essay: Dorothea Tanning

by Clare Durepos, Illinois State University
submitted May 2009 

Dorothea Tanning in 1928

Dorothea Tanning was once quoted: “A biography, for me, if it isn’t a flagrant lie is, at best, a distorting mirror.” The artist had taken an active role in constructing her autobiography, so as not to be misunderstood by art historians and journalists. She is highly critical of what she perceives to be a feeding-frenzy of historians. So many, she says, seem only interested in picking through past—the “powder of vanished identities” for steamy secrets to “polish off and serve up as biography.” Tanning vowed she would never sacrifice her integrity as an artist by becoming a name-dropper – forcing her to become “private to the point of irritation,” which she realized later would be unfair to her readers.

In researching the life of Tanning for the Illinois Women Artists Project I have tried to remain attentive to her self-presentation in the public sphere, and consider how that might affect the canonical context of her work. Tanning’s selective showcasing and editing of her personal history, after countless contemporaries and historians have contributed to her amassed mythology, points to a greater issue for biographical and feminist art historians: the power that artists have to shape history through controlling their own identity in the public realm.

The Dorothea Tanning Foundation, Inc., in New York, announced the opening of a study center, which contains exhibition catalogues, critical reviews, photographs, memorabilia, and Tanning’s own published writings in September 1996. The Foundation press release refers to the “painter/sculptor” as a “participant and observer of the Surrealist movement on two continents” over several decades. Its objective is to inform scholars who are interested in identifying Surrealism’s influence on American art. Her biography is summarized in the press release this way: Dorothea Tanning was born in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1910 and moved to New York in 1935. While supporting herself as a commercial artist, she developed a diverse group of creative friends, including John Cage, Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, Matta, Max Ernst – whom she married in 1946 – and a number of European, mainly Surrealist, refugees from World War II. During the next six years, she divided her time between New York, Arizona, and France while exhibiting with the Julien Levy Gallery and Alexandre Iolas Gallery in New York and forming enduring friendships with, among others, Marcel Duchamp, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller, Yves Tanguy, Kay Sage, and George Balanchine, with whom she collaborated on three ballets. In 1953 she moved to France, where in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s an intense period of work in painting, sculpture, and printmaking resulted in numerous one-person exhibitions, both in the United States and in Europe. This distilled account of the linear facts of her life is given in a few concise and thorough sentences. It is flavored with famous friends, alluring geographies, and a record of successful longevity. Its format is representative of the numerous biographical texts written about Tanning.

In a 1976 volume of essays published by Filipacchi, author Gilles Plazy addresses this basic chronology of Tanning’s life, in a text illustrated with a range of artworks in various mediums as well as personal photographs. His approach is poetic, lush with metaphors and psychoanalytical readings of her artwork. In one essay, titled “Some Roses and Their Phantoms,” he defines Tanning’s significance by her ability to connect to the collective unconscious (comparing her with “little Alice” stepping through the looking glass); and he describes her work as a manifestation of Breton’s concept of “convulsive beauty”, matched with idiosyncratic humor and free-flowing lyricism – all key features of Surrealism. Many biographers note Tanning’s 1937 viewing of the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, to be the moment she consciously identified with the movement.

The 1942 self-portrait Birthday is the epitome of Tanning’s canonized Surrealist artwork [Figure 1]. Birthday is currently featured in the Modern and Contemporary collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; it was purchased by the museum for a 2000 show titled, Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond. Of this painting, the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator Ann Temkin said: “Birthday announces an artist who emerged in the public eye with a fully formulated vision and exquisitely flawless technique.” Temkin also commented that Tanning was able to resolve the paradoxical question of self-portraiture in the context of Surrealism, by creating a dreamlike character out of her likeness.

Self-portraiture plays an important role in the biographical approach to art history, as the artist consciously presents herself to the world. Laurie Schneider Adams discusses this notion in The Methodologies of Art, noting that when we see an artist’s physiognomy, we naturally have the impression that we know something about her. To say the very least about this self-portrait, one is able to gather that Tanning saw herself, in 1942, as a self-possessed player in Surrealism.

