Although Mahon believes that criticism of the male Surrealists has been overstated, pointing out that both male and female Surrealists showed “the female body as beautiful objects to be desired,” Tanning certainly “marshaled Surrealism and the sexual element in her own way,” she said. Her self-portrait is a case in point. “As a woman artist, she chose to represent herself semi-naked, staring out and confronting the spectator,” Mahon explained. Tanning was “mastering her own image…embracing how it might play with sexuality.”
Tanning also took the Surrealist obsession with the femme-enfant—a kind of child-woman whose sense of wonder encouraged probing deeper into the unconscious self—and used it to portray uninhibited young girls yet to be constrained by society’s restrictions and moral codes. In the 1943 painting Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (“A Little Night Music”), we see a pair of them confined to an eerie corridor. One girl, her hair upraised as if possessed by a demonic spirit, stares down a large sunflower, a plant Tanning considered the “most aggressive of flowers.”
A more poignant take on the motif can be found in The Guest Room (1950–52), a portrayal of a naked girl, clearly somewhat self-conscious and contemplative, positioned in a doorway. The scene suggests a gateway between adolescence and adulthood, and implicitly questions why society teaches teenage girls to “increasingly be more and more fearful of their own bodies,” Mahon said.