Dorothea Tanning: A perverse old girl
Picture this, it’s 1925 in the small town of Galesburg, Illinois, USA. A 15 year-old girl born to middle class parents, has produced a painting. Surrealism is not yet “a thing”. The painting is of a naked woman, with leaves for hair. It sounds amazing. Her family were horrified.
Meet Dorothea Tanning, part surrealist, part sculptor, part illustrator, part writer. Unafraid of doing what she wanted, she dropped out of art school and moved to Chicago to live what sounds to be a ridiculously whirlwind life. Working as an illustrator, an artist’s model, and dating a gangster, you know… the average goings on of a 20 year-old. After that came New York, which is where in 1936 a surrealist exhibition at the MoMa gave Dorothea the encouragement to keep creating the fantastic (read: kinda weird and wonderful) things she’d had in her mind for years.
It was in 1942, in New York that her work began to get noticed and find its place in exhibitions. Max Ernst, a fellow artist who was also ‘kind of a big deal’, visited her studio and convinced his wife, Peggy Guggenheim, to include Dorothea’s piece “Birthday” (featuring an open shirted, breasts out Tanning, wearing a cool fronds and roots covered skirt, hanging out with a winged little beast in front of a never ending passage of open doors) in her upcoming exhibition. This would end up being a bit of an unfortunate decision for Peggy because shortly after, Max Ernst moved into the studio with Dorothea and in a matter of weeks ended up marrying her in a double ceremony, alongside their pals Man Ray (prolific artist) and Juliet Browner (dancer/artists model).
It was easy for some to dismiss Dorothea as “Ernst’s wife” and pigeonhole her as just a “surrealist” when clearly she was, and her work would become, so much more than that. They were both titles Dorothea spoke disfavourably about and neither her nor Max defined her that way - modern feminist me is nodding approvingly.
Dorothea and Max set up home at an exciting, inspiring artist colony in the Arizona desert where they lived for several years, before eventually moving to Paris in 1953. Their 28 years in France sounds like an art students dream; tales of complicated relationships, friendships with the likes of Duchamp and Matisse, shopping designer’s samples, all whilst still creating the talked about artworks of their time. In contrast, I’m currently writing this from under a duvet, cheesy snacks to my left and kids watching TV in the next room, I can barely even begin to imagine the incredible lifestyle they were leading. I wonder if she knew at the time that she’d still be talked and written about with her work still enjoyed in 60 years time, or if she was just enjoying the moment.
During this time, Dorothea’s paintings still had her signature dreamlike qualities (or nightmares depending on your point of view) but they becoming more abstract with swooshes of colour and tangled limbs. Still very cool, if slightly creepy but definitely shiver-up-your-spine beautiful. Have a look at “Insomnias” from 1957.
Her work continued to evolve and in the 1970’s she began to explore sculpture. Using fabric, and referencing the female body - soft, rounded limbs making strange shapes. Dorothea actually created one of the first examples of large scale installation art, with her piece (pictured above) entitled “Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202” (which translates to Poppy Hotel, Room 202), which should now surely be called “American Horror Story; Hotel, the original inspiration”. Naked, cloth bodies burst out from wallpaper panels, into a room where the furniture also has curious extra limbs. Even though I marvel at her mind and skill, I wouldn’t want Dorothea Tanning as an Airbnb host, that’s for sure.
After Max passed away in 1976, Dorothea moved back to New York where she continued to paint well into her 80s. It was during the creation of these very last paintings that she broke her wrist and sadly that saw the end of Dorothea’s art.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Dorothea might accept retirement at this point, but full of inspiration she moved onto writing poetry. Her first novel “Chasm: A Weekend” was published when she was 94 years old. Ninety four! What an absolute force..
“Chasm” is of course, just as peculiar as her artworks are, a kind of surrealist short novel, because if you’re releasing a book in your nineties it is absolutely got to be the essence of you and your “perverse” imagination.
Dorothea is an absolute inspiration I love that interviews with her aged 93, tell of her opening champagne for the interviewer in her New York home filled with art of her and her contemporaries - what a life to live. She died aged 101 and when questioned on her life, is quoted as saying “I’d be satisfied with having suggested that there is more than meets the eye”. I reckon it’s pretty safe to say that she managed it.
Written by the brilliant illustrator, Hannah Raymond of Ink and Tot.