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The Guest Room

Dorothea Tanning

The Guest Room

Dorothea Tanning
  • Date: 1952
  • Style: Surrealism
  • Genre: symbolic painting

Vigilant censorship of the erotic, a favorite national pastime, sometimes played nicely into our hands. Visiting the basement reserves of a certain museum with a curator who happened to be a friend, Max had admired a splendid Esquimo housepole leaning in a corner. It was a gigantic fertility figure carved from a tree and doted with an appropriate crack where one is needed to prove her maternal possibilities. "How come such a stunning piece is not on show up in the galleries?" Max asked his friend. "Oh, but we can't display that here – there are whole classes of schoolgirls that visit the museum almost daily...it is too bad..." This was something especially hard for Max to understand in view of the fact that the girls – it is to be hoped at any rate – all had cracks of their own. Happily for us, after some negotiating we acquired the housepole in all her maternal glory. (From then on, she moved with us across continents and seas like the veriest sophisticated traveler.) Five years later we visit the same museum together. An important number of paintings from the Louvre had been kept safe from the war, and we again meet the curator and visit the reserves below. Here, unbelievably, is the great Bain Turque of Ingres, hidden away from little girls or, perhaps, old ones, in any case, not seen in the antiseptic U.S.A. This visit took place in 1948 and we were driving back to Sedona. Before leaving the museum and its masterpieces I bought the comprehensive catalogue of works in the collection. It seemed to me something like inviting a good friend to come along to share our life.

That life turned out to be so absorbing that the big book stayed on its shelf until one day I needed it badly. To explain: The painting I was at work on (it became The Guest Room), involved a nude, and I had to have a model. Down the road from us lived Patsy, ten years old. Patsy would do, and her mother couldn't care less. But Patsy wouldn't strip. Indeed, I was prepared for the panties but not a bra (hiding nothing). Suddenly I was telling Patsy about Art, about the great museum, in the same town where the President of the United States lives and where it is well understood (by some museum visitors) that the most beautiful object of nature is the human body. "I'll show you," I cried, rushing to open the book, rifling the pages, faster and faster, that's strange, I had seen them there, the Gauguin bathers, the Poussins, the Italian allegories... Alas, these had not made it into the book, which was thus safe for schoolgirls.

All this was back in the dark (artwise) ages of half a century ago. It surely couldn't happen today, surely not, except maybe in Texas!
- Dorothea Tanning

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