Dorothea Tanning  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Dorothea Tanning (August 25, 1910 – January 31, 2012) was an American painter, printmaker, sculptor and writer. She also designed sets and costumes for ballet and theatre.



Dorothea Tanning was born and raised in Galesburg, Illinois. She attended Knox College there from 1928-30 before living for several years in Chicago. In 1935, Tanning moved to New York, where she discovered Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, in 1936. By the early 1940s, Tanning was working on her own surreal paintings while supporting herself as a commercial artist. Impressed by her creativity and talent in illustrating fashion advertisements, the art director at Macy’s department store introduced her in 1941 to the gallery owner Julien Levy, who immediately offered to show her work. Levy later gave Tanning two one-person exhibitions (in 1944 and 1948), and also introduced Tanning to the circle of émigré Surrealists whose work he was showing in his New York gallery, including the German painter Max Ernst. As she recounts in her memoirs, Birthday and Between Lives, when Ernst visited her studio in 1942, they played chess, fell in love, and embarked on a life together that soon took them to Sedona, Arizona, and later to France. She married Ernst in 1946, in a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner.

The surreal imagery of Tanning’s paintings from the 1940s and early 50s – in such paintings as Birthday (1942, Philadelphia Museum of Art) and, Eine kleine Nachtmusik(1943, Tate Modern, London) -- and her close friendships with artists and writers of the Surrealist Movement have led many to regard Tanning as a Surrealist painter. Yet she developed her own individual style over the course of a career that spanned six decades. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, she continued to paint precise figurative renderings of dream-like situations, working in New York City, Sedona, and Paris. She also formed enduring friendships with, among others, Marcel Duchamp, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller, Yves Tanguy, Kay Sage, and George Balanchine, for whom she designed sets and costumes for several ballets, including The Night Shadow (1945).

In 1949, Tanning and Ernst moved to France, where they divided their time between Paris, Touraine and later Provence. By the mid-50s, her work had radically changed. As Tanning explains, "Around 1955 my canvases literally splintered . . . I broke the mirror, you might say.” In this period, Tanning’s images became increasingly fragmented and prismatic, exemplified in works such as Insomnias (1957, Moderna Museet, Stockholm). By the late 1960s, Tanning’s paintings were almost completely abstract, yet there are always suggestions of the female form. During these years, Tanning was also an active printmaker, working in ateliers of Georges Visat and Pierre Chave and collaborating on a number of artists’ books with such poets as such as André Pieyre de Mandiargues and Lena Leclerq. From 1969-73, Tanning concentrated on a body of three-dimensional work, soft, fabric sculptures, five of which comprise the installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–73) that is now in the permanent collection of the Musée National d'Art Moderne at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

After Max Ernst’s death in 1976, Dorothea Tanning returned to the United States. By 1980 she had relocated her home and studio to New York and embarked on an energetic creative period in which she produced paintings, drawings, and collages. Her work has been recognized in numerous one-person exhibitions, both in the United States and in Europe, including retrospectives in 1974 at the Centre National d’Art Contemporain in Paris (which became the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1977), and in 1993 at the Malmö Konsthall in Sweden and the at the Camden Art Center in London. In 2000, the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted a small retrospective exhibition entitled Birthday and Beyond to mark its acquisition of Tanning’s celebrated 1942 self-portrait, Birthday.

In recent years, Tanning focused on her work as a writer and poet. In 1986, she published her memoir, also called Birthday, which has since been translated into four other languages, and in 2001, she wrote an expanded version of the memoir called Between Lives: An Artist and Her World. A collection of her poems, A Table of Content, and a short novel, Chasm: A Weekend, were both published in 2004. Tanning continued to write poetry until her death, and her poems appeared regularly in such literary reviews and magazines as The Yale Review, Poetry, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker. Her second collection of poems, Coming to That, was published by Graywolf Press in 2011.

100th birthday

Her 100th birthday, on 25 August 2010, was marked by a number of exhibitions during the year:

  • Dorothea Tanning - Early Designs for the Stage - April 23 – July 23, 2010 - The Drawing Center, New York, USA
  • Zwischen dem Inneren Auge und der Anderen Seite der Tür: Dorothea Tanning Graphiken - August 25, 2010 - January 30, 2011 - Max Ernst Museum, Brühl, Germany
  • Happy Birthday Dorothea Tanning - 5 July - 30 October 2010 - Maison Waldberg, Seillans, France
  • Dorothea Tanning: 100 years – A Tribute - August 28 – September 22, 2010 - Galerie Bel’Art, Stockholm
  • "Surréalisme, Dada et Fluxus" - Pour le 100ème anniversaire de Dorothea Tanning - 3–12 September 2010 - Espace d'Art, Rennes les Bains, France



Birthday. Santa Monica: The Lapis Press, 1986. (memoir)
Between Lives: An Artist and Her World. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. (memoir)
Chasm: A Weekend. New York: Overlook Press, and London: Virago Press, 2004. (novel)
A Table of Content: Poems. New York: Graywolf Press, 2004. (collection of poems)
Coming to That: Poems, New York: Graywolf Press, 2011. (collection of poems)

See also

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