Dorothea Tanning: artist from Galesburg

by Lynn McKeown


Many Galesburgers may be unaware that one of America's best painters was born and raised in Galesburg. Art critic John Russell has called Dorothea Tanning "one of the major artists of our [20th] century" and "a distinctive and original American painter." Tanning, who now makes her home in New York City, is also a talented writer who has published two autobiographies, Birthday in 1986 and Between Lives in 2001, as well as fiction and poetry. In the two autobiographies she tells her life story, including formative experiences in Galesburg and later experiences perhaps influenced by those formative years.

Tanning was born in Galesburg in 1910, the second daughter of Andrew Peter George Tanning (born Andreas Thaning) and his wife Amanda. Andrew had emigrated from Sweden at the age of seventeen. Once, telling her husband, painter Max Ernst, about her feelings for her hometown, Tanning commented "But you wouldn't know." He answered, "I think I do. The place you had to leave. Everybody has one."

The young Dorothea was a bit unsettled, even as a youngster in Galesburg. Her years growing up in the ‘teens and ‘20s were unsettled years in America. She was rather often ill, but she was somewhat of a child prodigy who skipped several grades (and ever after had difficulty with simple arithmetic as a result). Her childhood was apparently mostly a happy one, and she tells a few wryly amusing stories about growing up.

One hot summer day her father took her to a movie at the Orpheum Theatre. It was a cowboy film with the popular Tom Mix, but she says her father was more interested in the hero's horse Tony, while she was more interested in the film's charming villain, "Lord Churlton,” with his lace collar and velvet hat.

Dorothea had a job as a student clerk in the Galesburg Public Library, where she found that the head librarian had marked with a red "x" the books that she considered improper for young people. Dorothea looked them up and read them – Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, and others then considered somewhat improper. She sometimes got lost in a book when she should have been "reading the shelves" (putting books in order) back in the stacks. Then the head librarian, "a resolute, imposing woman, wearing pince-nez that trembled on her nose when she walked, would sometimes flush me out herself, in a perfect towering rage."

Tanning's experience with books seems to have been an important influence on her life, and she even includes a photo of the old Carnegie Public Library building in both autobiographies as well as another book of her artwork (labeled "scene of my corruption" in Birthday). "Over the years, the library became my haven," she says, "its treasures slyly challenging the voice of 'Art,' its sirens singing and crying by turns, filling my eyes and ears with words, its weight crushing my fatuous certitudes forever." And she laments the event twenty-five years later when the library burned while her sisters "watched with tear-stained faces. Thank God I wasn't there."

Though fascinated by books, Tanning, while still very young, was determined to be an artist, and she once used her library earnings to rent a Lake Bracken cabin for two weeks, a time she planned to devote to creating "art." It didn't quite work. She was interrupted by well-meaning but puzzled visitors and other distractions, and the hoped-for artistic production didn't materialize.

Several years later, after a few years at Knox College (which, unfortunately for her, did not have an applied art program at that time), Tanning left her small town home, as many Americans were doing at the time. Her first stop was not far away in Chicago, where she studied art for a time. Family friend Carl Sandburg, who had been in the same company as Andrew Tanning in the Spanish-American War, had cautioned her parents that art school would be bad for her, thwarting her native ability, advice that she resented at the time. But in fact she found the art school she attended in Chicago to be unrewarding, and she quit after three weeks, finding better art education by simply looking at the paintings on the walls of the Chicago Art Institute.

Then it was on to New York City, where she made a living doing advertising illustrations while studying art and absorbing the art world of the city. In 1936 she visited the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which turned out to be "the real explosion, rocking me on my run-over heels. Here is the limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY, signposts so imperious, so laden, so seductive and, yes, so perverse that, like the insidious revelations of the Galesburg Public Library, they would possess me utterly." She had found in the European movement called "Surrealism" the inspiration for her own artistic creativity.

Tanning had wanted to live in Paris since the age of seven, and in 1939, with very little money, she set off for that artistic promised land. Unfortunately, she found a Paris bracing for war. After a short stay she had to make a quick escape to relatives in Stockholm and then back to New York.

