In 1944 Max Ernst, the renowned German painter then living in exile in New York City, introduced a young artist’s first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery with these words: “I like the work of Dorothea Tanning because the domain of the marvelous is her native country; because in her audacious enterprise to paint an intimate and dramatized biography of the universe, the tumults of the child’s soul, the mysteries of love and the whole monstrosity which envelopes the ages of reason, she finds her new, spontaneous and persuasive means of figuration.” The gallery was the stronghold of Surrealism in the New World, and Ernst, of course, was one of the movement’s princelings. So it’s surprising–and more prophetic than Ernst might have imagined–that he went on to assert that “she refuses to take the vow of obedience to the exigencies of an orthodox surrealism.”
How did an aspiring 34-year-old artist from Galesburg, Illinois–Carl Sandburg country–come to find herself in such company? A few years earlier, having already decided that Chicago would not be the theater of her aspirations–“the whole scene struck me as a kind of tableau vivant that was to be gazed at, taken in quickly before the curtain fell”–she’d bought a one-way bus ticket to New York. There, as it appears from her autobiography, Between Lives, published in 2001, chance encounters could become fateful. “A gaunt, intense young man with an enormous Nietzschean mustache” holding forth in front of Guernica–presumably at the Museum of Modern Art, where it was shown in 1939, though Tanning recalls it perhaps being at the Paul Rosenberg Gallery–was none other than Arshile Gorky. He too would later become one of Julien Levy’s artists. “Meeting rarely,” Tanning recalls, “we were never more than polite acquaintances.” But the vividness of her recollection suggests the deep impression he must have made; his art, too, if I’m not mistaken, would have an effect on hers, but only decades later.
Perhaps the most fateful of Tanning’s encounters of the mid ’30s was not with a person but with an exhibition. It was the “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” show of 1936 at what was then still known as the Modern (not yet rebranded MoMA), one of Alfred Barr’s pioneering surveys. For Tanning, it was “the real explosion, rocking me on my run-over heels,” showing her “the infinitely faceted world I must have been waiting for.” The force of that explosion set her to picturing her own infinitely faceted world of desire, but who knows if or when or where her depiction of that world would have been seen had it not been for one more stroke of luck. She’d been supporting herself doing fashion illustrations for Macy’s. Her boss must have had a keen eye for art; in any case, he was well connected, for it was he who suggested to Levy that he check out Tanning’s paintings.
She had only two to show–and one of them is still probably her most famous. You can see it today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Birthday (1942) is a self-portrait. It depicts a beautiful young woman of deeply serious mien, wearing a strange, breast-bearing outfit that seems to be made partly of roots, standing in an empty apartment. The apartment is quite ordinary except that it seems to go on forever. Ah, those prewar buildings! She holds a door open, not with any apparent intention to pass through it, since she is facing away from it, but in order to show the viewer what is on the other side: more doors, doors upon doors, to infinity. At her foot stands a hippogriff, a charmingly ugly little beast resembling the one in Ingres’s Roger Delivering Angelica (1819), which would also later find its way into John Ashbery’s great poem “Soonest Mended”: “And Angelica, in the Ingres painting, was considering/The colorful but small monster near her toe, as though wondering/whether forgetting/The whole thing might not, in the end, be the only solution.” But unlike Ingres’s heroine, pathetically but fetchingly chained to her rock until the arrival of her knight with his lance, the subject of Birthday is not “always having to be rescued/On the brink of destruction.” There may be an indefinable air of melancholy about her solemn face, but she holds open the door to the realm of dreams. If Mr. Viewer thinks those bare breasts signify availability, he’d better think again. Tanning’s heroine is a figure of power.