Saturday, 24 August 2013

Dorothea Tanning; the 31 Women number nineteen, her birthday is 25 August.

Artist and poet Dorothea Tanning is one of those amongst the 31 Women who can't accurately be described as a forgotten artist. A New York Times review in 1995 described her as, ...A painter who has become known in this country for not being better known.*  Her surrealist work was first discovered in New York in the 1940's, though she had her first exhibition in 1934, in New Orleans. However she wasn't more widely known at that stage.

Dorothea Tanning on

She developed something of an international presence in the 1950's after she moved to France, where she lived and exhibited widely and was accepted as a European surrealist, though in the shadow of her husband, Max Ernst. She returned to the US in 1980 and was almost seen as a European import, having to re-establish herself. Though her art began to move on from straight surrealism during the 1950's, it was her imaginative surrealist works which made her name and which she is best known for. She has been accepted as an important American artist and today her work can be seen in thirty-five public collections throughout the USA as well as nine more in Europe.

Dorothea Tanning discovered the route into her own creativity via an exhibition of Surrealist art. In 1936 she had just moved to New York, with an ambition to be a successful painter, but was forced to earn her living as a waitress and catalogue illustrator. She was only vaguely aware of Surrealism before she visited Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, Alfred Barr’s momentous show at the new Museum of Modern Art. The work that the 26 year old painter saw there was a revelation to her, for the first time she found something matching her own visions. She had drawn and painted from a very young age and as a child created a surrealist image without any prior knowledge, when she painted a nude with leaves for hair, to the horror of her Lutheran parents. Whether they were more horrified by the leaves or the nudity is not entirely clear.

She was one of three daughters from a Swedish immigrant family, living in the rural county of Galesburg, Illinois. The family called her Dottie. Despite their religious outlook which meant dancing was disapproved of, her father took her to see cowboy movies. Dorothea yearned after actor Lord Churlton, the villain of the Westerns, rather than the hero, Tom Mix. She said later, I have been very perverse over a very long period and I don’t suppose I’ll be anything else. * As a teenager her perversity also took the form of an ambition to live in Paris and be an artist. Her early career was deliberately conceived as a step by step journey towards this end, though she would not actually live and work in Paris until she was forty years old.

In 1932 Dorothea left home and to her parents dismay moved to Chicago, where she began a Bohemian existence, having very briefly attended as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. She abandoned her studies after only three weeks. She found the regime  far too restrictive and instead spent some time exploring the Institute’s art collection. She evolved a flawless technique as a painter with little tuition and she certainly felt no need to be taught what to paint. Her skilfully executed works have always personified her own ideas, proving how correct she was to have faith in her own talent and reject formal tutoring. To earn her keep, she began work as a commercial artist.

After a few years in Chicago, Dorothea made the deliberate decision in 1936 to move towards her Parisian goal. New York was the next step on the journey. She boarded a bus and arrived in time for her revelatory experience at the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition. In August 1939, she could finally afford to travel to Paris, determined to meet the Surrealists. It is not clear whether she was aware of the dire political situation in Europe and went anyway, or she really was ignorant. Either way her timing was atrocious, because war or no war, in August many Parisians go south, en vacances. She arrived with letters of introduction to Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst and Picasso, but nobody was home. She returned to New York her mission unfulfilled.

In 1941 Dorthea was creating advertising illustrations for Macy’s store and painting at home, in an apartment shared with friend, abstract painter Ronnie Elliot. Together they studied philosophy and Hindu dance. She stayed in New York until 1946, momentous years which transformed young Dottie from Galesberg into Dorothea Tanning, a perceptive and talented artist who counted the greatest exponents of the avant-garde as her friends and admirers.  She founded lasting friendships with a number of other creative people included Xenia and John Cage, Buffie Johnson, Kay Sage, Muriel Streeter, Julien Levy, Sonja Sekula, Roberto Matta, Maya Deren, Hans Richter, Marcel Duchamp and Gypsy Rose Lee.

