This Simple Human Gentle Act

Dorothea Tanning 1910-2012

Artist: Dorothea Tanning
Surrealism, Installation Art, Proto-Feminist Artists, Modern Sculpture
Born: 25 August 1910, Illinois, USA
Nationality: American
Died: 31 January 2012, New York, USA

Tanning was a painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer, and poet. Art pervades much of Tanning’s life; her images, objects, and texts have become worthwhile art and her very presence transformed photographs and moments in time to make them more artistic. The whirlwind energy that followed Tanning as a person is found in her brushstrokes. Tanning’s complete oeuvre is dominated by her unstoppable life force characteristics. Her ideas were too big for rural Illinois so Tanning left for Chicago and then New York. In New York, she found both the style and company that she identified as a Surrealist. She also married Max Ernst. Tanning meticulously depicted her own dreams throughout her long career. This psychological exploration of self continued as his work developed into more abstract and sculptural.

Birthday by Dorothea Tanning, 1942. Oil on canvas Housed by The Philadelphia Museum of Art,USA

Tanning’s paintings are often direct illustrations of her dreams, like other Surrealists such as René Magritte and Salvador Dali. Her intent was to make the psychologically complex visible by revealing the unconscious of one person experienced through a dream with at least one figure within a dream scene with their eyes closed.

Tanning’s painting is characterized by whirling kinetic energy and by her beliefs in dynamism, flux, and immediacy which uncovers a comparison with the ideology of the Italian Futurists. There is vitality and intent connected to everything Tanning does such as illustrating the folds of fabric to highlight constant movement.

Tanning’s work pulsates sexual energy. Clothes appear torn and hair takes on a lavish life blurring the line between innocence and experience. The eros at work is a force that transcends sexuality to become an urge for life in any and all its manifestations.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Dorothea Tanning, 1943. Oil on panel. Collection of the Tate, UK

Born to a working-class family, Tanning was the second of three daughters, originally from Sweden who had settled in Illinois. She was raised to strict Lutheran values. From an early age, she expressed a love of art and would find sanctuary reading the books of Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Anderson. after completing initial schooling, Tanning worked at the public library prior to enrolling in Knox College. The college did not offer art classes but Tanning contributed illustrations to the school newspaper as well as painting and drawing in her own time.

Following just two years at Knox College Tanning moved to Chicago in 1930 where she stayed with friends. She worked as a hostess in a restaurant while attending night classes at the Chicago Art Institute. She left the classes after three weeks. Tanning was a self-taught artist learning independently by visiting museums and galleries. In 1934 she secured her first exhibition in a bookshop gallery in New Orleans and showed a series of watercolours. In the spring of 1935, Tanning moved to New York and supported herself as a commercial artist, and encountered Dada and Surrealism for the first time.

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 by Dorothea tanning, 1970-73. Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France

The ”Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936 sparked a lifelong interest in Surrealism for Tanning. In 1942 as an exhibitor in Peggy Guggenheim’s “31 Women” show Tanning met participants in the movement. She travelled widely between 1936 and 1940, first to California and then to Europe in the years before the beginning of WW2

On her return to New York in 1940 Tanning went back to commercial work and created a series of advertisements for Macy’s department store. She was introduced to Julien Levy owner of the Julien Levy Gallery. Shortly after WW2 brought an influx of refugees fleeing Europe, including influential artists such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. Tanning became his friend, then his lover. The couple married in 1946.

Merrillium Trovatum by Dorothea Tanning, 1997. Oil on panel – Dorothea Tanning Foundation, NY, USA

After her successful solo show at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1944, Tanning and Ernst moved to Arizona where they built a hose and hosted visits from their creative friends such as Lee Miller. The couple relocated to Paris in 1949 and later to the Provence but continued to spend time at their home in Arizona throughout the 1950s. Tanning’s work went through a stylistic shift from being populated by dreamlike landscapes to almost entirely abstract.

Tanning returned to New York in 1980, four years after Ernst died. She spent the remainder of her life travelling between Los Angeles, New York, and France. Tanning’s last known painting, part of a series of flowers, was completed in 1998. However, she continued to write poetry until she died in New York in 2012, aged 101.

PPincushion to Serve as Fetish by Dorothea Tanning, 1965. Velvet, plastic funnel, metal pins, sawdust, and wool. Collection of the Tate, UK

Tanning’s oeuvre – from her painting to her poetry – has profoundly influenced subsequent generations of artists. Her explorations of the female form led to her association with the Feminist movement. Along with other female Surrealists, tanning provided the role model for younger women trying to break away from the restrictive views of femininity and womanhood to become independent artists in their own right

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