Shimmering water, shallow expanse, a caress unravelling a skein of ripples: The wind picks up. Look! A scattering of sanderlings, pale in their winter plumage, busily pecking their way about. Paradoxical birds: Swift and direct of purpose, yet looking random and lost.
̶ If not Delvaux, then who do you like, Sprague, in surrealist painting?
̶ Dorothea Tanning. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Do you know it?
̶ It’s magnificent!
̶ Where can I see it?
̶ In the Tate. And Birthday I like even better.
̶ Her self-portrait on her thirtieth birthday. Still in a private collection, unfortunately. Look! Sanderlings and…
While the black-and-white birds with red beaks poke about, the sanderlings skip along the foamline, fleeing the wash of the waves only to pursue the backwash seaward, sticking their beaks into the bubbling sand.
This self-portrait, painted on the occasion of her thirtieth birthday, was on her easel when Max Ernst visited Dorothea Tanning for the first time, in the course of a tour of New York studios to select an exhibition of work by women painters. Discovering not only a gifted artist with an intelligence, pride and curiosity to match his own, already working in a surrealist manner, but also a chess player, he soon came to stay. To a collector visiting the couple shortly after, Ernst announced that the painting was not for sale. ‘I want to spend the rest of my life with Dorothea. This picture is part of that life.’ Tanning tells this anecdote in her memoirs, also entitled Birthday, the name Ernst had given the self-portrait.
In her memoirs she tells of the painting’s origin in her fascination with the array of doors in the six almost empty rooms of her apartment, their imminent opening and shutting and potentially endless extension. like the surrealists’ favourite image of the labyrinth, the doors and hidden rooms symbolise an inner as much as an outer unknown, the chambers of the unconscious mind. Her gaze and her posture, holding a door knob with one hand and looping up the folds of a skirt with the other in a gesture that recalls the female figure in Jan van Eyck’s painting commonly known as The Amolfini Marriage (1493), express both anticipation of an unknown future and fear of the void.
In Birthday Tanning represents herself poised, and as if in a dream, on the eve of a discovery, perhaps about to take flight on this night creature. One should not overlook the unusual adoption, in the context of a budding surrealist who was to go on to great pictorial audacity, of a transparent naturalism: there is nothing, formally speaking, to disturb the scene. Figures and objects are to scale; there is neither distortion nor disruption of space, nor the free gestures of automatism. The realism is neither photographic, nor rudimentary, nor naive, nor exaggerated to mimic nineteenth-century academic painting. This makes its evocation of a world beyond the immediate senses all the more mysterious and effective.
John Everett Millais
Tamara de Lempicka
Nicolas de Staël
Hans Holbein, Younger
Vincent Van Gogh
Caspar David Friedrich
Leda and the Swan