As the list of her friendships illustrates, after returning home from her ill-timed 1939 Paris trip to seek out the Surrealists, Dorothea Tanning found they were coming to her, when the retreat of avant-garde artists from Nazi fascism in Europe began. There is no doubt certain Surrealists, notably Max Ernst, were delighted to meet such an attractive woman artist, though Ernst had always preferred very young women and Dorothea was no ingénue. The opinion of Andre Breton, Surrealism’s godfather, was less favourable once Max fell for Dorothea. Breton never welcomed any woman who threatened his influence over his stable of surrealists, although even Breton couldn't deny the strength of Tanning’s surrealist paintings.

Julien Levy’s New York gallery had championed the Surrealists from 1932 and Levy was an enthusiastic supporter of women artists. There is a certain amount of mis-information about Dorothea Tanning’s exhibitions, I've read claims that she had none in the USA until the 1980’s. In fact she had solo exhibitions in New Orleans and Galesberg during the 1930's and she had her first full New York show at Levy’s Gallery in 1944. Levy also gave her a second exhibition in 1948 and this was followed by seven more solo shows in the USA before 1980, as well as numerous group exhibitions from 1938 on.

In 1942 it was Levy who introduced Dorothea to the ex-pat Surrealists, at a party in May that year. This was actually where she first met Max Ernst, though Peggy Guggenheim (who at the time was Ernst’s wife) claims they only met when Ernst was appointed as scout for the 1943 Exhibition of 31 Women, at her gallery. Ernst chose Birthday, a painting harking back to Dorothea’s childhood image of a leafy nude, with its full-length self portrait with bare-breasts and a tree-like skirt, whilst also revealing her current surrealist inspired enthusiasm for doorways, leading into mysterious spaces. This interest in the complexities of space continued into the 1960’s. Birthday is her best known image and has become an icon of high Surrealism; the painting is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Dorothea and Max Ernst were married in Oct 1946, in Beverly Hills. This was Ernst’s fourth marriage, he had also had relationships with other artists including Valentine Hugo, Meret Oppenheim and Leonora Carrington, but it was Tanning who kept him, for 35 years. Until 1950 they lived mostly in Sedona, Arizona, where they built a simple wood-framed house in the rocky landscape, away from civilisation. They had few conveniences and it was a day of celebration when their house was connected to a newly sunk well.

This sojourn in the desert had a profound long-term effect on Dorothea’s work, though at first her paintings retained their urban surrealism with semi-Gothic interiors and strange, self-obsessed figures. Gradually, like Georgia O’Keefe in New Mexico, Tanning found that her perceptions were permanently changed by desert living, as the hallucinatory qualities of the Arizona light bled into her artistic vision. In a sequence of paintings she conceived her change into fragmented abstraction, without reference to other artists or movements, even Ernst had no real influence. The title, Insomnias, points to a conscious rejection of the Surrealist dream, Tanning abandoned the old surrealism somewhere amongst the desert rocks.

Early in the 1950’s, Dorothea Tanning realised her youthful ambition and became a working artist in Paris. Her introduction to Parisian life was a freezing winter in an elegant, borrowed apartment with high ceilings and expensive draperies, but no heating. Soon they rejected Parisian life for the tranquillity of the French campagne. Whilst in France, Dorothea’s circle of friends widened to include painters Leonor Fini, Jean Miro, Oscar Dominguez, sculptor Giacometti and writer James Baldwin. Unlike many Americans living in France, Tanning immersed herself in French culture, learning to speak and read French. In May 1954 she had her first Paris exhibition and found she was not quite so much under the cloud of her famous husband as she had been in the USA. Her show was a success, her work sold and not only to her friends.

