Dorothea Tanning

American Painter, Sculptor, Writer, and Poet

Born: August 25, 1910
Galesburg, Illinois
Died: January 31, 2012
New York, New York
Women artists. There is no such thing - or person. It's just as much a contradiction in terms as 'man artist' or 'elephant artist.' You may be a woman and you may be an artist; but the one is a given and the other is you.

Summary of Dorothea Tanning

Art pervades Dorothea Tanning's life; not only have the many images, objects, and texts that she created become worthwhile art, her very presence transformed photographs and moments in time to make them more artistic. The same whirling energy that followed Tanning as a person is also found in her energetic brushstroke, a phenomenon linked to the day of her birth, "a day of high wind," which was said to terrify her mother and, as a result, Tanning was born. The dominance of a frightening, unstoppable life force characterizes Tanning's entire oeuvre. With ideas too big for rural Illinois, a place "where nothing happened but the wallpaper", the artist left for Chicago, and then, once in New York found that both in style and in company she identified as a Surrealist (she married Max Ernst). With distinct progression through a long career, Tanning began by meticulously depicting her own dreams. This penetrating psychological exploration continued while her work evolved to become more abstract and sculptural. The folds of childhood dresses link these different phases, as cloth transforms from being the depicted subject to the material used. The final phase of the artist's career saw her become the "oldest living emerging poet", alongside collaboration with other renowned poets, and the production of a series of large-scale flower paintings.


Progression of Art


Self Portrait

Self Portrait shows Tanning as a young woman with her head on her hand looking out at the viewer in a typically reflective artist's pose. Her drawing shows good technical skill and gives special attention to the detail of her hair. The isolated study of the eye to the left of the page is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the picture and links to Surrealist tendencies that would later emerge. Both André Breton and Salvador Dalí were interested in eyes, and often particularly in the disembodied eye - as in the case of illustrations included in Breton's novel, Nadja (1928). Attention is drawn to the eye as a window to the unconscious world, but also by seeming contradiction, as the organ wrongly attributed to sight. For to 'see' into the depths, as is demonstrated by Tanning and by other Surrealist artists, is actually a more complex and internal process.

Graphite on paper



Birthday is a seminal work for Dorothea Tanning; it is the work that saw her noticed by the likes of Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim, it placed her strong individual character firmly on the artistic stage, and introduced motifs that would recur throughout her career. She paints herself in the foreground of a room that recedes to become an infinite passageway of many open doors. Her costume combines nature and culture as her skirt grows with seaweed-like foliage whilst the blouse from which her breasts peak out recalls aristocracy, made of silk and lace. Next to her feet is an animal familiar that has been identified by art historian, Whitney Chadwick, as a winged lemur. Lemurs have long since been associated with the night and with the spirit world. As a symbol of the unconscious released through dream, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Valentine Hugo have all also depicted the magical lemur.

Indeed, this self-portrait by Tanning has much in common with Carrington's Self-Portrait (c.1938). The two paintings fuse together fantasy and reality as the lone artist is portrayed in only creaturely company. Both images present otherworldly framing devices; the door in the case of Tanning and the window in the case of Carrington, and ultimately both herald the significance of a woman's creative and visionary powers. The organic growth that entwines to make Tanning's skirt bears reference to her portrait of the same year, Arizona Landscape, as well as to an earlier portrait of another woman, Deirdre (1940), whose hair is replaced by leaves. Robert Motherwell photographed Tanning herself wearing a crown of leaves in 1945. Like that of her skirt in Birthday, this tentacle/antennae-like feature at once suggests connection to higher realms but also hauntingly recalls a crown of thorns, therefore uniting the pains and joys of life.

Oil on canvas - The Philadelphia Museum of Art


Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is another relatively early work for Tanning, painted with figurative perfection and an obvious closeness to Surrealist themes. Set in the hallway of a hotel or large grand house, the title of the work is inspired by Mozart's composition of the same title, "a little night music." Knowing that it is a nocturnal scene we immediately associate the picture with a dream. There are two little girls, one who has come across a giant sunflower on the floor, and another who leans against a door, eyes closed holding one of the sunflower's petals. One of the girls has hair that flies upwards, becoming tower-like caught in the wind. While the other girl recalls controversial sculptures by Hans Bellmer, as her hair unusually doesn't quite meet her forehead making one question whether she is in fact human or a doll. Three doors remain closed whilst one is cracked to reveal a bright light.

The painting makes clear reference to the artist's childhood. Along with her sisters she lived in a repressive puritanical Midwestern American environment and cultivated a rich fantasy life by means of escape. The sunflower is a common flower found in her hometown and thus stands as symbol of her identity. As also in a later painting, Palaestra (1949) the children are dressed in the elaborate silks that were favored by Tanning's mother. In both paintings the girls have their tops unbuttoned adding eroticism and sexual intrigue to each of the images. Tanning wrote herself of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, "It's about confrontation. Everyone believes he/she is his/her drama. While they don't always have giant sunflowers to contend with, there are always stairways, hallways, even very private theatres where the suffocations and the finalities are being played out, the blood red carpet or cruel yellows, the attacker, the delighted victim..." The message here is not that there is a literal attack to overcome, but rather an ongoing expedition to survive one's own intense psychology. The motif of closed eyes reveal that it is an inward story here at play, and the painting in composition was likely inspired by Pierre Roy's Danger on the Stairs (1927) that Tanning would have seen in New York at the "Fantastic Art, Dad and Surrealism" exhibition of 1936.

