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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Dorothea Tanning

Birthday, 1942, Dorothea Tanning.
Arizona Landscape, 1943,
Dorothea Tanning
There's nothing more likely to afford an artist a place in the art history books than to, as Mr. Spock of the original Star Trek put it, "Live long and prosper." I am often dismayed at the number of artists I've written about who, had they lived even a normal lifespan for their era, would be far more famous than they are today. On the other side of the coin we find artists such as Picasso, who died at the ripe old age of ninety-one, having literally outlived his critics and competition. Michelangelo lived to be eighty-eight (an all but unheard lifespan in his day). Georgia O'Keeffe died at the age of ninety-eight. The Surrealist painter, Dorothea Tanning lived to be 101 years of age. Who? Okay, Tanning may be the exception which proves the rule, but I can't help thinking she is probably more famous today due to the sheer length of her career than had she died at seventy or eighty.
A Little Night Music, 1943, Dorothea Tanning
Deirdre, 1940. Dorothea Tanning
Dorothea Tanning died just over three years ago, January, 2012. She was born in Galesburg, (northwestern) Illinois, on August 25, 1910. Speaking of birthdates, probably her most famous painting was titled Birthday (top), a self-portrait painted in 1942 to com-memorate her thirty-second birthday. So far as I can tell, it was her only self-portrait. It's an excellent example of Surrealism in it's migrant form as practically the entire movement fled from Paris to New York with the onslaught of WW II in Europe. The work is all the more remarkable in that it is one of the earliest paintings from an artist who, up until then, worked mostly as a fashion illustrator for Macy's Department Store. Tanning's A Little Night Music (above), and Arizona Landscape (above, left) are both from 1943 and represent two of her more well-known Surrealist pieces from the war years. However, Tanning's earliest work (aside from her commercial art) is Deirdre (right), which dates from 1940. The painting may or may not be a portrait. In any case, it and the others from this period demonstrate Tanning's attention to minute detail so common to Surrealism at that time, as well as her art training at Knox College in her hometown of Galesburg.

Some Roses and Their Phantoms, 1952, Dorothea Tanning

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, Sedona,
Arizona, photograph by Bob Towers, 1948
These early works brought Dorothea Tanning's art to the attention of her boss at Macy's who introduced her to the gallery owner, Julien Levy. He began representing her and provided her with two one-woman shows, the first in 1944 and a second in 1948. Through Levy, Tanning met several of the immigrant Sur-realists such as Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, and most import-antly, insofar as Tanning was concerned, Max Ernst. They first met in 1942 when he was still married to the New York gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim. Ernst fell in love with Tanning's Birthday, and later with the artist herself, reportedly over a game of chess (above, left). They took off for Sedona, Arizona, where they lived for several years before marrying in 1946 once his divorce was finalized. The two moved to France in 1949 later dividing their time between Paris, Provence, and New York. They remained together until Ernst's death in 1976 at the age of eighty-five (he was nineteen years older than Tanning.) Tanning's Some Roses and Their Phantoms (above) dates from 1952 after they moved to France. Though Ernst was also a Surrealist, he was never a major influence as to her art. In fact, Tanning recalled they "...never, ever, EVER discussed art."

Palaestra, 1947, Dorothea Tanning
Insomnies, 1957, Dorothea Tanning
Far From, 1964, Dorothea Tanning
Dates are quite important in looking at the work of an artist who lived to be 101. That's especially true in that Dorothea Tanning's style, content, and media continued to evolve throughout all her life up through the 1990s when she largely abandoned painting to devote her time to writing, including two biographies, the first titled Birthday, published in in 1986, the second, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World from 2001. The two paintings above, Palestra, from 1947 (above, left) and Insomnies (above, right) are separated by a mere ten years but would appear to be by two different artists. From the mid-1950s on Tannings work became much more abstract as Surrealism came to take a backseat to Abstract Expressionism. Tanning adjusted to the movement (though not immediately). However her Far From (above, left), dating from 1964, indicates a reawakening of Tanning's figural instincts. Then, starting in the late 1960s up through the 1970s Tanning turned her attention to Surrealist sculpture as seen in her abstractly erotic Nude Reclining (below) and her Tragic Table (bottom photo).

Surrealist sculpture--Nude Reclining (top), 1969-70, and Tragic Table
(bottom, from Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202), 1973, Dorothea Tanning
Then, during the 1980s until she gave up painting in the 1990s, Tanning stepped back from both Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism, or perhaps combined the two as seen in her Woman Artist, Nude, Standing (below, left), from 1987, and her Blue Mom (below, right), from 1994, one of her final paintings.

Woman Artist, Nude, Standing,
1987, Dorothea Tanning
Blue Mom, 1994,
Dorothea Tanning

One of my favorites, The Truth about Comets, 1945,
Dorothea Tanning



  1. I love the work of this artist. Thank you for this illuminating post.

  2. Julie--

    Thank you for your comment. I'm happy when I bring people together with art they enjoy. It makes all the daily work worthwhile.