Dorothea Tanning: Where are you at 100 years?


by Paulette Thenhaus

The Zephyr, August 26, 2010


Dorothea Tanning, Surrealist artist and writer, celebrated her 100th birthday on August 25, 2010. This doyenne of Surrealist art was born in Galesburg but still lives and writes in New York City. She is the oldest living Surrealist. Yet open any art history text to Surrealism and you are almost guaranteed to find mention of Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. There’s probably a color plate of Dali’s ‘’The Persistence of Memory.” There’s a fair chance that Meret Oppenheim’s “Luncheon in Fur” (fur-lined tea cup) will be another photo. Note that Meret is a woman Surrealist.

But where is Dorothea Tanning, wife of Ernst and contemporary of Oppenheim? Max Ernst was decades older than Dorothea Tanning. He was an original member of the group calling themselves Surrealists. In fact, some called him “The King” of the movement. How could he not overshadow Tanning till his death in 1976? And its not that Tanning doesn’t have a knockout, indelible painting, “Birthday,” to rival Oppenheim’s furry tea cup. Something else is going on.

Its not that her life and work are boring. I’ve said it before, her life would make a great movie of an artist’s transcontinental lifestyle before and after WW II. Socializing with the artists and great minds of the day (not that some couldn’t be both).

Its not that she only paints. She is a sculptor and writer too (even to this day). She has had poetry published in The Yale Review, The New Yorker, Paris Review and other national magazines. She has written her own autobiographies and fiction.

Some don’t realize that Surrealism was originated by French writers, not artists: Breton, Eluard, Aragon…. Ernst mildly characterized them in the 1922 painting, “Rendez-vous of Friends.” There are 15 major portraits, including Ernst. Two are women. This was before Tanning’s time (she would have been 12 years old). Yet she developed into a writer and poet with a Surrealist bend.

So why isn’t she better known and her art more familiar to us? Here I’ll get personal. My first visit to Galesburg was as a Studios Midwest artist in 1986. In Knox College Library I came across a very small booklet of Dorothea Tanning’s early paintings. I remember the flower/girls images of her early career but little else. When I returned to graduate school and took a Women in Art History Survey course, she was on a list of 60 or so women we could choose to research. The Canadian Emily Carr was my choice. Tanning would probably not appreciate being on a mimeographed sheet with only other female artists. She wants first and foremost to be recognized as an artist, no gender attached. She wanted no part of the Women’s Movement. Did she miss an opportunity? Was she behind the times or ahead of them?

Art critic, Barry Schwabsky, sees it this way: “To a great extent Tanning had been sidetracked by her attachment to the generation that had established itself before the war” (add “in Europe”). Around 1945 all eyes were on the new American style, Abstract Expressionism. Surrealism, with its roots in pre-World War II Europe, was becoming past art history.

The fact that Tanning lived some 28 years in Europe with Ernst (most of her early adulthood) probably took her off the American radar for awhile. But not the European. She may be better known in Europe than in America. The same may be true of Ernst. He has a museum, The Max Ernst Museum, in Brul. She has exhibited and has work in the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris.

Now, to pull it all together. Why isn’t Tanning better known in America? I think the blanket answer is because of the art world and art history from 1940 and even up to the 1980’s. And let’s remember, its people who manipulate art – critics, dealers, museum curators, art history text designers, publishers – and money too. They dictate what we see in exhibits, read in texts, learn in classes, find at auction. It’s prepackaged “art.” Someone’s “in,” someone’s “out,” like film (used to be) spliced; images kept, images discarded on the cutting room floor.

Yet in 1943, Dorothea Tanning was not a complete “out.” Peggy Guggenheim invited her to be in the exhibit “Exhibition by 31 Women.” Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson and Oppenheim were among the celebrated women artists. (Yes, woman were exhibiting in 1943.) After the exhibit she was represented by the prestigious Julien Levy Gallery in New York City. Then she married Ernst in 1946 and left New York with him. Why leave New  York City? Especially if you’re an ambitious artist and want your name and your art to be seen.

I have a personal theory. It involves the drama of human emotions, quest for power and the art world (people) at the time. It goes like this: Established Surrealist Max Ernst marries young, upstart artist, Dorothea Tanning, from Galesburg, Illinois. He has divorced the wealthiest art patron in New York City, Peggy Guggenheim (think ... The Guggenheim Museum ... that’s her uncle’s museum). Now, there had to be hard feelings on Guggenheim’s part. Could she have made it socially unbearable for the art couple? After all, she practically owned the Modern Art World at the time. Could she have wished to stymie both art careers? (Didn’t I say Tanning’s life would make a great movie?)

It’s interesting to me that Guggenheim was such an avid advocate for a uniquely American art form. Along comes a young (two years younger than Tanning), virile, Jackson Pollock (Wyoming born), and she promotes him as a rising star. Abstract Expression is conceived. Voice of Modernism, art critic Clement Greenberg, also touts Pollock in 1945 as “the strongest painter of his generation.” Of Abstract Expressionism he says, “Fresh content not seen in France or Great Britain.” What Greenberg says, the Art History texts honor. (He lived till 1994.) By the way, Greenberg’s favorite Surrealist is ... Miro. ( I found no mention of Max Ernst.) Needless to say, Greenberg and Guggenheim are art colleagues (conspirators?) in promoting the new American art form. The Money and The Voice behind the rapid ascent of the Abstract Expressionist artists. Supplanting Surrealism with a more “modern” style? Isn’t this perhaps, the New York City art scene Tanning wanted to escape from?

So, maybe the combination of the art world, life choices, time, place and her artistic style, all have a hand in why Dorothea Tanning is not a household name ... yet... not even in Galesburg, her birthplace. Neither is Max Ernst. But art history is always being revised. In 2005, art critic Charles Stuckey described Tanning’s work as ‘’the most ambitious paintings to address imagination and culture in a new atomic space age.” She is discussed in Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists in the Surrealist Movement. In 2009 the Kent Gallery in New York City held the exhibition “Dorothea Tanning and Friends.” And now there’s the internet to introduce old and new artists without publication delays. So where is Dorothea Tanning today on her 100th birthday? She is on Facebook.




Find Tanning


Go to one of Tanning’s favorite places in Galesburg (of course it’s not the one she knew), the Public Library; there you’ll find books by and about her:

Chasm a work of fiction by Tanning

Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, an autobiography

Hail Delirium, a catalogue of her art prints and books

A Table of Contents, (2004) a book of her poetry

Birthday, an autobiography

Dorothea Tanning, by Jean Christophe Bailly, with illustrations of Tanning’s art (in the Special Collections Room)

In the magazine aisle, find the March 8, 2010 The Nation and look for the article “Her Wild Entire: Dorothea Tanning” by Barry Schwabsky.

Go to the Galesburg Civic Art Center when the permanent collection is on display; “Children Going to School”, a large drawing by Tanning is in it.

See her artwork in museums across the United States (and Europe). Here are a few:

Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art (the most extensive)

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Museum of Modern Art, NY

The Hood Museum, Dartmouth College

Mildred Kemp Museum, St. Louis

The Menil Collection

... Better than to try to list them all, ask if the museum has a Dorothea Tanning piece in their collection.

Google “Dorothea Tanning Galesburg” and you will find Lynn McKeown’s column in the Zephyr based on her autobiographies. Google “Dorothea Tanning” and many entries will appear including Artsite Auction Prices. Google “ oldest surrealist” and a wonderful interview will appear.