Dorothea Tanning



Not on display

Dorothea Tanning 1910–2012
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1298 × 973 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Nicholas Themans Trust 2020


Murmurs is a medium-scale oil painting on canvas produced by the artist in 1976. It depicts a headless female form, sitting cross-legged on a pink crescent moon against a dark sky, to whose shoulder clings a humanised dog who stares out at the viewer with piercing eyes. Light from the moon or an external source radiates onto the female’s belly, breasts and arm – illuminating them with an ethereal, otherworldly glow – and what appear to be faceless foetal forms and strange disconnected limbs emanate from the dark background. The painting is characterised by dry brushwork, where semi-transparent layers of lighter paint are worked over darker grounds giving texture and depth.

Tanning adopted a more figurative approach in her later work – having used a style that she termed ‘prismatic’ from the mid-1950s onwards (see, for example, A Mi-Voix 1958, Tate T00298) – and paintings from this period celebrate the sensual and spontaneous aspects of human nature, exploring space, movement and flesh. Despite this looser approach, however, they retain the echoes of myths and legends that recur throughout her practice. Having been born in Galesburg, Illinois, a town where, she said, ‘you sat on the davenport and waited to grow up’, as a teenager Tanning devoured the Gothic literature, fairy tales and poetry she discovered in Galesburg’s public library to escape to other worlds (Tanning 2001, p.16) This outlet, coupled with her first encounter of surrealism through the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1936, offered exhilarating possibilities.

Murmurs was painted in 1976 at the midpoint of Tanning’s career and in the year in which her husband, the artist Max Ernst (1891– 1976), died. It is therefore a pivotal work in her output. As a text she wrote for an exhibition at Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2000 suggests, it can be interpreted as a depiction of herself cradled within a space she imagines for her own memories and personal mythologies:

They are sounds from outer space and they bring all kinds of echoes into my paintings – planetary echoes, mythical echoes, memory echoes, all the echoes of constellations with their streaking creatures and a crescent moon to cradle me; only that I know perfectly well it is an orb that rocks no one and nothing but its own cold mystery. Just the same this space is, I hope, as endless as any space can be in a painting that listens to its murmurs.
(Tanning in Philadelphia Museum of Art 2000–1, unpaginated.)

Not long after Ernst’s death, Tanning returned to New York and, in her own words, ‘gave full reign to her long felt compulsion to write’ in order to cope with her profound sense of grief and loss (Dorothea Tanning, ‘In her own words’,, paragraph 2, accessed 12 June 2019). She felt, as she recalled in her memoir, that ‘during this period, there wasn’t a fiber of my being that didn’t long to be enfolded and consoled. It was as if my wing feathers had been clipped and I could hop around but not fly.’ (Tanning 2001, p.298.) Whilst Tanning did not have children, she spoke of the experience of maternity in a broader sense and sometimes likened artworks to creative offspring. The female form enveloped by the crescent moon in Murmurs, as well as the dog that clings to it in a manner evocative of a nursing infant, seems to relate to the wider notion of maternities in her work, as well as her profound desire to be cradled following the death of her husband.

With a title that suggests sounds that are not fully intelligible or are impossible to understand – what Tanning described in her text as ‘sounds from outer space’ – Murmurs depicts a moment of reverie and tenderness. Aiming to show that there is more to life than meets the eye, it is emblematic of Tanning’s attempts – across an ambitious and formally diverse seventy-year career – to represent what she called ‘unknown but knowable states’ (Tanning, quoted in Dorothea Tanning, exhibition catalogue, Malmö Konsthall, 3 April–20 May 1993, p.57).

The painting has been exhibited a number of times, including in the artist’s major monographic exhibition at Tate Modern, London between 27 February and 9 June 2019.
Further reading
Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond, exhibition leaflet, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 24 November 2000–7 January 2001, reproduced p.5.
Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives, New York and London 2001.
Dorothea Tanning, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London, 27 February–9 June 2019.

Hannah Johnston
June 2019

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