Glowing Like Phosphorus

Dorothea Tanning and the Sedona Western

  • Catriona McAra Leeds Arts University


In the mid-1940s, Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst left the urbane, avant-garde circles of Manhattan to build a house and studio in the then remote Southwestern outpost of Sedona, Arizona. Many have written of Ernst’s fascination with indigenous artefacts but there was another pop cultural format that emerged concurrently with their time in Sedona: the genre of the Hollywood Western. Indeed, films like John Wayne’s Angel and the Badman (1947) and Johnny Guitar (1954) starring Joan Crawford were filmed in the immediate vicinity, amidst the iconic red rock landscape. 

Tanning’s topographical mapping of the desert, as found in paintings such as Self-Portrait (1944), Evening in Sedona (1976), and novella Chasm: A Weekend (2004), feature some of those same scenic locations used as the backdrops in the Sedona Western. Comparisons between the self-presentation of Tanning and the actor Gail Russell are striking especially when one considers Tanning’s own performance in Hans Richter’s film 8 x 8 (1957). Moreover, the feminine, “phosphorus” glow, which Tanning recurrently uses in her painting and writing to describe the appearance of her female characters, matches the typical costuming of the lead women in Westerns, for example Russell’s Penny and Crawford’s Vienna.

This article explores the complex role the Sedona Western played in the surrealist art and literature made during Ernst and Tanning’s Sedona period and beyond, particularly in terms of gender politics. In order to rethink this moment of “Western surrealism,” I offer a Tanning-centric perspective through methodological use of Mieke Bal’s feminist “autotopography.”

Author Biography

Catriona McAra, Leeds Arts University

Dr. Catriona McAra is University Curator at Leeds Arts University. She was awarded her doctorate in History of Art at the University of Glasgow, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh. She has published extensively on the art and literature of Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington with a particular interest in feminist aesthetics and surrealist legacies in contemporary practice. She is author of A Surrealist Stratigraphy of Dorothea Tanning’s Chasm (Routledge, 2017), and co-editor with Jonathan P. Eburne of Leonora Carrington and the International Avant-Garde (Manchester University Press, 2017). She is currently working on her second monograph, a study of Carrington’s significance in contemporary art, literature, and performance, including the novels and curatorial work of Chloe Aridjis and Heidi Sopinka, among others. Recent articles include ‘Leonora Carrington: “Wild Card”’ for The Space Between (2018) exploring Carrington’s position in the practice of Glasgow-based conceptual artist Lucy Skaer.