28 February 2019

Step inside Dorothea Tanning’s stylishly surreal world

Discover the artist, poet and painter who pushed the boundaries of surrealism.

Born in Illinois, Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) was a self-taught painter whose extraordinary career spanned seven decades. Moving to New York in 1935, it was here that she discovered, and was directly inspired by, the Surrealist movement at the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal 1936 exhibition; Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism. After Tanning was included in Peggy Guggenheim’s renowned show Exhibition by 31 Women, she was introduced to the German Painter Max Ernst and a circle of émigré Surrealists by gallery owner Julien Levy, which propelled not only a marriage between her and Ernst, but a long and intense affair with Surrealist art. To celebrate the first UK retrospective devoted to Tanning’s work at Tate Modern, here’s everything you need to know about one of the most compelling painters of the 20th century – who has, until now, oft been overlooked for her achievements in art history…

Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012) Birthday 1942 Oil paint on canvas 1022 x 648 mm Philadelphia Museum of Art. © DACS, 2018

She had a deep love of Ballet and Set Design

Included in the exhibition is Tanning’s life-long passion for dance, music and performance – which became particularly prevalent in her more abstract paintings from the mid-1950s. Tanning’s curiosity for dance was motivated heavily because her Lutheran upbringing restricted many activities, including dance. In the later 1940s, she designed sets and costumes for several of George Balanchine’s ballets, including The Night Shadow (1945) at the Metropolitan Opera House. They later collaborated on three other pieces for the New York ballet, including The Witch, with choreographer John Cranko in 1950; Bayou and Will o’ the Wisp. Tanning took major inspiration from The Witch and incorporated this into her own work. Although the play itself had negative reviews, Tanning’s costumes were praised for their exuberance. The sketches she made when designing the costumes exhibits Tanning at play with fantasy: combining demure ballgowns with offbeat headdresses thus realistically depicting unreal scenes. Sketching the human form came very naturally to her because one of her first jobs in New York was as an advert designer for Macys. Intensely inspired, by the 1980s Tanning began producing large-scale soft sculptures, which she constructed out of various kinds of fabric using a sewing machine. For Tanning, these playful sculptures became three-dimensional manifestations of her painted universe.

‘The Girl’. Costume design for The Witch, a ballet by John Cranko. 1950 Gouache on paper 406 x 283 mm The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS, 2018

Her paintings celebrate the female form and feminine sexuality

Surrealism was at its height in 1920s-30s, however women were often removed from the narrative at this time. Once you broaden the boundaries of Surrealism, you realize that the women in fact were centre stage. As Tanning’s body of work started to stray from Surrealism, the late 1960s brought a completely abstract style to her paintings and suggestive as the female form. A sexual charge pulsates through Tanning’s work. Young girls’ clothes appear torn as the lines between innocence and experience become blurred. A notable piece included in the Tate exhibition is one of Tanning’s seminal pieces Birthday (1942); an iconic self-portrait. It introduced motifs that would recur throughout her career. The painting presents Tanning herself as the protagonist in front of cold-toned hues and a cascading line of opened doors. Tanning’s dress combines both nature and culture; from waist-down her skirt grows seaweed-like foliage whilst the blouse is made of silk and lace to recall aristocracy however this is heavily juxtaposed against her bare chest. In the lower right portion of the painting lies a winged lemur, suggested to be a symbol of her unconscious released through her dream. Max Ernst helped her title Birthday (he asked what the title was, and she did not have one for it yet. Ernst suggested ‘Birthday’ – in no relation to her actual birth date, but her birth as a surrealist). The Surrealist movement was heavily criticized as misogynistic at the peak of second-wave feminism, but scholars are now re-evaluating its “progressive exploration of gender politics” and its “queerness”. Tanning’s art undermines the ‘old’ idea of Surrealism being about the objectification of women. She navigates between the role of ‘muse/wife’ and artist in her own right.

Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012) Family Portrait 1954 Oil paint on canvas 910 x 765 mm Acquired in 1977. Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d'art modern/ Centre de création industrielle Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais /image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © DACS, 2018

She had a unique painting style and re-used a lot of motifs

Tanning began Surrealist painting by meticulously depicting her own dreams. She aimed to make complex psychology visible by reproducing at least one figure within her dream scene with their eyes closed. This penetrating psychological exploration continued while her work evolved to become more abstract and sculptural. As her artistic career progressed, she began to write poems to accompany her paintings. There was a common motif of chess, perhaps because the beginning of her and Ernst’s romance was when he invited himself to her apartment for a game of chess. This motif is in the exhibition to share a sense of game between her, her husband and her fellow colleagues. Chess is also a language that crosses boundaries and dialects. Marcel Duchamp – arguably a forefront to the Surrealist movement – was a great fan of chess because he believed the game created a space for all to come together. The motif of children is repeated in her work also , she frequently represents a Victorian child enraged, reeking havoc on the domestic scape. Through these tactics, the sexuality of children is being explored, coming into conjunction with many of Freud’s theories.

Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012) Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943 Oil paint on canvas 407 x 610 mm Tate © DACS, 2018

Exploring her double-edged sword role as wife and muse

Undoubtedly, her legacy lies in her revolutionary painting style but it’s hard to ignore the label of ‘Max Ernst’s wife’ that is perpetually thrown around by art historians when reminiscing about the surrealist movement. She once wrote – referring to herself in the third person – “her existence as an artist was dramatically compromised by her existence as Max’s wife”. Shortly after Tanning and Ernst met then fell in love, he suggested to his then-wife Peggy Guggenheim to include his lovers work in her exhibition ’31 Women’. Guggenheim later remarked that she wished she had left it at 30, because within a week Ernst had left her for Dorothea. Regardless of their ‘power-couple’ status she claimed that her and her husband never discussed art — “We just had fun.” Unlike some critics, Ernst always allowed her independence, never referring to her as “my wife” but always as Dorothea Tanning. “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.” She made this comment in a 1990 interview.

Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012) Costume for Night Shadow: A Guest 1945 Watercolour and wash on paper 353 x 251 mm The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS, 2018

She followed her painting career with a successful attempt at Poetry and Literature

When she returned to New York in 1980, she began to focus on her writing. In 1986, she published her first memoir Birthday for the painting that had figured so prominently in her biography. She said, “If it wasn’t known that I had been a Surrealist, I don’t think it would be evident in what I’m doing now. But I’m branded as a Surrealist” and also declared herself as the ‘oldest living emerging poet’ shortly before her passing. When she was 94, she published her first novel, Chasm, and her first book of poem, the kaleidoscopic A Table of Content (in 2004). Chasm was described by one critic as “the story of a little girl, a lion and a mysterious fetishistic stash of body parts.” Tanning started writing poetry in her late ’80s, and her work was subsequently published in the Yale Review, the New Yorker, Poetry, and the New Republic. While her writings were the sombre production of her husband’s death, they enabled her career to come full circle as a strong feminist creative.

‘Dorothea Tanning’ runs until 9th June 2019 at the Tate Modern. You can find out more information and buy tickets here.



Related Content