The costume worn in the figurative piece is complex, sustaining the viewer by situating them in a place where “beauty…is essentially convulsive, torn between mankind, animal and vegetation—between dream and reality, the moment and eternity.” Intimate, and yet as though Tanning is prepared for theatrical performance, she dons realistically-painted Shakespearean attire. She stands barefoot, clutching at petticoats made of tree roots, trailing down to scrape against a hardwood floor. Unabashedly exposed from the waist up, Tanning curiously confronts her audience, with an earnest gaze and one hand resting on a passageway of heavy ajar doors.

Birthday has historically become a symbol for the meeting of Tanning and Ernst. He was conducting a studio visit, on behalf of Peggy Guggenheim for the Exhibition by 31 Women (which opened in January 1943); and it is often mentioned that Ernst was as smitten with the painting, as he was with its subject. He is also credited with giving the work its title: “What do you call it?” he asked. “I really haven’t a title.” (I really didn’t.) “Then you can call it ‘Birthday’.” Just like that. Tanning received much critical acclaim for this work over her lifetime. It is ironic, when considering that she was met with such harsh resentment from Guggenheim, “The Mistress of Modernism” – a powerful patron who advanced many careers of modern artists (including her husband at the time, Ernst.) Recent historians still subtly evoke the cruel approach toward Tanning (referred to by the pseudonym, “Tinning”), found in Guggenheim’s memoir Out of This Century (1946): “…Annacia Tinning, a pretty girl from the Middle West. She was pretentious, boring, stupid, vulgar and dressed in the worst possible taste but was quite talented and imitated Max’s painting, which flattered him immensely. She was so much on the make and pushed so hard that it was embarrassing. She wanted to be on the jury and I had to refuse her.”

Mary V. Dearborn writes, in the 2004 biography Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim, of Tanning’s Jeu d’Enfant(1942): “Truly scary” through its depiction of “a child tearing and burning wallpaper behind which lurked horrifying creatures” – also noting how heavily this work was perceived to be influenced by Ernst. The suggestion is that Tanning and Ernst were cohorts in a dangerously immoral, perverse, dark Surrealist world – at least after their affair began. We must consider the responsibility of the biographer: to choose whether they objectively write of their subject’s perspective, or condone it, as Dearborn seems to do.

Dorothea Tanning is continually asked in interviews to reflect on the passages of her memoirs that refer to meeting Ernst – and to react to the resistance of the 1940s art world and being a “woman artist.” In a 2002 article, “Oldest Living Surrealist tells all” on, she answers questions about the challenge of curious reactions from people who felt there was “something unnatural about a really nice-looking girl doing something dead serious.” In her autobiography, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, she makes sarcastic references to herself as a flower within “a bouquet of pretty young painters.” Publicly, it may have seemed as though Ernst overshadowed her (as it is sardonically depicted in a photomontage by the couple’s friend, photographer Lee Miller). [Figure ]

However, John Gruen of ArtNews believes that Tanning’s achievements did not take place in the shadow, rather in the light of Ernst. I support this belief, based on the fact that Ernst encouraged her to abandon commercial art, which she loathed; he also offered her financial support, the opportunity to travel, and the space and time to focus more fully on her studio practice.

It seems that Breton, like Guggenheim, was responsible for creating many of the tensions that caused Tanning difficulty in finding her place within a European artistic community. His reasons were likely more to do with a rocky relationship with Ernst, rather than the quality of Tanning’s paintings. She recalls that Breton never wrote about her work in his publications, though it did not concern her, because she detected “extenuating circumstances”: “Though [Breton] had reproduced Birthday in VVV, his New York magazine venture (three issues), well, I was Max’s woman and Max was his friend and collaborator. His own wife, also a painter, was not comfortable when this happened. ‘Alors—tu aime les pieds nus maintenant?’ (Her words, reported to me by Max, translate to ‘So—you like bare feet now?’) All so unsurreal, I thought, and somehow dispiriting.” Besides speaking French poorly, her middle class background separated her from many of her European aristocratic peers. The interviewer asked of her strategies in creating a self-image, in a world where “chic” bourgeoisie airs were assumed to define a female city dweller. To this, Tanning responds that she wore $5 discount dresses and thrift store finds; occasionally, she would take to wearing vintage costume, “but they had to be really old, from another time, way back.” She used her headstrong creativity to carve out an unforgettable persona, regardless of financial limitations. Her projected self-image was praised by some, and rejected by others – but is important, because it is intrinsically connected to her art imagery: “We’d show up in these rags as if it were perfectly natural. You had to be deadly deadpan about it. One of these appears in my painting Birthday.”

