Over more than a century, Dorothea Tanning collided and consorted with artistic titans of the 20th century who included Pablo Picasso, John Cage and Joseph Cornell. She designed sets for George Balanchine ballets, played romantic matchmaker for poet Andre Breton and appeared in Hans Richter’s avant-garde films — but she remained best known as the wife of Surrealist Max Ernst, to whom she was married for nearly 30 years
Tanning, who was also a celebrated American artist and poet, and came to be known as „the last living Surrealist,“ died Tuesday at her New York City home, according to the Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive, a foundation she established in 1995 to preserve her work. She was 101.
Several of her best-known paintings are on display through May at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art show „In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.“ The „most riveting portrait“ in the exhibition’s introductory gallery is „Birthday,“ Tanning’s hyper-realist 1942 self-portrait, Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote last month. He called it „an image of awakening power.“
In „Birthday,“ the artist presents herself as bare-breasted and bare-footed, grasping roots emerging from her skirt. Lurking at her feet is a mythical beast, a basilisk, „which could kill with just a puff of its poison breath,“ Knight wrote. „Tanning seems capable of accomplishing the same with just a glance.“
She began her extraordinary life as Dorothea Margaret Tanning in Galesburg, Ill., on Aug. 25, 1910, the child of Swedish immigrants.
Determined to escape small-town conservatism, Tanning moved to Chicago in 1934 after dropping out of Knox College in Galesburg. She briefly attended the Chicago Academy of Art and embarked on big-city adventures that must have made her parents blanch — Tanning later claimed a liaison with a Chicago gangster who was murdered during their date and a job interview in which she was persuaded to shed her clothes.
Tanning soon moved to New York City and eventually settled into commercial illustration until a 1936 show, „Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism,“ at the Museum of Modern Art inspired her to become a serious painter. She set off for France in the summer of 1939 hoping to meet some of her heroes, but the advent of World War II led her to return home.
Back in New York, Tanning’s art career received a boost when gallery owner Julien Levy took her under his wing and another boost when art patron Peggy Guggenheim sent her then-husband, Max Ernst, to Tanning’s studio to choose a painting for inclusion in „Exhibition by 31 Women,“ an important 1943 show at Guggenheim’s New York gallery.
Ernst was entranced by Tanning’s unfinished self-portrait — later dubbed „Birthday“ — and equally taken with the beautiful artist.
Within two years, Tanning had her first solo exhibition, at Levy’s gallery. Within four, she became Ernst’s fourth wife (in a double ceremony with photographer-filmmaker Man Ray and Juliet Browner) and moved to Sedona, Ariz., where they built a house with their own hands.
Tanning collaborated on Balanchine ballets and painted some of her best-known canvases in the late 1940s and early ’50s, including such theatrical tableaux as „Interior With Sudden Joy“ and „Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.“
Living and working alongside Ernst until his death in 1976, Tanning continued to make paintings and sculptures in the shadow of an art world legend. She created many of her stunning works despite being regularly interrupted by such visiting luminaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marcel Duchamp and Dylan Thomas.
„I even made a note one summer in my notebooks: 44 days, 47 visits,“ she once said. „I would have painted three times as many pictures otherwise.“
The couple moved to France in 1949 and spent more than two decades there. Tanning’s paintings grew increasingly abstract, her figures becoming so fluid that bodies dissolved altogether. By the late 1960s she had turned to soft fabric sculptures, fantastical furniture in which tweed torsos burst through walls and furry limbs mingle.
After returning to New York in 1980 and recovering from a stroke, Tanning focused her creative energy on another childhood pleasure: writing. She wrote a novel, „Chasm,“ and a 1986 memoir, „Birthday,“ which she expanded into the 2001 book „Between Lives.“
In her late 80s, Tanning found a new outlet in poetry. She jokingly referred to herself as „the oldest living emerging poet.“
By 90, she had published poems in the Paris Review and won a place in „Best American Poems of 2000.“ She later wrote two well-reviewed volumes of poetry, „A Table of Content“ (2004) and „Coming to That,“ which the New Yorker called one of the best books of 2011.
In 1994, Tanning created and endowed the Wallace Stevens Award, which each year grants $100,000 to an American poet.
She is survived by three nieces and a nephew.
When asked a decade ago how her life might have been different if she had not thrown in her lot with Ernst, Tanning said she had no regrets. But „Stain,“ a poem she wrote in the 1990s, was more revealing:
Many years ago today
I took a husband tenderly
This simple human gentle act
Seen as a hard decisive fact
By all who dote on category
Did stain my work indelibly
I don’t know why that is
For it has not stained his.
Dorothea Tanning, who has died aged 101, was a painter, sculptor, memoirist, novelist and poet whose work tended to be eclipsed by that of her husband Max Ernst, whose fourth wife she became in 1946.
February 3rd, 2012
Dorothea Tanning established a reputation in the 1940s for disturbingly vivid images which seemed to offer a despairing contemplation of woman’s biological destiny. In Birthday (1942), for example, she depicted herself bare-breasted and shoeless in front of a creepy monkey-like creature as she confronts the open doors that lie ahead. In her 1946 Self Portrait (Maternity), any sentimental view of motherhood is undermined by a fretful-looking mother and infant, dressed in tattered gowns, standing isolated on a grubby rug in a sulphurous desert expanse. It is, perhaps, no surprise that Dorothea Tanning consistently refused to have children and instead lavished her attention on Pekinese dogs.
