanning moved to New York, where she worked as a freelance commercial artist, and later, in the 1940s designing adverts for Macy’s department stores. In 1936, she visited the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art. This experience was an artistic revelation to Tanning, who began to engage more and more with Surrealist themes, becoming an important figure in Surrealist circles. Tanning’s career spanned over seven decades, and she produced a large and varied oeuvre during her life. From creating soft, sculptural forms impaled with large pins, to painting abstract works in bold& colours, Tanning’s style was constantly developing and metamorphosing.

Explorations in tactility, texture and form, as well as the potential to transform domestic spaces and household fixtures into marvellous creatures or ghostly beings, can be seen in much of Tanning’s work. By the 1960s and 1970s, these interests were realised in three-dimensional, soft-sculptures, often using a piece of furniture as a canvas upon which to explore surreal fantasies. The artist used everyday objects to add corporeal embellishments to these sculptures, such as jigsaw-puzzle pieces as teeth, or Ping-Pong balls to mimic a spinal column from underneath the fabric “skin”. With similar anthropomorphic intent, Rainy-Day Canapé (or Canapé en temps de pluie, 1970s, Philadelphia Museum of Art) was created using tweed, wool and cardboard, all wrapped around an old wooden sofa, into which humanoid shapes seem to have half dissolved. Tanning's famous installation titled Poppy Hotel, Room 202 (1970-73, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) shows this artistic period at its peak, grouping several soft sculptures together. Here, she showcased another chair sculpture, titled Revelation or The End of the Month (1970-73) which, much like earlier work, shows a human form that appears to have melted into its tweed surface, one leg left dangling limply at the front.

When Tanning returned to New York from France in the 1980s, it is thought that the chair used in Primitive Seating might have accompanied her; photographs of her house in France show several chairs of the same style. In 1982 she created this incredible sculpture, which would remain in her personal collection until her death in 2012. Though the artist produced soft-sculpture chairs on a number of occasions, Primitive Seating stands alone with its animalistic characteristics. The shape and style of the chair is conservative and traditional, and yet Tanning has transformed it into a wild and uncanny art object. Ultimately, Primitive Seating challenges the viewer to reconsider the way in which they perceive the ordinary. Here, we see an old antique chair magicked into a leopard, ready to pounce.

Alongside Tableau vivant [Living Picture] (1954), Primitive Seating is on display at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) as part of the exhibition New Arrivals: From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville.

Blog by Tor Scott, Collection and Research Assistant.

30 November 2021