McAra, Catriona (2012) Dorothea Tanning's 'Chasm': A Dysfunctional Nursery Rhyme. In: Material Meanings: Third Biannual Conference of the European Network for Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies, 7-9 September 2012, University of Kent, Canterbury. (Unpublished)

Visual narratives by the American, Surrealist-associated artist and writer Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) like 'Children's Games' (1942) and 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' (1943) stand out as deliberately kitsch and playful when considered within the modernist context. Reference to children’s book illustration offered the avant-garde a faux-naïve aesthetic in rebellion against the prevailing modernist tendencies of American Greenbergian abstraction. In other words, the nostalgic turn of much Surrealist art could be viewed as a strategic attempt the return to the bourgeois childhood aesthetics of fairy tale illustration in order to subvert or usurp ‘grown-up,’ ‘high’ art forms. The saccharine aesthetics of the cute is revealed as a mask for its truer, ‘darker’ underlying reality as a mode that appropriates the visual culture of the avant-garde’s own fin-de-siècle childhood.

Similar observations can be made about the thematic dynamics within Tanning’s literary corpus. Her first and only novel went through several draft versions (1949, 1977) under the title ‘Abyss’ before being published in its best-known form as ‘Chasm: A Weekend’ in 2004. It has been interestingly described by the journalist Gaby Wood as “a magical Sadean nursery rhyme” (2004, 7), and is, indeed, filled with many familiar Gothic motifs with dark, erotic twists. Focusing on the visual and material dimensions of 'Chasm,' this paper will consider the merger between children’s literature and avant-garde art within Tanning’s oeuvre, arguing that children, like her seven-year old protagonist Destina, can deal with much darker themes than adults may presume.

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