GERALDINE MONK: The Tanning Room

On my wall next to me is a small reproduction of a painting by Dorothea Tanning. It has been in my possession for more years than I can remember. Where I live it lives. I never tire of it but like many fixtures and familiar fittings whole months float by when I don’t see it but merely glimpse its presence. It is cocooned in the most improbable of ornate frames. Gilded flowers, leaves, shells and rococo swirls. A rococo cocoon. Kitsch heaven. The frame alone would give a minimalist a nose bleed. But I’m no minimalist and the extravagance of the frame seems consonant with the reproduction.

It is probably Dorothea Tanning’s most famous image but for the life of me I cannot recall its title. Did I ever know it? I suppose I must have once upon a time. As I said, I’ve had it for more years…and now I am extremely curious and it gets the better of me and I begin an investigation. Oh no! Plink! Plink-Plink! Plink-plink-plink-plink-plink-pliiink! It’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

I suppose the choice of frame was perfect for Amadeus ‘Rococo’ Mozart. Droll.  Unintentionally ironic. But now I have a big problem. I don’t actually like this title.  Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is such a mega famous piece of music with its outrageously jolly opening Allegro all bouncy castle leaps and skippy trills. Once these all too familiar strains hit your brain you cannot shake them out. I don’t want them. Not with this picture.

I should have left well enough alone. Left alone that unnamed oblong world in the corner of my room under a lilac shade. Now I have an unwanted and uninvited guest in the shape of a Title and I must take an unplanned diversion. I am back in 1990 when Mike Tooby was the irrepressible curator of the Mappin Art Gallery in Sheffield. Mike had the Midas touch in bringing major contemporary art exhibitions to the city which other cities outside London could only dream of and the opening nights at the gallery became the stuff of legends. On a more sober scale Mike was also committed to exhibiting paintings from the permanent collection and he had the ingenious idea of inviting local luminaries to select an exhibition of their choice and I was one of the chosen few. It was the first and last time I would be considered a local luminary in Sheffield and what fun it was.

Like a child in a sweet shop I had my pick of the city’s art collection housed behind secret doors in the dark recesses of the Mappin and Graves Art Galleries. Once in a beautiful blue moon something beautiful happens and this invitation was one helluva beautiful blue moon. To have licence to rummage through the store rooms and pick up forbidden worlds in my unbelieving hands. All those ‘do not touch’ paintings were mine to hold.

As the exhibition required a cohesive thread or theme I had the idea of extracting  fragments from my poems to retitle my chosen paintings. The exhibition was called Reworking The Title and it was a revelation to me how a title dictates the emotional and psychological mood and/or narrative of a painting.  It was also a revelation how controversial such a seemingly innocuous exercise would prove with the public. Many objected outright to the exercise even when I had pointed out that many paintings were actually given names by historians or cataloguers. Then there was the religious minefield to be traversed when a stunning religious painting I chose by George Rouault elicited thinly disguised death threats.

But on the whole the feedback was positive and the then Deputy Director of Arts in Sheffield, David Alston, (I know, Sheffield’s twofold loss was Wales’ gain) commented that the retitling of a Victorian portrait of two beautiful young girls foregrounded in a rural landscape with the rather mundane title of Portraits of Ann And Marie conjured a whole new narrative now it was called ‘On Turning We Saw The Very Scene We Dreaded’. David said ‘the sky visibly darkens’. I remember us both looking at the painting and watching that sky darken. It was a bit freaky. The snaking magic of words. The easy psychology of suggestion. The slippery sleight of mind. Since that time I have been more aware of titles and their subtle tricks.

Of course Dorothea Tanning has some brilliant titles: Some Roses And Their PhantomsInteriors with Sudden Joy; Between Lives. Nice ones. And maybe if I didn’t know the Mozart piece so thoroughly, if I didn’t know it at all, the title would be perfect:  A Little Night Music or A Little Serenade. Yes I realise it is probably being used ironically but I can’t see the painting for the music. Can I undo this? Can I un-remember the title. In time. Forgive and forget.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was painted in 1946 and is from Tanning’s earlier surrealist period. Her work would become increasingly gestural and expressionistic but never losing the unbearable psychological tension. By contrast EKN is painted with a draughtsman’s precision to details.

We have a bat’s eye view of this green interior as we look down upon a slice of otherworldly time in an large mansion-type hotel. The top of the stairs are just visible and on the landing the shabby green wallpaper is peeling off. We see four doors. Three of them are closed. Heavy and wooden and dark and forbiddingly shut. The fourth door is ajar and it bleeds a sickly yellow light. It is not the yellow of warmth and sunshine but the yellow of illness and malaise. This shaft of light reaches towards a monstrous sunflower at the top of the staircase. A couple of its torn petals are draped on the stairs.

Sunflowers are a recurring motif in Tanning’s earlier work but these are not the life- affirming cosmic sunflowers of Van Gogh but massive mutant sunflowers lurking with carnivorous intent. Even without this added malevolence I’ve always found sunflowers disturbing. Those swirling symmetrical husks of insectile seeds repulse me. Maybe this is my mother’s doing.  As a child she was convinced that animal and human brains were made of thousands of seeds. She wouldn’t eat seed cake. I don’t think she’d have liked the husks of a sunflower either.

Some of the tendrils of the sunflower gravitate towards a young girl whose hair streaks upwards towards the ceiling like bladderwrack. She looks as if her head is drowning. Her clothes hang in rags echoing the tendrils of the sunflower. We cannot see her face but opposite her, against one of the closed doors, leans another young girl in similar rags but semi-naked, an open red jacket accentuating her undeveloped breasts and, even more shockingly, she holds a torn petal from the sunflower in her drooping hand, as if conflict has already taken place. Her face is turned upwards towards an unidentified light source, her eyes shut tight. Her face is lifted in the manner people from cloudy northern lands bathe their faces in the rare sun.

That’s it. Four doors. Two girls. One sunflower. But it is electric with hypnagogic menace, latent sexuality and suspended gothic narrative. What has happened, is happening, to those weird young girls in tendril rags? Who or what is in the room with the sickly yellow light seeping. What is that monster sunflower and why is it on the landing. Unanswerable questions I never tire of asking. A painting I never tire of looking at.

Dorothea Tanning is still alive and is 101 years of age. Her body of work is truly extraordinary and she is one of the most vital and vibrant artists of this and the last century and it’s slightly thrilling to be writing this whilst she is still with us. If you ever read this Dorothea, thank you.

Geraldine Monk 2011

Geraldine Monk’s  major volumes of poetry include Interregnum, (Creation Books 1995), Noctivagations 2001 and Escafeld Hangings 2005, (both published by West House Books).

Her Selected Poems was published in 2003 (Salt Publishing) and a collection of essays on her poetry, The Salt Companion to Geraldine Monk, edited by Scott Thurston appeared in 2007.

Her latest collection is Lobe Scarps & Finials, Leafe Press, 2011



  • Paul Demuth

    Dear Geraldine,

    I’ve just googled you and read a few of your poems, and love their vibrancy and vividness.

    I haven’t read any before.

    Look forward to reading more. A real pleasure. They’re electric.
    Love Paul


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