Whilst she was almost forgotten in her homeland, between 1952 and 1980 Tanning participated in exhibitions in France, London, Brussels, Milan, Turin, Geneva, Vienna, Cologne, Berlin and Stockholm. This included least 18 one-woman exhibitions, which shows how women artists were being taken more seriously in Europe than in the USA, where the macho ethos of the abstract expressionists had swept aside most thoughts of Europe. In France, Tanning used he refined technique to create light suffused inner landscapes, where partly recognised forms appear and submerge through multiple distortions of the picture plane. Using the intense colours of Arizona, these large works show her escape, no longer a quirky surrealist but a mature artist who had outgrown the confines of surrealism.

In the 1960’s she stitched a series of soft sculptures, which culminated in the installation Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202, consisting of organic forms stitched in tweed which morph nightmarishly into furniture, wall and fireplace. This work is now in the collection of the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris, other smaller pieces are in Tate Modern, London and in the USA. These sculptures have become as popular as her paintings and are another impressively personal extension of her creativity. Dorothea Tanning’s work remained her own, she was neither a collaborator with nor a pupil of any other artist, though some have tried to read the influence of other surrealists, especially Matta and Ernst, in her work.

She felt settled in France, the land which accepted her as an artist in her own right, not merely Max Ernst’s pretty wife - who paints. In 1967 she fearlessly undertook the major project of designing and building her own house in Seillans, Provence, with spacious studios for herself and her husband. This house was her home until Ernst’s death in 1976. Tanning was devastated and suffered an artistic hiatus lasting several years. She admitted in 2004 that in spite of her air of independence during her marriage, she had suffered the neglect shared by many an artist married to a ‘great man’.

Dorothea travelled, visiting Senegal, Morocco, Italy, before returning to Paris, but still couldn’t come to grips with her work. A 1978 painting, Still in the Studio depicts her inertia, with a misshapen and unfocused nude slumped on a table of painting equipment, whilst the view of Parisian rooftops out of the window is in sharp focus. In 1979 she shipped herself back to New York where, finally she felt able to concentrate properly on her work. She became interested in printmaking, producing many etchings and lithographs as well as paintings and collage. Her later prints are far more individual than earlier standard surrealist fare. She also made new friends, including poets Richard Howard and James Merrill, who encouraged her to write.

Dorothea Tanning’s final group of paintings were created in 1997 and 1998 when the artist was in her late eighties. These depicted huge, lush flower forms, though no botanist could name the species, they were further creations of Tanning’s endlessly fertile imagination. Frailty stopped her painting soon afterwards, but she had already begun her final career with the publication of the first volume of her memoirs. Subsequently she published a novel and two volumes of poetry, becoming a published poet at the age of 89. Her highly crafted and thoroughly modern poems were greeted very favourably by critics, but then she had been writing them all her life. Her updated memoir, Between Lives, 2001, tells the love story of her and Max Ernst, but is also a book saturated with startling imagery, humour and insight into her own complex life and art.

In 2004 Dorothea said, in an interview for the New Yorker, that she should not be described as the oldest living surrealist, because she moved on to something “less obvious – more contemplative and reflective and experimental, fifty years ago”. In her later days she preferred to be described as the oldest living, emerging poet.

In August 2010 Dorothea Tanning celebrated her 100th birthday while still living quietly in her apartment in Lower Manhattan. She died on the thirtieth of January 2012 and, though she had moved on, she will inevitably be remembered as the last of the old school surrealists.


Comments, corrections and further information about Dorothea Tanning are very welcome.

You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog.


Sources include:-

* Michael Kimmelman, Interwoven Destinies as Artist and Wife, printed in the New York Times, August 24, 1995

* Gaby Wood Interview With Dorothea Tanning, published The Observer August 2004

Dorothea Tanning's two volumes of autobiography - Birthday in 1986 and Between Lives 2001

Paula Lumbard, Dorothea Tanning: On the threshold to a Darker Place. 1981 published in Woman’s Art journal Vol.2 no.1 Spring-Summer.

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