A week ago, on January 31, 2012, famed surrealist painter Dorthea Tanning passed away at the age of 101.
Personally, the timing of her death has had an incredible impact on me.
For Christmas, my Mom bought me a copy of Steve Martin’s fictional novel, An Object of Beauty. On the long plane ride home from Florida to Hawaii, I became enveloped in Martin’s characters who live in the lively pre 9/11 art world of New York. I spent my first jet-lagged day back in Hawaii, in bed reading the last few chapters of An Object of Beauty and as I turned to page 234 I was presented with this image.
An Artfix Daily article on Ms. Tanning’s death, nicely describes the painting as
Perhaps the best example of her dream-like artworks would be, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” from 1943, though it might be more akin to a nightmare. Ironically named after Mozart’s jaunty serenade, the image shows the darkened interior of a run down hotel. The hallway has multiple doors, which seem to stretch into infinity, not an uncommon motif in Tanning’s work from the 1940s. Two girls are depicted, one whose hair stands on end, seemingly electrified, stands in the middle of the hall. The other leans against a wall with her eyes closed, wearing an outfit that is reminiscent of the breast-baring costume which Tanning wears in “Birthday.” A giant, animated sunflower looms menacingly at the top of some steps, while the door to the far right cracks open letting out a shaft of light. The effect of the image, like most of Tanning’s work, is mysterious and titillating to the imagination.
As I have always been influenced by women surrealist painters, with the likes of Frida Kahlo, I was immediately intrigued by the image, put down the novel, and began researching the life and work of Ms. Tanning.
Although she was often presented in the media as “the wife of Max Ernst“, her work stood on it’s own, and in my opinion she surpassed Ernst in the depth and evolution of ideas.
Although Tanning had a burgeoning art career at the time of WWII, there is little political reference in her works. She was however indirectly influenced when many of Europe’s Surrealist artists sought refuge in the United States. This coincidence is how she met and later married Max Ernst, and ultimately made her way into the world of many other great Surrealist painters of the time.
Despite the social context, Tanning managed to retain her talent, beauty, and grace while earning the respects of the art world that was mostly male dominated. Her paintings often depict the female in an expressive way that does not exploit her, but uncovers many of the dark feelings that women during this period may have experienced, yet did not feel comfortable expressing.
As a side note, I was also amused to find out that Tanning and Ernst spent a summer in Hawaii, both teaching art at the University of Hawaii.
In an excerpt from her biography, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, Tanning describes the experience:
In Hawaii, during a summer interlude several years later (1952), we were invited by the art-critic-Iess University of Hawaii, there to lecture on art (Max) and to teach a class in painting and drawing (me). Teach! Me, teach! To say that I was not cut out for teaching would be a nice way of saying that my six-week tenure at the University of Hawaii was a total disaster. My students were mainly fun-loving dropouts from the mainland who had heard about how they could chalk up an easy credit or two while taking care of their suntans and other needs on the beaches of Honolulu. Besides, not having studied painting in a school (those three weeks back in Chicago with the charcoal?), how could I know what they say there? I couldn’t tell them about my hand, its secret pact with my brain and how it had found ways to paint the visions it found in there. I simply could not convey this procedure to a roomful of students waiting to be instructed in techniques. I wanted to say: “Go to a good museum of art and look carefully and with emotion at the pictures. Then go home and do the same thing as you have just seen. You now have craft. The rest is up to you.” But something told me this kind of talk might not go down. So, after lurching through most of the sessions with these gifted but mostly absent students and just as the last day drew near (they all miraculously showed up), I had an idea for our end-of-term exhibit: I would try a new take on the cadavre exquis.
Here I will ask the reader to picture a roomful of students seated in a circle around a nude model on a central stand. Starting at the top of her head, everyone draws her first four inches, then folds the paper and passes it to his or her neighbor, who draws the next four. By the time the drawing is complete, it has made the full circle; thus, sixteen drawings have made the tour of the sixteen students. (Try this. Just divide the height of the object by the number of persons who must be in a circle around it.) Needless to say, the results were outrageous. Even Picasso at his most defiant could seem mild by comparison. But the cadavre exquis was not a form of expression much appreciated by the officers of the University of Hawaii when they paid us their stately end-of-term visit. In fact, they walked by our exhibit with averted eyes. And I had thought the experiment so successful! But never mind. I basked in the gentle island lifestyle and even peered into erupting Kilauea before heading back to Sedona and our homemade house, its thirsty plants, its welcoming pooches.
—from Between Lives: An Artist and Her World. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001, pp. 213-214.
The more & more I read about Ms. Tanning’s life & work the more inspired and encouraged I became. I only realized last night, while doing an internet search for her name, that she had passed away a week ago on January 31, 2012. The timing struck me intensely, as I had only days before her death, been introduced to her life and work in such a encouraging and inspiring way.
Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity…. I can only say that if a work doesn’t make being sane and alive not only possible but wonderful, well, move on to the next picture.
–from interview with John Glassie, “Oldest Living Surrealist Tells All,” Salon.com, February 11, 2002.
After digesting the news that Ms. Tanning has past away, days after my introduction to her work, I’ve obsessively been studying her art. Somehow this circumstance seems to have me dwelling on legacy and mortality. Tanning lived 101 years, and spent most of them producing art – paintings, sculptures and written words – that are permanent to this world. They are her legacy. An today as she isn’t physically here to explain them, they live on teaching and inspiring beyond her temporary years.