The daughter of Swedish émigré parents, artist and writer Dorothea Tanning was born on 25 August 1910 in the United States in the town of Galesburg, Illinois. At the age of sixteen ‘Dottie’, as she was then known, joined the staff of the Galesburg Public Library as a library assistant.1 There, she was deeply influenced by the books she encountered, and she entertained the idea of a purely literary career to the extent that in her memoirs she recalled: ‘If there was anything at all that troubled my certain destiny as a painter, it was the Galesburg Public Library’.2 In 1928 she began studying at Knox College, a local liberal arts institution, before moving to Chicago in 1930 and enrolling at the Chicago Academy of Art. However, she attended the course there for only three weeks, and thereafter was largely self-taught as an artist.3
In 1935 Tanning moved to New York, where she began working as a freelance illustrator, creating advertisement designs for Macy’s department store and other clients until the early 1940s. In December 1936 she visited Alfred H. Barr Jr’s ground-breaking exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, which included work by the likes of Eileen Agar, René Magritte, Max Ernst, Meret Oppenheim, Marcel Duchamp and Louis Aragon.4 The surrealist works she saw there had a profound effect on Tanning and she felt an affinity with the artists on show. As she later recalled, ‘here in the museum is the real explosion, rocking me on my run-over heels. Here is the infinitely faceted world I must have been waiting for. Here is the limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY, a perspective having only incidentally to do with painting on surfaces.’5
Tanning travelled to France in July 1939 with letters of introduction to artists including Ernst, Chaim Soutine, Yves Tanguy and Pablo Picasso. She arrived in Paris in August and, with the country on the brink of war, found the city empty of the artists with whom she had hoped to be acquainted, and she returned to New York.6 She did, however, meet Ernst in December 1942 while he was selecting work for Exhibition by 31 Women, organised by Peggy Guggenheim, his then wife, at her Art of this Century Gallery in New York. Ernst visited Tanning’s Manhattan studio on the advice of gallerist Julien Levy and selected her painting Birthday 1942 for the exhibition, as well as suggesting the work’s title. Tanning went on to have her first solo show at Levy’s New York gallery in April 1944.
In a double wedding with artist Man Ray and dancer Juliet P. Browner, Tanning and Ernst married in October 1946. They moved to the town of Sedona, Arizona, which Tanning had first visited in May 1943, apparently as a retreat from the busy New York art scene.7 Set within a group of huge red rocks in the Verde Valley and Upper Sonoran Desert of Northern Arizona, Sedona captivated Tanning’s imagination:
Reader! Imagine the pure excitement of living in such a place of ambivalent elements. Overhead a blue so triumphant it penetrated the darkest spaces of your brain. Underneath a ground so ancient and cruel with stones, only stones, and cactus spines playing possum.8
While she and Ernst were building their house there in 1946–7, Tanning wrote ‘Chasm: A Weekend’, a short story that would eventually become the novel Abyss, first published in 1949 and then again in 1977 and 2004.9 Visitors to Tanning and Ernst in Sedona included artists and writers such as Duchamp, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller, Tanguy, Kay Sage and Dylan Thomas. Following a move to France in 1949 the couple lived in Paris and then in Provence, but continued to visit their house in Sedona throughout the 1950s.
Tanning and Ernst would live in France until the latter’s death in 1976, and in this productive period Tanning embarked on a range of artistic projects. Tanning’s first Paris exhibition, held at Galerie Furstenburg in 1954, was crucial in establishing her importance on the Parisian arts scene beyond her connection with Ernst. As she later reflected: ‘For me, an artist living in the shadow of a great man, it was somehow crucial.’10 Around 1955 Tanning’s paintings moved away from meticulously rendered figurative dreamscapes, increasingly employing confident gestural flow and movement as well as a more immersive use of figures and space.11 As Tanning recalled in her memoirs, ‘Gradually, in looking at how many ways paint can flow onto canvas, I began to long for letting it have more freedom’.12 This newfound interest in movement came in the wake of her work as a costume and stage designer for the ballets of the Russian choreographer George Blanchine – Night Shadow (1946), The Witch (1950) and Bayou (1952).
Tanning’s first retrospective took place in Knokke-le Zoute in Belgium in the summer of 1967. In the late 1960s Tanning’s practice shifted once again, moving from drawing, design and painting to three-dimensional sculptural works fashioned from soft textiles and found items. Her objects led to the immersive and uncanny three-walled installation Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot 1970–3 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), which she would describe in 1987 as ‘the surrealist work par excellence – and probably the last’.13
When Ernst died in Paris on 1 April 1976, aged 84, Tanning was bereft. ‘There is no light in the studio,’ she wrote, ‘nothing moves and the colored jokes are fading fast. The disorder is grievous. (Is the heart condemned to break each day?)’14 In 1979 Tanning began her return to New York, which she completed in 1980. She published her memoir Birthday in 1986, and in 1994 established the Wallace Stevens Award for poetry, to be awarded annually by the American Academy of Poets. She created her last known paintings in 1998 but continued to write, publishing her expanded memoir Between Lives: An Artist and Her World in 2001. Her second collection of poetry, Coming to That: Poems, appeared in 2011.
Tanning died in New York on 21 January 2012, aged 101.
Dorothea Margaret Tanning (25 August 1910 – 31 January 2012) was an American painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer, and poet. Her early work was influenced by Surrealism.