Congruent Dreams: Parallel Surrealist Themes of Dorothea Tanning and Joan Miró

Fueled by the literary concept of automatism in the late 1910’s and 1920’s, Surrealism originated as a form of expression derived from the uninhibited imagination and subconscious. In 1924 André Breton published The Surrealist Manifesto, and from thereafter the movement was formal literarily and artistically. Surrealism as an artistic movement crystallizes somewhere in between dreams, subconscious, and reality. Joan Miró’s The Potato, and Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday both exemplify surrealist painting, however the concepts are distinctively executed by each artist. Both Joan Miró’s The Potato and Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday contain thematic and contextual similarities, along with many compositional differences. Analyzing the elemental properties of both works allow an ascendance of themes including feminism, individualism, desire, the passage of time and metamorphosis.

Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday instantly captivates its viewer. Her shocking beauty, exposed chest, ornate costuming, and a strange winged lemur creature at her feet challenge the viewer to ask themselves the artist’s intentions. A self-portrait of Tanning on the dawn of her thirtieth year, Birthday shows the artist standing slightly left of center staring blankly out, averting the eyes of the viewer. Her jacket is classical, yet revealing – an ornate, purple and gold, almost Shakespearian garment. Her skirt is a combination of dark silk draped in front, the back a naturalistic, organic, almost human or limb-like repetition of claustrophobic forms.  With her hair set in feminine curls, and her face dressed with minimal make-up – she is hoping to be desired. In 1942, the production date of the painting, breasts were rarely exposed with the exception of painting classified as a nude. Tanning’s choice to expose herself calls into question, is this a comment on feminism and the role of women at the time? Also, is Tanning denouncing the male gaze by averting her eyes from the viewer, or only further encouraging it? As these questions arise, one cannot dismiss her natural beauty. Beautiful women were – and still are quickly objectified, and looked over in a search for intellect and substance.  It is quite likely that Tanning felt the frustration of this phenomenon, especially being “the wife” of already successful surrealist painting, Max Ernst. The image and title both imply a comment on aging, and the serious fear of physical aging for women nearing thirty. The passing of your prime in a patriarchal society, or the feeling of being prematurely discarded solely because of a lack of youthful physical beauty is a phenomenon that occurs viciously contemporarily. Behind the figure, an infinite recession of doors -- possibly representative of choices, decisions, indecision, opportunity, a constant journey, transformation, aging, or change. Her hand rests on the first of the numerous doorknobs, representation a change, or metamorphosis. This highly personal and autobiographical painting is surrealism; however it is painted in very realistic style.  The oil paint is flat in texture, with subdued colors, primarily of a low-key.

Joan Miró’s The Potato, celebrates his artistic lyricism, poetic color combination and signature organic, curvilinear forms. Miró’s psychedelic style differs completely from the realistic dream style of Tanning. In the center of The Potato stands a huge, white, canvas-controlling, amoeba-like female figure. The figure is attached to a red post in the center of the composition. The fact that it is attached could be commenting on the woman’s lack of self during the time of an especially patriarchal place in history. The woman has one brownish breast attached to a thin black thread, as fantastical creatures emerge and surround her. At the bottom right, a possible streetlight materializes under her huge right hand. Her huge right hand paralleled by her dwarfed right hand can be viewed as a commentary on marriage, as the right hand is a symbol of independence and individuality for women.  Above her right hand, a group of organically formed impish creatures crawl up a floating staircase. From the woman’s nose appears a red and yellow fairy. Strange and symbolic forms emerge from stringy black lines through out the painting, expressing comedy, celebration, and the absurdities of life. All of the forms are contained within or very near to the individual woman, to the individual self. The forms could represent choices or dreams. The constant rebirth and metamorphisms from the main subject embraces the theme of a passage of time and change. The giant white female figure approaches feminism as Tanning did, a commentary on the ever-changing figure and beauty of the woman. His subjects themselves are transformed with in his unprecedented imagination, and then continue transforming with in the painting. The androgynous color of the background debates night and day, commenting on the passage of time, or possibly the desire for time to stand still. The texture of the work is flat, however the colors involved are a mix of low-key and high-key, and almost completely comprised a primary colors and their variations.  The figure lives with in same frame as fantastical creatures, organic forms and lines to create an imaginative world. This highly personal and cerebral work by Joan Miró examines many of the same themes as Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday.

Joan Miró’s The Potato, and Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday both successfully display the concepts of surrealist painting, however both artist choose to represent themselves differently. Joan Miró’s The Potato is comprised of organic and curvilinear forms while Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday is a realistic depiction of a dream -- both serve as a work of subconscious examination and automatism. Both works comment on feminism, individualism, desire, the passage of time and metamorphosis. When analyzing the two works, a perceptive viewer will note the similarities of their respective themes, regardless of the artists chosen representation of the subject matter.