Her Wild Entire: On Dorothea Tanning

Her Wild Entire: On Dorothea Tanning

The brilliant revelations and transformations of 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.

Of course, there were obvious stylistic reasons for Tanning’s marginalization. The postwar period saw the triumph of abstraction. And although neither Pollock nor de Kooning definitively eschewed figurative imagery, and still less did their French contemporaries, the kind of figuration that entered their work was primal, impulsive, ideogrammatic–worlds away from the high finish of a painting like Birthday. This was the era when Clement Greenberg was campaigning against what he called “literary” painting–by which he meant, most prominently, the kind of Surrealism that Tanning was practicing, as did Ernst, in his view–along with the “Neo-Romanticism” that followed in its train, such as in the paintings of Eugene Berman. “The Surrealist image,” he charged, “provides painting with new anecdotes to illustrate, just as current events supply new topics to the political cartoonist, but of itself it does not charge painting with a new subject matter. On the contrary, it has promoted the rehabilitation of academic art under a new literary disguise.” The Abstract Expressionists, like many other abstract artists of the postwar era, took part of their inspiration from Surrealism, to be sure, but from a different side of it altogether, that of Hans Arp, André Masson and Joan Miró, which is to say from what Breton had called “pure psychic automatism.”

Greenberg had a point, though in retrospect one can’t help but notice the narrowness of his sense of the new. Tanning did have something fresh to contribute–as had Ernst and some of the other Surrealists Greenberg censured. With his characteristic shrewdness, Greenberg hit on what makes such art powerful, at least when it is as good as Tanning’s is at her best; but he couched his observation in a tone of offhand belittlement rather than of appreciation: “The artist shows us how he would prefer life to look or how–as children do–he would prefer to be frightened.” There are many different things that art can be and do, but an art that would permanently renounce experiences and desires so primal has matured one step too far–it’s moribund. But still and all, you can see how a painter like Tanning would have seemed to many of her strongest contemporaries to be part of their art’s past more than of its future.

Eventually, she must have sensed this. Sometime after the move to France, something changed in Tanning’s work. Writing in Between Lives, more than forty years after the fact, she seems to see herself coming around to something like a Greenbergian view on what she had been doing. “I began to chafe just a little at the reliance on precisely painted elements of the natural world in order to present an incongruity. The peerless Dalí, for instance, wasn’t he a later Maxfield Parrish but with a different imagination?” Greenberg had cited Meissonier, Ford Madox Brown and Greuze as technical comparators; Tanning’s idea is the same, except that her comparison makes the point even more bluntly: what had chafed her was an illustrative art. She was ready to shed a skin. “Gradually,” she recalled, “in looking at how many ways paint can flow onto canvas, I began to long for letting it have more freedom.”

In the paintings she began making after the mid-’50s–a good example would be Insomnias (1957), now in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm–the figurative elements are still there, but as features of a different kind of space. The work is inconceivable without the precedents of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism–the late work of that gaunt, extravagantly mustached Gorky might still have been in the back of Tanning’s mind–yet it is rather different from either Cubism or Abstract Expressionism as it had ever been practiced before. The figure itself is not broken up analytically in the Cubist manner, and yet it is uneasily fitted in among the luminous facetings and nebulosities of an entirely abstract space made of sweet-and-sour colors. “I wanted to lead the eye,” the artist has written, “into spaces that hid, revealed, transformed all at once and where there would be some never-before-seen image, as if it had appeared with no help from me.” Ernst must have been amazed as he watched Tanning turn into the truly unorthodox and disobedient Surrealist he had seen in her some fifteen years before. These paintings were, once again, a little untimely. Their originality was not the one her contemporaries were looking for. But today it looks quietly prophetic. I can imagine painters like Cecily Brown or Inka Essenhigh nodding to them in mutual recognition.

Tanning’s art developed greatly over the following decades, yet a work like Insomnias, a genuine self-reinvention, represents the true beginning for all that followed. With time, the paintings become less brittle and hectic than Insomnias is and probably had to be, gaining in breadth and lyricism. Yet painting has hardly been Tanning’s sole endeavor. In the early ’70s she suddenly spent half a decade on sculpture. What I’d never have guessed is that this was inspired by a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Hymnen, his massive fantasia on worldwide national anthems, which, according to Between Lives, “incredibly but clearly showed me what I had to do. Spinning among the unearthly sounds…were the earthy, even organic shapes that I would make, had to make, out of cloth and wool.” These organic shapes made out of fabric, mutant humanoid presences sometimes half-melded with the furniture that supports them, recall the phantasmic bodies, at once fragmentary and excessive, of her paintings, and to some extent the biomorphic sculpture that her almost exact contemporary Louise Bourgeois had been making since the ’60s. But Bourgeois was then using traditional sculptural materials like plaster and marble and did not follow Tanning in the use of fabric until later.

