Tuesday, November 8, 2016

1910-2012: Dorothea Tanning, American

Portrait by Man Ray, 1946, age 36
Dorothea Tanning was an American artist whose huge talent expressed itself in painting, sculpture, and writing—fiction, memoirs, poetry.

Background: Dorothea was born and raised in Galesburg, Illinois. Her parents were Swedish immigrants who were devout Lutherans.

Training: Dorothea is one of the few women artists to attain success without formal art training. Her parents wanted her to be a teacher, so she attended Knox College for 2 years. The school had no art courses, but she drew and painted in her spare time. In 1930, when she was 20, she escaped to Chicago. She enrolled in an art academy, but dropped out after 3 weeks, saying that no one could teach her to be an artist. She claimed she taught herself to paint by haunting the Art Institute while supporting herself with odd jobs.

Career: In 1935, when she was 25, Dorothea moved to New York City, where she did commercial illustrations for Macy’s until, in 1941, her private work was discovered by an art dealer who began to show her paintings. He also introduced her to the in-group of Surrealists who had fled Europe at the start of World War II, including Max Ernst. She felt an immediate bond because she, too, painted from her imagination, depicting inner states instead of objective reality. Max was so taken with her work that he persuaded his wife, the famous art patron, Peggy Guggenheim, to include one of her paintings in an exhibit of contemporary women painters.

Artwork: As a leading Surrealist in the 1940s, Dorothea was well known for her vivid renderings of dream imagery. She was meticulous in her attention to details and in building up surfaces with carefully muted brushstrokes. During this period, she also designed sets and costumes for ballets and films.

In the mid-1950s, Dorothea changed her painting style, making "prism" paintings, which she later named "Insomnias." These are enigmatic canvases in which bodies and body parts, barely discernible visages, and biomorphic forms float in dream spaces generated by fractured planes and diaphanous scrims.

In the early 1970s she switched from painting to soft sculpture—creating amorphous, Surreal figures with an old Singer sewing machine.

After she had reached 80, she gained a different kind of attention when she began to concentrate on writing, producing a novel, an autobiography and poetry

Private life: Dorothea triumphed where many women had failed: She made a marriage to Max Ernst work, while steadily building her own career. Max was 51 when they met in 1942; she was 32. He was then married to Peggy Guggenheim, who had rescued him from imprisonment by the Nazis in France by marrying him. Before Peggy, he had a romance with another woman Surrealist, Leonora Carrington. And before Leonora, he had been married and divorced, and then lived for several years in a noted ménage à trois. Dorothea managed to make the marriage work for 30 years, until his death in 1976 at the age of 84.

From about 1944 to 1949, Dorothea and Max lived in Sedona, a small town in Arizona, where they confronted nature and became the center of a small art colony. In 1949 they relocated to France, returning to Sedona periodically. They lived in Paris, and later in Provence.

Dorothea in 2002
After Max's death in 1976, Tanning remained in France for a few years with a renewed concentration on her painting.

In 1980, when she was 70 years old, she relocated her home and studio to New York and entered a creative period in which she produced many other art forms as well as painting.

She also began to focus on her writing; she had produced poems and stories throughout her career. In 1986 she published her first memoir, and she continued to publish poetry and memoirs for the remainder of her life.

She said that she loved being married to Max Ernst, and that he did everything he could to encourage her artistically, but that as a widow she had come to see how much her self-esteem was stifled by the relationship. By the same token, her career has always been over-shadowed by his.

My photos of Dorothea's work:

Birthday, 1942
Philadelphia / Jan's photo, 2010

Child's Play, 1942
Dallas / Jan's photo, 2012

Self-portrait, 1944
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

On Time Off Time, 1948
MoMA / Jan's photo

Half-Past Noon, 1957
Pennsylvania Academy / Jan's photo, 2012

Internet Examples:

A Little Night Music, 1943

The Truth about Comets, 1945

Cloudstar, 1997