Dorothea Tanning – Surrealist or Realist?

By Karen S. Lynch


   Even at 97, Galesburg native Dorothea Tanning and her surrealist artwork are still sparking controversy. Tanning lived in Galesburg for 20 years before moving to Chicago in 1930 to study painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.

   A recent article in The Zephyr, written by diana Mackin, contends some paintings by Tanning suggest the artist may have been a victim of sexual abuse. The artistic conclusions by Mackin are debatable but there is a valid argument to explore Tanning’s work.

   According to WebMuseum of Paris, “American painter Dorothea Tanning, b. Galesburg, Ill., Aug. 25, 1910, learned to paint, she claimed, by visiting art museums. She attended Knox College in Galesburg, studied art in Chicago, and in 1935 moved to New York City, where she supported herself with advertising art and painted in her spare time. A commercial artist in New York, she began painting as a professional after meeting a group of French surrealists that included Max Ernst, whom she married in 1946. Tanning's paintings have evolved from her early surrealist evocations of perverse children's games and fantasies to experiments with different painting and, later, sculptural approaches – although her involvement with symbolic and dream material has remained constant.” (Contribution by Michael Shephard.)  

   While it is impossible to know how Tanning drew her inspiration, she did paint many provocative images of children in various stages of dress, often with oddly proportioned people and dark mythical creatures. Tanning loved reading Gothic novels, which could be the source of some of her imaginative inklings.

   The quality of Tanning’s art is un-debatably stunning – a testament to her worldwide fame in the art world. The artistic details are intricate and symbolically deliberate, although sometimes hidden in layers that beckon exploration. Colors vary from near monotones, to muted primary colors. There is a quality of soft light, even in the darkest subjects of Tanning’s surrealistic paintings.

   I believe art intends to elicit some emotions in the viewer or an outlet for the artist. Most representational art is simply visual – depicting scenery, people, animals, or a still life, as seen through the eye of the artist. What the viewer sees may elicit a sense of pleasure or beauty but rarely provokes deep or dark emotions.

   Surrealistic images often depict a wider range of emotions, thoughts, visions, or experiences – either real or imagined. Surrealist artists often depict dark or mythical creatures, subject to intrigue into the thoughts and mind of the artist. Symbolic images between people, animals, and nature often intertwine into dream-like states in the artwork of Tanning.

   Tanning’s best-known work, “Ein Klein Nachtmusik” (A Little Night Music) painted in 1946, is a very dark piece. The painting seems to ironically mock Mozart’s light-hearted chamber works of the same name. The painting is one subject surrounding the current controversy that diana Mackin contends represents the “deflowering” of a child, with its large sunflower lying on the red hallway carpet.

   The main subject is a young girl with an unraveling rag skirt – hair blowing in the wind, as if being drawn towards the golden light of the slightly open fourth hotel door. A life-sized “doll” with open shirt and tattered skirt leans against one closed door. The painting could symbolize the transition from childhood in the journey towards womanhood. Tanning also lived in Paris for 28 years and could be depicting childhood prostitution. The combination of the images and the title of “A Little Night Music” could suggest sexual connotations.  

   I find the symbolism in Tanning’s body of dark surrealistic artwork startling and revealing. I have always believed artists in any genre have some personal truth that seeps into their work, either deliberately or unknowingly.

   One of Tanning's particularly disturbing paintings, “The Guest Room,” shows a young, pubescent girl standing fully naked next to two open bedroom doors. A ghostly image of the girl stands blindfolded behind her on the other side of the door.

   The subject in bed suggests a dreaming child clutching another life-sized “doll” with its oddly severed arm. I find this painting full of symbolism. I interpret the young girl "blind" either a real event or simply fearful of a nightmarish vision.

   What appears to be dark ruffled "sheets" above them also suggest something dark or sinister happening under the sheets. Tanning could also be using the dark cloth as symbolic storm clouds or the "cover" of darkness – suggesting nightmares, rather based on real events or simply things the mind fears. There is also an "evil-looking" figure in the background, also with a hidden face. The symbolism suggests a demonic figure or dark secret. 

   I am very curious why she depicts the heavy male figure with spurs on his boots, proportionally much smaller than the vulnerability of the nude child. Does Tanning want him to have a smaller presence and power, or is she merely demeaning his significance? Once again, she has his head covered with a cloth.

   Many of Tanning’s unseen or non-human faces are either covered or transformed into the heads of fish or dogs. A painting she named “Dorothea” has her own face depicted as a dog image she uses repeatedly (perhaps a favorite pet) while she lounges on a chaise holding another dog.

   The painting named “Family Portrait” shows a young woman seated at a table without any food or "substance" on her empty plate. Her eyes seem haunted, posed straight at the artist. Behind the woman is a ghostly shadow of a disproportionately large man in a brown suit and tie. Once again, his eyes are not visible behind his glasses. Below the table is what appears to be a heavy "mother" figure, shown proportionally very small with an average-sized dog begging for food. 

   The argument Tanning may have experienced some type of sexual abuse holds some validity. It is also as likely she was merely attempting to depict the existence of sexuality in all its forms. Overall, the paintings I studied seem to depict some kind of torment – terror and darkness, hunger, feelings of isolation or vulnerability. The nudes, shown more sexual than human art forms, as Tanning often shows her female subjects in tattered cloth, skirts hiked up or as totally nude and vulnerable.

   Tanning painted a self-portrait she named “Birthday” at age 32 in 1942, the year she met her future painter husband, Max Ernst. They married four years later. Seeing the artwork lacked a title, he gave the painting its name. Dorothea, his fourth wife, lived and worked for 28 years in Paris after the war. Ernst introduced Tanning to the surrealist art world, for which she became a synonymous master.

   Her self-portrait shows her bare breast, partially clothed in an open Victorian blouse and skirt of tangled roots standing on a tilted wood floor. The artist is barefoot with a mythical winged-lemur at her feet. A recurrent theme in many of Tanning paintings are doors, of which this painting has an endless circle, both open and closed.

  There is a sense of mixed metaphors with an invitation to exploration of the mind of the artist. Many questions arise in her self-portrait. Do the doors suggest there is both the seen and unseen or simply represents where she lived – where her “roots” were literally at the time she painted her own image?

   If there is one truth of “realism” in the body of Tanning’s work, it is in the embodiment of a true surrealistic master with visual inquiry of interpretation. There are no right or wrong answers. Only the artist knows her own truth. Tanning is the least likely person to tell others what they must see.