Tanning, at the age of 99, is still active as an artist and as a poet, so it is apparent that criticism did not hinder her. Undoubtedly, Peggy Guggenheim pinpointed the insecurity that was most debilitating to Tanning: hailing from “the Middle West.” In the opening passages of her updated autobiography, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, she investigates this sense of inferiority she connects with her upbringing in Galesburg, Illinois. Here, instead of the linear style of press releases and abbreviated biographies, she gently limns her life story in a stream of consciousness manner. It is unclear whether the first chapter of the book refers to a single instance, a contained event – my sense is that it refers to a series of flowing conversations between Tanning and Ernst that occurred over the course of time. She begins by wondering if “everyone’s drowsy souvenirs [are] as vagrant, even frivolous and kaleidoscopic?” The two lovers exchanges stories of their youth, that rise and break like waves; and Tanning expresses to her reader feelings of inadequacy about her formative years: “It is all like water slapping the sides of your boat and you both awash in memories, his own early ones a tapestry of Catholic childhood in Cologne. And mine?…How could Galesburg, Illinois, in the 1910s to ‘20s, a place where you sat on the davenport and waited to grow up, compare with Cologne…? My early memories surfaced, wavered through time, riled the stream – bloated forgotten fantasies rising in murky fluids. But almost always the wrong ones. I fished for vital statistics; even decisive events eluded me like soap in the bathwater.” Tanning’s selection process is intriguing: why she depicts certain memories in great detail, and some are excluded altogether. Moments one might deem very significant, like her move to New York with only $25 in her pocket, are given only a few words on a page. Of the years which Tanning has very little to write about in Between Lives – her early years in Galesburg are a large part of that neglected history. But, again, from a biographical art historian’s view – should one prod at those hidden or forgotten moments, or simply examine those that have risen to the surface? When writing about her memoir-editing process, she says: “Some years leave no stamp at all on the mind… Put a few dots after a word and you have a year’s worth of unanswered questions, to say nothing of audacities, plights, and errors in abundance.” The stamp Galesburg seemed to impress Tanning with was its collection of literary classics at the public library that the artist consumed in great quantities, including French 19th century poetry, and writings by Whitman, Hawthorne, Poe, Coleridge, De Quincy, and Walpole [Figure 3]. Biographical gaps in Between Lives are filled in by an afterword Tanning wrote for a comprehensive illustrated text of her oeuvre by Jean Christophe Bailly and Robert C. Morgan: She came from an encouraging family; they supported her greatly, believing Tanning to have a talent in the performance arts, a talent deemed acceptable for a young woman. She was considered a child prodigy. Many grades were “skipped,” and Tanning graduated high school before her 16th birthday. She writes that she was certain a career as a visual artist awaited her, but she felt “bound to chafe at the bonds of a loving but austere family life.” Interestingly, Tanning’s father was a close friend of Carl Sandburg; the self-taught poet insisted Dorothea must not be sent to art school, for fear she would lose her originality. So instead, she spent “two years as a mediocre student” at Knox College, where she “drew illustrations for the yearbook and the student paper, The Siwasher…mostly funny pictures, comments on the events and preoccupations of the academic life,” [Figure 4, 5 & 6.] Her general attitude toward the liberal arts college, that offered no applied arts courses at the time, was “mild disappointment”; it propelled her to move forward to Chicago soon after – where she did another brief stint at the Chicago Academy of Art.

