Her Wild Entire: On Dorothea Tanning
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.
No wonder Levy was impressed. Surrealist painting such as Tanning had encountered six years earlier at the Modern assumed diverse forms, but she had taken one of them--a kind of drily scrupulous realism used to describe fantastic, even self-contradictory realities so as to give them an air of unimpeachable verisimilitude--and brought it to a rare pitch of intensity while giving it a content it had never had before: a female consciousness of full autonomy. The studio visit had a fairy-tale ending. "From now on you're in my gallery," Levy told her. "When you have enough we will show them."
In her painting, Tanning opens the door, but it was Levy who opened the door to a glittering world of displaced European artists and writers--Ernst, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp--and their American friends and supporters, such as Peggy Guggenheim (then briefly married to Ernst), Robert Motherwell and Joseph Cornell. In 1946, in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet Browner, Ernst and Tanning married. By this time the charmed circle of Surrealism in exile was dispersing; many returned to Paris, but Tanning and Ernst lit out for Sedona, Arizona, and then, a few years later, for France. They touched down in Paris, shuttled between there and Arizona and ended up settling in Huismes, a village in the Loire Valley. Soon after her husband's death in 1976, Tanning returned to New York, where she still lives.
Tanning will turn 100 later this year. The impending centenary gives one pause; it's hard not to wonder why this remarkable artist is not better known. Will she get the celebration she deserves?
I certainly hope so, but I can't help suspecting that the very thing that gave Tanning her happy life--being taken up by a circle of artists who were already established, who were a generation older than she--has been an impediment to seeing her accomplishment clearly. She had become, as she herself knew, "an artist living in the shadow of a great man." Of course, this is also part of what makes her life historically interesting today, what gives her story an even greater reach than her astonishing 100 years: she is a living connection to a group of artists who were born in the nineteenth century. But to some extent the connection cut her off from the artists of her own generation. Turning again to Between Lives, a glance through its index reveals no mention of names like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner or Mark Rothko; yet hers was precisely the generation of the Abstract Expressionists. Nor do the French artists of her generation, whom she could have met after the move from Sedona, play any part in her memories--no Jean Dubuffet or Nicolas de Staël. To a great extent, Tanning had been sidetracked by her attachment to the generation that had established itself before the war.