Dorothea Tanning, 1910-2012

Born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1910, Dorothea Tanning was seduced by the psychologically charged escapism of fantasy fiction and gothic terror novels early in her childhood. She was already a convert to Surrealism by the time she saw the "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism" exhibition in 1936, the effect of which she described in her memoir Between Lives as the recognition of an “infinitely faceted world I must have been waiting for…the limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY” [Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives, Norton & Co, New York, 2001, p. 49]. She met Max Ernst in 1942 and they remained together, living in America and then France until his death in 1976. The paintings throughout the 1940s and early 1950s for which she is perhaps best known utilise the conventions of Surrealism in which supernatural and highly fantastical images are rendered with precise naturalism. From childhood imagery symbolising the bourgeois constraints of Galesburg, (where she famously said that “nothing ever happens but the wallpaper”), came the repeated motifs of wallpaper, doors and baroque-style folds of draped fabric all designed to conceal or reveal otherworldly forces that lurk underneath the surfaces of the everyday. Tanning’s ability to visually describe this “limitless expanse of possibility” is evident in paintings such as the much celebrated, self-portrait Birthday (1942), in which the artist is confronted with an array of doorways leading to the unknown. Having made the choice to cross the threshold (and the promise of many more), she portrayed her own enigmatic expression as a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. By the mid-1950s her paintings became more abstracted to reflect the same “infinitely faceted world” in a constant state of flux. Her figures became fragmented, obscured, folded into and emerging out of layers of texture and colour.

Ever scathing of artists that remain working in the same style, Tanning began her lifelong practice of experimentation with styles, techniques and media, producing: paintings; lithographs; theatre and set deigns; drawings; collages; soft sculptures; a room-sized installation; two lyrical and evocative memoirs; a novel; and, two volumes of poetry, the last of which appeared in 2011, over her 70-odd year career. Yet Tanning saw her entire oeuvre as “steps marked on the same path…The same preoccupations are manifest since the beginning. Obsessions come to the surface as marks that can’t be erased” [English translation from the transcript of an interview between Dorothea Tanning and Alain Jouffroy, Paris, 1974. Transcript, revised by Tanning in 1988, appears in Dorothea Tanning edited by Sune Nordgren and produced by the Malmo Konsthall (Art Gallery) in 1993. The revised interview with Jouffroy appears on pp. 48-67 in English and Swedish.] From the endless doorways in Birthday to the gothic menace of her novel Chasm (2004), an overriding interest in psycho-emotional and physical experience of childhood and feminine subjectivity were interwoven with Tanning’s obsession with the slippages and pathways in-between possible realities. Her work is saturated with a surrealist sensibility which seeks to reconcile inner and outer realities and frees the self to be fully imaginative.

I first met Dorothea in 2000. She was almost 90 and I was very much younger. Her vitality, wit, intelligence; her truthfulness and candour about the problems of being a woman artist married to Ernst within an era of dazzling male personalities; and, her unflinching conviction that we must all think for ourselves, taught me a lot about what it means to be alive, as a woman. These combined with an almost childlike sense of joy, an astonishingly creative imagination and prodigious talent, have provided a much deeper insight into the huge wealth of imagery she has left us with. The last time I saw Dorothea she was 99 and still capable of living life to its absolute fullest. She died in her sleep on January 31, 2012 aged 101.

-Victoria Carruthers