From the early 1950s, however, Dorothea Tanning decided to move away from narrative surrealism in order to explore a more abstract aesthetic. In what she called her “prism’’ paintings, she created fractured dream spaces, in which body parts, barely discernible faces and exploded biomorphic forms float in silent but sensual interrelationship. One critic likened these later works to “the Sistine Chapel painted over by Francis Bacon”.
From the late 1960s she abandoned painting temporarily to make sewn soft sculptures stuffed with wool. With enigmatic titles such as Fetish, Don Juan’s Breakfast and Rainy Day Canapé, she aimed to “bring alive” the strange, often sexually-charged, forms she had been painting. Viewers suggested that they amounted to “some of the creepiest sculpture of the 20th century”.
Dorothea Tanning was understandably irritated that many interviewers seemed to be interested only in her relationship with Ernst. 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” — though as an afterthought she added: “love triumphs over all”. In a later poem she recalled how “Many years ago today/ I took a husband tenderly/ This simple human gentle act/ Seen as a hard decisive fact/ By all who dote on category/ Did stain my work indelibly/ I don’t know why that is/ For it has not stained his.”
Dorothea Tanning was a fashion illustrator at Macy’s in New York when, at a party in 1942, she met Ernst, who was then married to his third wife, the wealthy American art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Shortly afterwards, informed by a friend that she did interesting paintings, he visited her studio looking for works to show at an exhibition called 30 Women at his wife’s new gallery, Art of This Century. Impressed by a not-quite-finished self-portrait, Ernst suggested the title Birthday, stayed to play chess, and fell in love. He persuaded Peggy Guggenheim to include the piece in the show, which was renamed 31 Women. Peggy Guggenheim was later heard to say she wished that she had left it at 30, because within a week Ernst had moved into Dorothea’s apartment.
They married in 1946, in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Julie Browner, and stayed together until Ernst died in 1976, living first at Sedona, Arizona, and later in France.
After Ernst died and she herself passed the age of 80, Dorothea launched a second career as a writer, publishing two volumes of autobiography and, at the age of 94, her first novel, Chasm, described by one critic as “the story of a little girl, a lion and a mysterious fetishistic stash of body parts”. At the time it appeared, The Daily Telegraph’s reviewer observed that “with the best will in the world, her future potential is unlikely to manifest itself in a lengthy writing career”. In fact she went on to publish two volumes of poetry, of which the second, Coming to That, appeared in September last year.
Even as she neared her century, Dorothea Tanning remained a woman of extraordinary personal power, coquettishness and wit: “From the neck up I’m young and strong,” she declared in 2010, “but the rest of me is a hundred.” She did not like the term “Surrealist”, complaining that it made her sound like a “fossil” or as if the tag had been “tattooed on my arm like a concentration camp victim”. She preferred to be known, she declared, as the “oldest living emerging poet”.
Dorothea Tanning was born on August 25 1910 to Swedish immigrants who had made their home at Galesburg, Illinois. At the age of five she developed a gift for weeping while reciting tragic poetry, leading her mother to hope that she might make a career on the stage. Two years later, however, she had made up her mind to become an artist.
In her autobiography she recalled that her devout Lutheran parents had been alarmed by a perverse bohemian streak that first manifested itself when, as a child, she always lusted after the villain in Westerns . Aged 15, despite never having heard of Surrealism, she horrified her family by painting a naked woman with leaves for hair.
She left home at 20 and moved to Chicago where, after dropping out of art school, she worked as an artist’s model, an illustrator, and a marionnettist at the World’s Fair, and claimed to have dated a gangster who was called away and murdered while she waited at the bar.
In 1936 she moved to New York, where she supported herself by working as an illustrator. The same year she visited an exhibition of Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art: “I thought, Gosh! I can go ahead and do what I’ve always been doing,” she recalled.
In 1939 she travelled to Paris, armed with letters of introduction to several prominent artists, Ernst among them, but found that most had fled the city, which was on the brink of war. After a short spell with her father’s family in neutral Sweden, she returned to New York on the last boat.
After 31 Women, Dorothea Tanning had her first solo exhibition in 1944, at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. By then she and Ernst were living at Sedona, where they confronted lizards, scorpions and snakes and played host to a bohemian cast of visitors including George Balanchine (for whom she would design ballet sets and costumes), Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marcel Duchamp, Truman Capote and Dylan Thomas.
To escape McCarthy era restrictions, they moved to France in 1957, ultimately settling at Seillans, a hilltop village in Provence, in a house designed by Dorothea. During the 1960s and 1970s her work was exhibited regularly at galleries in America and Europe. It was in France, too, where she “lived a lot in my own language”, that she developed her writing skills as a “way of talking”.
She and her husband never discussed art, she claimed — “We just had fun.” Unlike some critics, Ernst always allowed her independence, never referring to her as “my wife” but always as Dorothea Tanning.
After his death she returned, in 1979, to New York. Alongside her writing, and following a stroke in the mid-1990s, she embarked on a series of 12 flower paintings – lush, dark works which were subsequently collected in a book entitled Another Language of Flowers.
Dorothea Tanning’s work is in the collections of many galleries around the world, including the Tate, which in 1998 bought her sinister Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) and holds several other examples of her paintings and soft sculptures.