Dorothea Tanning: Painter, sculptor and poet whose work crossed artistic boundaries

 

Dorothea Tanning was the last of a group of women – including Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini and Frida Kahlo – who were active in surrealism during the mid-20th century. Tanning herself eschewed the labels of "woman artist" and "surrealist" labels and her work has defied the boundaries of gender and artistic movements.

She was born in 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois. Her father, Andreas Thaning, was a Swedish immigrant who had changed the family name to make it more easily pronounceable in English. The writer and editor Carl Sandburg, a family friend, urged against formal art training "Oh, no. Don't do that. Not art school. They will stifle her talent and originality." Despite this advice, she enrolled at the Chicago Academy of Art to study painting but remained for just three weeks. Most of that time was spent at the city's Art Institute, admiring and learning from its collection.

In December 1936 she visited the show Fantastic, Dada, and Surrealism at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The works fascinated her and set her own painting off in a new direction. Talking about the time that she called a "real explosion", she enthused in a later interview: "I was impressed by its daring in addressing the tangles of the subconscious – trawling the psyche to find its secrets, to glorify its deviance."

In 1941 she met the New York gallerist Julian Levy and joined him as one of the few women artists he represented. Her first major solo show would follow at Levy's gallery three years later.

During late 1942 the surrealist artist Max Ernst was asked to find work for a forthcoming show titled Thirty One Women, curated by his wife Peggy Guggenheim at her Art of this Century gallery. Ernst called on Tanning at her studio and saw on the easel an almost finished self-portrait of her standing by a door, with shirt open and a winged mammal by her feet. "What do you call it?" said Ernst. "I really haven't a title," came her reply. "Then you can call it Birthday he suggested. The name stuck, Tanning was part of the exhibition and Ernst in turn became a part of her life. Guggenheim later observed ruefully, "I realised that I should have had only 30 women in the show."

Tanning's 1943 painting Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, now in the Tate collection, is probably the best known of her works. A young girl leans by a door, half-dressed and exhausted. Another, next to her, faces a huge bedraggled sunflower at the top of the stairs. Questions abound:, what has happened or is about to happen here?

After marrying in Beverly Hills inOctober 1946 in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet Browner thecouple moved to Sedona, Arizona and built a wooden house, living for a time there without running water or electricity. In 1949 they moved to France – first Paris, then six years later to Huismes in the Loire.

Tanning's paintings of the 1960s adopt softer lines and colours, but retain the same disturbing qualities of the earlier works. She also experimented with fabric sculptures, one of which, Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1965), is currently on show at the Tate Modern. She said of this work: "A fetish is something not exactly or always desirable in sculpture, being a superstitious if not actually shamanistic object; and yet, to my mind it's not so far from a pincushion – after all, pins are routinely stuck in both."

In 1964 the couple moved again, to Seillans, Provence. The village's Maison Waldberg now houses a collection of work by Tanning and Ernst. Following Ernst's death in 1976, Tanning recalled, the paint tubes, canvases and brushes told her to "Go home". She made the journey back to New York and set up studio there.

The first decade of the 21st century saw Tanning turn to writing. Shehad already produced two volumes of autobiography, Birthday (1986) andBetween Lives (2001). There she wrote of her life as being "...as a garden,planted in 1910 and, like any garden, always changing."

The memoirs were followed by a novel and two volumes of poetry, the last of which, Coming to That, was published in her 101st year. The poet and critic Richard Howard said of her poetry: "Doubtless a consequence of the way she works, tacitly dependent on charms she winds up, this poet is like the tiger – if she misses her spring, she stalks back into the jungle and gathers her strength for the next pounce."

Wendi Norris and Raman Frey, of the Frey Norris gallery, which exhibited her work in 2010, said: "In her 101 years, Dorothea lived two centuries' worth of life. And she left to all of us an enormously rich and varied legacy of art; paintings, sculptures, poetry and one of the most entertaining artist biographies around."

Dorothea Tanning, artist and writer: born Galesburg, Illinois 25 August 2010; married 1946 Max Ernst (died 1976); died Manhattan 31 January 2012.

Suggested Topics
Sport
Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
Voices
Sweet tweet: Victoria Beckham’s selfie, taken on her 40th birthday on Thursday
voices... and her career-long attack on the absurd criteria by which we define our 'betters', by Ellen E Jones
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
books
News
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
News
Brand said he
people
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Sport
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
sport
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit