Dorothea Tanning


Dorothea Tanning | 1946
Photograph by Man Ray  © Man Ray Trust

I recently read Dorothea Tanning's autobiography Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, published in 2001. Tanning died on January 31, 2012, at her home in New York. She was 101. The previous year, she published her second book of poetry, Coming to That. An artist, poet, and sculptor, Tanning is, unfortunately, more widely known as the wife of Max Ernst. As unfortunate as that might be, it troubled her less than to find  her name permanently identified with surrealism. Although she was a member of the early movement, a  style change in the mid-fifties took her to another level as an artist.

She was born August 25, 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois, about 50 miles east of the Mississippi River and 200 miles west of Chicago in the nation's heartland. It was a place she described as "…where you sat on the davenport and waited to grow up". At 16 Dorothea worked at the library and after high school attended Knox College, "the college that tried to teach me something, anything." But she was not a Midwestern girl at heart, having decided at age seven to live in Paris. At 20 she moved to Chicago to become an artist, concluding that it was on the way to Paris. 

 I like to think of it [my life] as a garden, planted in 1910 and, like any garden, always changing. There are expansions and diminishments as well as replacements, prunings, additions. One person’s garden, one person’s life. So far.

Birthday | 1942 | Oil on canvas
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Shortly after her arrival in Chicago, she found a job as a hostess and attended drawing classes at The Chicago Academy of Art. Her teacher had little hope for her artistic talents, and as soon as she realized the school leaned toward commercial art, she had little hope of a lasting relationship. It was the only formal art training Tanning received and learned to paint by studying others' work. After losing her job at the restaurant, a move seemed inevitable. With $25 dollars in her pocket, she took one step closer to Paris—New York City.

In many ways, New York was no different than Chicago. She shared a flat with another woman artist and did odd jobs to pay the rent, but in 1936 she saw the Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and was changed forever. "But here, here in the museum, is the real explosion, rocking me on my run-over heels. Here is the infinitely faceted world I must have been waiting for. Here is the limitless expanse of possibility, a perspective having only incidentally to do with painting on surfaces. Here, gathered inside an innocent concrete building, are signposts so imperious, so laden, so seductive, and, yes, so perverse...they would possess me utterly."

Avatar | 1947 | Oil on canvas
In 1943, Tanning was one of 31 women chosen for a first of its kind show in New York—all female artists. Also included were Leonore Carrington, Buffie Johnson, Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, Meret Oppenheim, I. Rice Pereira, Kay Sage, Hedda Sterne, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Hazel Guggenheim, Pegeen Vail Guggenheim, Barbara Poe Levee, Alice Trumbull Mason, and others. Peggy Guggenheim, who produced the show, was said to have commented later that she should have been satisfied with 30 artists. It was her husband, Max Ernst, who was greatly attracted to Tanning's self-portrait, Birthday and suggested her for the show. He was also greatly attracted to the artist. After his initial visit, Dorothea and Ernst played chess every day for a week. Then he moved in and they stayed together until Max's death in 1976.

Palaestra | 1947 | Oil on canvas
Max in a Blue Boat | 1947 | Oil on canvas
Max Ernst Museum, Brühl











A Very Happy Picture | 1947 | Oil on canvas
Musée National d’Art Moderne
The couple moved to Sedona, Arizona in 1946 and built a two room house. The shelter, though sturdy, lacked running water and electricity. Eventually those needs were met and kerosene lights gave way to incandescent bulbs and a well and pump supplied tap water. Even before their arrival, Tanning painted. Over the next three years she created Guardian Angels, Palaestra, Max in a Blue Boat, Maternity, A Very Happy Picture, Avatar, and others. In 1949, Dorothea and Max moved to Paris.

I think I’ve been a renaissance man—if he could have been a woman.

Le Mal Oublié (The Ill Forgotten)
1955 | Oil on canvas
In the mid 50s, although the surrealist movement continued, Tanning was once again ready for change. That change came in her painting. In Between Lives she wrote  that "Around 1955, my canvases literally splintered. Their colors came out of the closet, you might say, to open the rectangles to a different light. They were prismatic surfaces where I veiled, suggested, and floated my persistent icons and preoccupations, in another of the thousand ways of saying the same things" 


Naufrage en rose (Shipwreck in Pink)
1958 | Oil on canvas
 
Insomnies (Insomnias)
1957 | Oil on canvas
Moderna Museet, Stockholm
By the late 60s and into the early 70s, Tanning experimented with soft sculptures. Of one called Canapé en temps de pluie (Sofa on a Rainy Day) she said the work "...was, more than anything, a challenge to myself, a bet that I made with myself, and only me, that I would give real physical life to a bunch of tweeds and stuffing." Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond. Exhibition brochure. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000. 

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Poppy Hotel, Room 202
Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou
 
Convolotus alchemelia (Quiet-willow window)
1998 | Oil on canvas | 56 x 66 in.
After the death of Max Ernst in 1976, Tanning felt unable to paint. Her good friend, poet James Merrill, convinced her to work. He “more than anyone at that point of my life, made me realize that living was still wonderful even though I felt that my loss, Max, had left nothing but ashes.” In 1979 she returned to New York and painted for the next 20 years, publishing her first memoir, Birthday, in 1986.

In 1998 Dorothea did a series of twelve paintings that were published along with poetry by various writers whose work she admired, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, James Merrill, and others, in Another Language of Flowers. "A new hybrid of flower has always occasioned celebration by gardeners and amateur botanists everywhere.  It is hard to think of anything more innocently irresistible than a flower, new or familiar, while an imagined one must surely bring a special frisson of excitement. Or so I thought, on the day in June when such a flower grew in my mind's eye and demanded to be painted. Once begun, the experiment widened into an entire garden. They bloomed all at once, as if to race with a short summer, and soon there were twelve canvases of twelve flowers waiting to be named. Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond. Exhibition brochure.  Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000.

One would think that was a large enough portfolio for anyone. Not so for Dorothea Tanning. In the late 1990s, she began writing poetry and published her first collection, A Table of Content in 2004, and her second, Coming to That, in 2011. Reading her poetry, actually any of her writing, is much like looking at her paintings. She presents life from a different perspective, a little unsettling, but familiar and at times, amusing. If you find yourself on public transportation in New York, you could be inspired by this Tanning poem posted in subway cars for the Poetry in Motion program.

Graduation
He told us, with the years, you will come
to love the world.

And we sat there with our souls in our laps,
and comforted them.
 Dorothea Tanning 1910-2012
This is a small sample of the prolific artist, and I have to admit, it was difficult to choose favorites. Why did we not hear more about this remarkable woman? Why is she not as well known as those with whom she lived and worked? I can't answer that, but I can share. Visit the vast collection of work by Dorothea Tanning at her website and enjoy.


Touristes de Prague III (Tourists of Prague III)
1961 | Oil on canvas | The Menil Collection, Houston

Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity. I don’t see a different purpose for it now.