Dorothea Tanning, 1910–2012


Birthday (1942) by Dorothea Tanning.

In pre-internet days it always used to surprise me to read that Dorothea Tanning was still alive when one seldom heard much about her; Leonora Carrington seemed positively hyperactive by comparison. In the end Dorothea outlasted all her Surrealist contemporaries, and the announcement of her death this week sees the passing of that generation of art revolutionaries. Birthday became an immediate favourite when I first encountered it in art books some thirty-odd years ago, and it remains my favourite among her works. John Glassie interviewed her for Salon ten years ago when she had this to say about the painting:

Well, excuse me for this, but “Birthday” is among other dreamlike things, a topless self-portrait. Is it fair to say that at that time, 1942, people thought you were immodest?

Well, I was aware it was pretty daring, but that’s not why I did it. It was a kind of a statement, wanting the utter truth, and bareness was necessary. My breasts didn’t amount to much. Quite unremarkable. And besides, when you are feeling very solemn and painting very intensively, you think only of what you are trying to communicate.

So what have you tried to communicate as an artist? What were your goals, and have you achieved them?

I’d be satisfied with having suggested that there is more than meets the eye.

She also offered a piece of sound advice:

Keep your eye on your inner world and keep away from ads and idiots and movie stars, except when you need amusement.

New York Times: Dorothea Tanning, Surrealist Painter, Dies at 101
• Coilhouse: “My work is about leaving the door open to the imagination.”
New York magazine: Jerry Saltz on Dorothea Tanning
Guardian obituary | From 2004: “I’ve always been perverse!”

Previously on { feuilleton }
Leonora Carrington, 1917–2011
Marsi Paribatra: the Royal Surrealist
Dorothea Tanning: Early Designs for the Stage
Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism
The art of Leonor Fini, 1907–1996
Surrealist women

7 thoughts on “Dorothea Tanning, 1910–2012”

  1. Great photo of Dorothea and Max, I’d not seen that one before. The “Microbe” pictures referred to were tiny paintings Ernst was producing when they moved to Arizona. They were partly a new development following his big canvases of the 1940s but also a canny way of saving money on materials.

  2. Oh, my! I just read quite a bit about her (and her old cohorts) in that Peggy Guggenheim biography. As Peggy was married to Max Ernst for a while, her relationship with Dorothea was tense, to say the least..

    Now, with Tanning and Carrington gone, it truly is the end of an era. Well, I guess that era ended a long time ago, but you know what I mean.

  3. Also, Dorothea was the translator of the poetic ‘captions’ on the English editions of Max Ernst’s collage novels you recently wrote about.

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