Oil on panel - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Tempête en Jaune (Tempest in Yellow)

During the mid-1950s, Tanning experienced a dramatic stylistic shift. Described as the moment when she "shattered the mirror", the artist dispersed prior detailed scrutiny of her own individual childhood into a more collective experience of life's energy communicated through abstraction. Tempête en Jaune maintains Tanning's signature sunflower palate and whirling cloth-like movement, but here an overall feeling of dream is conjured up, rather than specific emblems explored. Upon close inspection, a closed-eyed figure does remain enveloped in the haze, but her forehead has expanded to become a multi-faceted prism of color and light. There is a parallel here to be made with the dynamism of Futurism, the art movement connected to Henri Bergson's philosophy that privileged ideas of flux, immediate experience, and intuition.

The painting marks the convergence of Tanning's early and mid-career styles, and marks a move away from the typical Surrealist dreamscape to a fragmented abstraction more akin to the visual representation of music or general emotion. Tanning herself said of this phase in her career, "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."

Oil on canvas - Minneapolis Institute of Arts


Pincushion to Serve as Fetish

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish is one of Tanning's early sculptural pieces. A funnel, sawdust, and wool have been covered in black velvet and stuck with pins. There is an open end that recalls an orifice whilst the general form resembles a sea creature made strange. Covered in tactile material, the object makes reference to Meret Oppenheim's iconic Fur Teacup (1936), and pierced by pins it looks forward to pains shared by Louise Bourgeois.

As a 'fetish', the object is believed to have supernatural or divine powers. The act of piercing the article with pins is a way of ritualistically releasing and simultaneously connecting with a human life force and nature's rejuvenating energy; it is a way of meditating upon our existence. Equally though, the piercing may suggest sorrow, like Frida Kahlo's The Broken Column (1944), the work could point towards inner suffering. As there was for Bourgeois, there may also be a sense for Tanning that the act of sewing such an object brings with it a process of emotional repair.

Velvet, plastic funnel, metal pins, sawdust and wool - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Nue Couchée

A later sculptural piece by Tanning, Nue Couchée introduces her weighty, contorted and headless figures. Although the title translates to 'Reclining Nude' the work stands in defiant subversion to the traditional languid and passive reclining female sitter of classical painting. The sculpture resolutely confronts outdated fantasy projections of the female body and instead presents a woman entangled and overcome by complex and invisible interior psychic forces. Tanning uses table tennis balls to highlight the delicate backbone and pink fabric to evoke a fleshy bodily mass. At once heavy, anthropomorphic and still, the form also lies vulnerable, creaturely and ready to scurry or shuffle away.

Cotton textile, cardboard, 7 table tennis balls, wool and thread - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202

Her only large-scale installation works, Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 was created for a retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1974. Two similar fleshy pink torsos to that of Nue Couchée climb the walls and rip through the wallpaper, whilst others, similar to recent works by the British artist Sarah Lucas, sprout limbs from the table and chairs. As a memory chamber reminiscent of Louise Bourgeois' cells, the room presents a strong feeling of confinement. Human presence merges with inanimate objects, perhaps to illustrate a state of boredom or from the desire to disappear from repressive circumstance.

Art historian Victoria Carruthers suggests that the piece was inspired by a popular song known to Tanning in her childhood, "the song laments the fate of Kitty Kane, one-time Chicago gangster's wife, who poisoned herself in room 202 of a local hotel." Tanning remembered the following verse:

In room two hundred and two
The walls keep talkin' to you
I'll never tell you what they said
So turn out the light and come to bed.

Indeed, the work does point towards the possibility of physical violence experienced by women and simultaneously laments and berates this. However, it is the mystery of what has happened and also the fact that actual trauma works well as a tool to expose mental struggle that is more poignant.

Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls - Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris


Merrillium Trovatum

By the late 1990s, Tanning's focus had shifted again from painting, to sculpture, to poetry. By this time she was living in New York, having returned from France after Max Ernst had died. Tanning had some hand-stretched canvases that had been in storage since her life in Paris. She recalls how this particular purple flower came to her as, "a vision", and in turn led to the creation of a series of twelve similarly abstract flower paintings. The series were exhibited together two years later in a show called "Another Language of Flowers" in which Tanning incorporated her new found love of poetry by inviting 12 poets to write poems to accompany each of the paintings. Her good friend, James Merrill, provided the verse to compliment this image.

All of the flower paintings glow with soft and illuminating depth. There are often areas of dark void complimented by golden highlights. At once suggestive of female genitalia and the far away cosmos, the work of Georgia O'Keeffe becomes an obvious reference at this late point in Tanning's career. The women's flower representations are equally meditative as they both quietly and powerfully uncover secrets that lie in the creases and in between the folds.