After the Surrealist movement came to an end, Tanning’s work progressed in unforeseen ways. In 1969, in her studio in the south of France, she began creating large-scale soft sculptures that echoed the abstract two-dimensional forms of her paintings [ex. Pincushion to Serve as Fetish, Figures 7 & 8.] Despite working with textiles – “a chaos of great lengths of tweed, fake furs, strange fabrics found in flea markets, velvets, coatings” and incorporating upholstered furniture – her forms maintained the traditional language of sculpture. She challenged herself to only use the sewing machine, believing that handsewing would make the new endeavor far too easy. A biographical reading of the work also suggests a form of reprisal against the materialistic demands set upon her in New York—the spiteful remarks about her style of dress and economic means: “Tanning was exploring the manipulation of fabrics in France as an ironic comment on la haute couture.” Through this five year span, her sculptures embodied “subtle and implicit means of transgression” in order to “deconstruct French attitudes towards women’s wear” – “a distinctly tactile idea that could only exist on its own terms.” In a way, the sculpture oeuvre of the 1960s and 1970s speaks volumes, messages to a culture that doubted or tried to dampen her success in previous decades.

By allowing her muse to steer her in new directions, she continually evolved. Robert C. Morgan includes a Chinese proverb when he writes about Tanning: “An artist should paint until he feels the onset of fatigue, then change to writing in order to rejuvenate his powers of representation.” Tanning’s contemporary work – mainly poetry and a novel – reflects this proverb. Her first book of poetry, A Table of Content, was published in 2004. It reflects her literary influences from an adolescence spent in the Galesburg Public Library, and a young adulthood mingling with Surrealists. It received many positive reviews, including Publisher Weekly’s praise of its mixed styles (“confessionalism, Whitmanic declaration, a self-containment worthy of Merrill…a straightforward, unmannered approach to the deconstruction of icons, references and symbols”); Library Journal’s labeling it “like collage…delicately personal, but somehow perfectly right”; and the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s declaration that “Tanning could pilot her way from here to infinity and not miss a single turn.” Prior to this, she published a compilation of poems paired with paintings in 1998, titled Another Language of FlowersChasm (2004), her first novel, published at the age of 94, is a gothic novel set in the desert (loosely based on her home in Sedona, AZ) and filled with the sublime and fantastic imagery that has consistently appeared throughout her career.

To précis Dorothea Tanning’s significance – her words: “An artist is the sum of his risks;” she has taken many risks in order to define herself as an artist during her lifetime. We often long, as historians, to contain things neatly; and yet, Tanning is proof of the living artist’s desire to elude limitations and labels. She cannot be contained by a specific culture or geography or era in the history of art. She says, “I suppose I’ll die knowing I don’t belong anywhere, anywhere special; and that I do belong, everywhere.” In response to the role art media has designated her – “the oldest living Surrealist painter” – she says, “It’s been half a century since I played at Surrealism”…then moved on to something “less obvious” and “more contemplative”; she now prefers the title, “‘Oldest living emerging poet’ – she will say, with the lift of a champagne glass, watching Jeopardy, and flashing a ravishing smile.”


Adams, Laurie Schneider. The Methodologies of Art: An Introduction. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.

Bailly, Jean Christophe, and Robert C. Morgan. Dorothea Tanning. New York: George Braziller, 1995.

Dearborn, Mary V. Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

The Dorothea Tanning Foundation, Inc., Press Release Announcing Opening of Study Center, August 25, 1996.

Glassie, John. “Oldest Living Surrealist tells all,”, Feb. 11, 2002.

Gruen, John. “Among Sacred Monsters,” ArtNews, March 1988.

Guggenheim, Peggy. Out of This Century: The Informal Memoirs of Peggy Guggenheim. New York: The Dial Press, 1946.

Kramer, Jane. “Self Inventions: Dorothea Tanning was an art-world legend. Then she became a poet.,” The New Yorker, May 3, 2004.

Plazy, Gilles. Dorothea Tanning. Paris: Filipacchi, 1976.

Tanning, Dorothea. Between Lives: An Artist and Her World. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001.

Tanning, Dorothea. A Table of Content. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2004.

Temkin, Ann. “Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary,” Philadelphia Museum of Art.” Retrieved from (accessed April 19, 2009).

Traditional Fine Arts Online, “Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond,” Philadelphia Museum of Art. Retrieved from (accessed April 19, 2009).