Perhaps more surprising than that fruitful but passing sidestep into sculpture has been Tanning’s more recent flowering as a writer. I am thinking not only of the autobiography that I have been drawing on throughout this essay, a work of marvelous style, and its earlier version, Birthday (1986), but also of her venture into fiction, Chasm (2004). Then again, the turn to prose should not be so surprising, since her first important prose work, the short novel Abyss, published in 1977, is said to have been written thirty years earlier. That book, whose title presages the later one, of which it might be a sort of first draft, seems to have been quietly dropped from Tanning’s official history, but it suggests that her literary inclination is of long standing. The eerie Gothic atmosphere that the tales share is undoubtedly what one might expect of a Surrealist, but their fixation on the figure of the innocently destructive girl is distinct from anything the movement’s male protagonists would have conjured up. Still, they have affinities with a work like Julien Gracq’s Château d’Argol (1938), of which Walter Benjamin noted, “The ebbing tide of Surrealism has washed up a strange shell on the desolate shore of literature.”

Tanning’s poems, by contrast, would never be identified as the work of a Surrealist or former Surrealist. Her engagement with poetry was sparked by a friendship with James Merrill: “Jimmy was poetry–the palpable, unsparing embodiment of poetry.” Her approach to the art reflects the exquisite formal wit and poignancy that is so memorable in his writing, with what Denis Donoghue called its “net of loose talk tightening to verse,” but she is more than his worthy student. As with everything else she’s turned her hand to, she’s made poetry her own. I’m tempted simply to end with my favorite of her poems, the one that opens her collection A Table of Content (2004), teasingly titled “Are You?”:

If an expatriate is, as I believe, someone
who never forgets for an instant
being one,
then, no.

But, if knowing that you always
tote your country around
with you, your roots,
a lump

like a soul that will never leave you
stranded in alien subsets of
yourself, or your wild

that being elsewhere packs a vertigo,
a tightrope side you cannot
pass up, another way
to show

how not to break your pretty neck
falling on skylights:

then, yes. All homes are home; mirages
everywhere. Aside from
gravity, there are no

never were, nor will there ever be,
no here and there to foil
your lotus-dreaming

Stay on the planet, if you can. It isn’t
all that chilly and what’s more,
grows warmer by the

Beautifully measured, the poem moves step by step into ever more unexpected terrain in which the seeming reassurance of “All homes are home” becomes a promise of never-ending displacement. And the sting in the final stanzas resonates all the more ominously today.

The advice of a woman in her 90s to “stay on the planet” is to be taken seriously: it comes from someone who has been unusually successful in staying but who is also likely to be facing the possibility of not staying with particular vividness. I’m glad Tanning has continued to follow her own advice. I’ve never met her, but simply knowing of her existence expands my sense of the possible in art and life–which is why I don’t, after all, quite wish to end here.

I’m still thinking about the question I raised earlier. Will Tanning be honored as she should be in this, her centenary year? The great man in whose shadow she stood has himself grown a bit shadowy. Now it’s time to shine a different light on Tanning. The most recent exhibition devoted to her, which took place last fall at the Kent Gallery in New York City, was truly a delight, but I couldn’t help reflecting on the fact that instead of showcasing Tanning it focused on “Dorothea Tanning and Friends.” The exhibition presented her art in the context that nourished it, alongside colleagues like George Balanchine, Alexander Calder, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alberto Giacometti, René Magritte, Lee Miller and Meret Oppenheim, as well as others I’ve already mentioned–and, of course, Ernst. Many of the works came from Tanning’s collection. The gallery became a box of memories, and for those of us old enough to be Tanning’s great-grandchildren, it was a box of vicarious memories colored by a shade of envy. “What a fairyland we find ourselves in,” read the first line of a typed and collaged letter on blue paper, written to Tanning on December 29, 1947, and signed “Joseph Cornell.” He’s talking about a snowfall in Queens, but his words drifted over the exhibition as a whole. The Tannings on view were mostly from the 1940s and as magical as ever; there were just a few glimpses of her subsequent development (a painting from 1977; a fabric sculpture from 1969, reworked in 2008). All of them made me want to see more, to forget about the friends for a while so that I could see more clearly how the artist’s work lasts above and beyond her milieu. And then I got a little mad at Tanning too, not right away but when I read Between Lives and, for all the pleasure it gave me–as a piece of writing, few artists’ autobiographies surpass it–realized that it told me so much less about her art than about her life and the many curious people, not all of them famous, who populated it. Well, fair enough; that’s what the title promised. But it made me want to shout as if she were in the room, “Don’t be so modest! Your life is wonderful, but I know your art is more important!” Let’s not be fooled by her reticence any longer.

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