Oil on panel - Dorothea Tanning Foundation, NY

Biography of Dorothea Tanning

Childhood, Education, and Early Period

Dorothea Tanning was born the second of three daughters to a working-class family originally from Sweden who had settled and made their home in Galesburg, Illinois. Her father had aspirations of becoming a cowboy in the American West, whilst her mother was a fantasist who insisted on dressing their daughters in taffeta and silk. The children were raised in an area that ascribed to strict Lutheran values making their parents at once devoutly religious but also big dreamers. Tanning expressed a love of art from an early age and would find her own peace reading the likes of Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Anderson. Having completed initial schooling, she then worked at the local public library before enrolling at Knox College, the closest liberal arts facility. Although the college did not offer art classes, alongside contributing illustrations to the school newspaper, Tanning always painted and drew in her spare time.

In 1930, following only two years at Knox College Tanning moved to Chicago, where she stayed with friends that she had made while working at the Galesburg Public Library. She worked as a hostess in a restaurant, and enrolled in night classes at the Chicago Art Institute where she attended classes for three weeks. Aside from this brief time, Tanning was a self-taught artist, who learnt independently by visiting museums and galleries. She secured her first exhibition in a bookshop gallery in New Orleans in 1934 and showed a series of watercolors. A few months later, in the spring of 1935, she moved to New York where she managed to support herself as a commercial artist and first encountered Dada and Surrealism.

Mature Period

The 1936 "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism" show at the Museum of Modern Art sparked Tanning's lifelong interest in Surrealism. It was not until 1942, however, as an exhibitor in Peggy Guggenheim's "31 Women" show did she actually meet participants in the movement. Between 1936 and 1940, Tanning traveled widely. She first went to California and then spent much time in Europe in the years just before the beginning of World War II.

When she returned to New York in 1940, Tanning went back to commercial work, and created a series of advertisements for Macy's department store. This proved to be a fruitful venture, as she was introduced to Julien Levy of the Julien Levy Gallery, who took immediate interest in her work. Shortly thereafter, the city experienced an influx of refugees fleeing Europe because of the war. This brought over many influential artists, including notable Surrealists like André Masson, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst. Tanning became friends with most of these artists, and then the lover and wife of Max Ernst. Tanning and Ernst met in the build up to the 31 Women show at Peggy Guggenheim' gallery, Ernst's wife at the time. The new couple married in 1946, in a double wedding with photographer Man Ray and Juliet Browner. Guggenheim expressed her sadness in the loss of Ernst to Tanning and painfully recalled of the important exhibition, famously said: "I should have had 30 women."

Later Period

Despite her successful solo show at Julien Levy Gallery in 1944, Tanning and Ernst moved away from the city to Sedona, Arizona in 1946. Here they built a house and hosted many visits from creative friends, including photographer Lee Miller who made a memorable photograph of the couple whereby the scale has been altered and giant Ernst clings to the miniature Tanning's hair. In 1949 Tanning and Ernst relocated to Paris and later Provence but continued to spend time at their house in Sedona throughout the 1950s. It was during this time that Tanning's work underwent a notable stylistic shift. Whilst previously her paintings had been populated by dreamlike figurative landscapes, her brushwork became almost entirely abstract. Insightfully, she said of the change, "my canvases literally splintered... I broke the mirror, as you might say." For the remaining decades of her life, her journey into abstraction continued, as well as her experiments and development in sculpture, writing, and poetry.

Tanning returned to New York from France in 1980, four years after Max Ernst died. She then spent the remainder of her life traveling between Los Angeles, New York, and France. Her last recorded painting was part of a series of flowers that she completed in 1998, but she continued to write, focusing mainly on poetry until she died at home in New York in 2012, age 101. The previous year, her 100th birthday was celebrated with numerous exhibitions around the world, including Dorothea Tanning - Early Designs for the Stage at the Drawing Center in New York, NY and Dorothea Tanning - 100 Years: A Tribute at the Galerie Bel'Art, Stockholm, Sweden.

The Legacy of Dorothea Tanning

Tanning's entire oeuvre - from painting to poetry - has had a profound influence on subsequent generations of artists. Her continued exploration of the female form has led to her association with the Feminist movement. Along with other female Surrealists, Tanning provided a necessary active role model for younger women also trying to break free of restrictive views of womanhood to become independent artists. Notably, her experiments in sculpture look forward to the career of Louise Bourgeois and later to that of Sarah Lucas, revealing the same intense interest in base psychic forces. Her earlier paintings, in which children confront the viewer scantily clad with unsettling knowledge, establish a definite and interesting link to the photographs of Sally Mann.

Tanning's poetry and writing have added an additional layer and contributed to a deeper understanding of her work, and her illustrations, most notably the costume designs for some of George Balanchine's ballets, have had a lasting impact on theater costume design. Much to the artist's dismay, her artistic legacy is sometimes overshadowed by her marriage to Max Ernst. When portrayed together, so iconic looking as a couple, interest is roused on the subject of 'artists in love', but Tanning, specifically, while perhaps implausibly, stated that she and Ernst "never, never talked art."

Similar Art

Celebes (1921)

Die Puppe (The Doll) (1934)

Fillette (1968)

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