A few years later, in New York, came what was unquestionably one of the momentous experiences of her life, the meeting with Max Ernst. The German painter was in exile from his native country, where the Nazis ranked his work as "degenerate art." (It was, of course, the Nazis who were degenerate, as was to become evident soon.) Born in 1891, Ernst had been wounded while serving with the German Army in World War One, and after the war he had begun to make a name for himself in Europe as one of the group of-artists associated with the Dada and Surrealist movements. After being imprisoned in several prison camps in Nazi-controlled France, he made his escape to Spain and then America. By 1942, when he met Tanning, he was recognized as a painter of genius.

As Tanning tells it, she met Ernst at a party in 1942, and then shortly afterward he appeared at her door one day to consider her paintings for inclusion in an exhibit of women artists. He looked at her artwork, realized she was a chess player, and suggested a game. The next day he returned for another game – and the next day another. A week after the first visit, he moved in. Thus began a relationship that lasted till Ernst's death in 1976 (They were married in 1946) and that apparently was a happy one for both of them.

Much of Birthday is the story of Tanning's life with Max Ernst, a quiet, gentle man who painted iconoclastic, often violent pictures, but who seems to have been a considerate if somewhat aloof husband. From New York City they moved to Sedona, Arizona, then to Paris, back and forth between Europe and America, and finally settled in the south of France, living for many years in a house that Tanning designed. During these years, they lived lives of dedicated artists, in which they were a bit apart from the rest of the world, though they did encounter it in strange ways at times.

Neither Tanning nor Ernst seem to have had much interest in politics or social causes, but one semi-political occasion, however, brought Tanning to an awareness of her old home in Galesburg. While living in Paris, they were invited to a sort of rally that was supposed to have something to do with ballet. It turned out to be a public poetry reading by leftist intellectual Louis Aragon, and Dorothea, to her amazement, was seated on the front row next to the leader of the Communist Party in France. She found the experience "grotesque" as photographers snapped pictures, and she thought: "Was it really me, Dottie Tanning from Galesburg, the tender romantic, her fabric shot through with dreams of unearthly splendor...?"

I have no expertise whatsoever to talk about the artwork of Dorothea Tanning. It is obviously a sort of rebellion against the conventional, early Twentieth Century Middle America of her younger years. In an "Afterword" she wrote for a book of her artwork, Dorothea Tanning, published in 1995, she says that her parents' lives exemplified "piety, conformity and self-reliance," and that of those qualities, she had kept only the last. Of course, times have changed since her days in Galesburg, or even the middle years of the century when she produced most of her art. Now, what may have been shocking has become passé. There is a vibrancy, originality and offbeat humor in her paintings, however, that is appealing, and I wonder if it won't stand the test of time. (She also created unusual and amusing cloth sculptures of human forms morphing into furniture – or are they furniture morphing into humans?)

I'm a little more able to evaluate Tanning's ability as a writer, and I find her two autobiographies engrossing, with a masterful use of language. This is a woman of talent with the pen (word processor?) as well as the paintbrush. Birthday is a kind of prose poem telling her life story as a talented artist and the wife of another talented artist. Between Lives is a sort of expanded version of the previous book with many of the same stories but a bit more down-to-earth. The latter book has more stories of Tanning's experiences with famous individuals in the world of the arts (like the time she visited Picasso and he made her a gift of the last rose in his garden). Both books are worth reading for anyone interested in 20th Century art. According to a recent interview in the New Yorker, Tanning has given up painting to concentrate on poetry.

It is interesting to see how, in her books, Tanning returns to her feeling toward her hometown. She had a very different sort of life than if she had stayed in small­-town Illinois. But Galesburg pops up from time to time in her writing. In the “Afterword” she wrote for her 1995 collection of her artwork, there are many stories and pictures (including one of her father with Carl Sandburg) reflecting her life in Galesburg. Perhaps a bit of small-town Dottie Tanning and Galesburg were always present in the Dorothea Tanning who traveled widely in the cosmopolitan world of Twentieth Century art and created artwork of great originality.