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 Dorothea Margaret Tanning  (1910 - 2012)

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Lived/Active: New York/Illinois / France      Known for: surrealist painting, soft sculpture, etching, writing

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Ad Code: 2
Dorothea (Mrs. Max Ernst) Tanning
from Auction House Records.
A Mrs. Radcliffe Called Today
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is the obituary of the artist as published online in The New York Times, February 1, 2012:

Dorothea Tanning, Surrealist Painter, Dies at 101, by Grace Glueck

Dorothea Tanning, a leading Surrealist painter of the 1930s whose path had led her from the small town of Galesburg, Ill., to a whirlwind life in the international art world, died on Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 101.

Her death was confirmed by Mimi Johnson, a niece.

Married for 30 years to the Surrealist painter and sculptor Max Ernst, Ms. Tanning became well known in her own right for her vivid renderings of dream imagery. Much later in life, 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 poems that appeared in The New Yorker, The Yale Review and The Paris Review.

As a Surrealist artist, Ms. Tanning mined her unconscious, producing disturbing images like Maternity (1946), showing a troubled mother, her long gown ripped to rags at the belly, holding a fretful baby. At her feet lies a poodle with a child's face.

Like other Surrealist painters, she was meticulous in her attention to details and in building up surfaces with carefully muted brushstrokes.

But in the mid-1950s Ms. Tanning broke from the mirror-like precision of narrative Surrealism to take up what she called her "prism" paintings, later renamed Insomnias. These are enigmatic canvases in which bodies and body parts, barely discernible visages and bio-morphic forms float in dream spaces generated by fractured planes and diaphanous scrims.

Her versatility extended to sculpture. In 1969 she experimented with soft figures that she made on an old Singer sewing machine. She used a group of them in Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970-1973), in which the figures breached the papered walls of a simulated hotel room, an early example of the now widespread practice of installation art.

Among her other achievements were ballet designs for George Balanchine, etchings for illustrated books, and the design of a house for herself and Ernst in the south of France.

Dorothea Margaret Tanning was born on Aug. 25, 1910, to middle-class parents in Galesburg, "a place where you sat on the davenport and waited to grow up," as she put it in her autobiography, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World (2001).

She reached adulthood endowed with good looks and ambition, but to the chagrin of her parents, who feared she would become "bohemian," she aspired to a life in art. And she made one, although she was largely self-educated in the field, leaving art school in Chicago to study informally on her own by roaming the Art Institute there.

Known as Dottie Tanning in Galesburg (home also of the poet Carl Sandburg, a friend of her Swedish-born father's), she reclaimed her birth name, Dorothea, and began honing her talent for meeting interesting and important people.

In 1936 Ms. Tanning moved to New York, where she supported herself with illustrating jobs. Bowled over by the now legendary show "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism," mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in 1936-37, she realized she had found her future. In 1939 she struck out for Paris, armed with letters of introduction to several prominent artists, among them Ernst, only to find that most had fled the country, which was on the brink of war. The Surrealists almost all decamped to the United States.

Back in New York she finally met Ernst, at a party in 1942. Shortly thereafter he dropped by her studio seeking candidates for an exhibition of art by women of the Surrealist movement that he was organizing for Peggy Guggenheim's new gallery, "Art of This Century." Ms. Tanning's not-quite-finished self-portrait with bare breasts, Birthday, happened to be on her easel. Ernst stayed for a game of chess, and within a week he had moved into her apartment.
She not only won a place in the show ? which included work by Louise Nevelson and Gypsy Rose Lee ? but in 1946 she also became Ernst's wife, replacing Peggy Guggenheim. They were married in a double ceremony in Hollywood with the painter, photographer and filmmaker Man Ray and his companion, Juliet Browner.

Ms. Tanning's first solo show was in 1944 at the Surrealist-oriented Julien Levy Gallery in New York. By then she and Ernst were in and out of Sedona, the desert hamlet in Arizona where they had built a rough-hewn three-room house.

In Sedona, at a time before it became a popular destination, they confronted lizards, scorpions and snakes and basked in the town's "landscape of wild fantasy," as she wrote in her autobiography. They also played hosts to visitors such as Balanchine, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marcel Duchamp, Pavel Tchelitchew and Dylan Thomas.

They moved to France in 1957 when McCarthy-era legislation denied citizenship to Ernst, who was German, because he had been abroad for more than a year. They divided their time between Paris and Huismes, a town in the Loire Valley. They later moved to Seillans, a hilltop village in Provence.

During the 1960s and '70s Ms. Tanning showed regularly at the Alexandre Iolas Gallery in New York and in cities across Europe. Her current dealer is the Kent Gallery in New York.

Ernst died in 1976, and she returned to the United States in the late '70s. An accomplished poet, a collection of her verse, A Table of Content, appeared in 2004. Last September, 34 of her poems were published by Graywolf Press in an acclaimed book titled Coming to That.

In 1994 Ms. Tanning gave the Academy of American Poets an endowment establishing the Wallace Stevens award, which gives $100,000 to an outstanding American poet each year.

Though she had begun concentrating on writing, her art remained in the public eye. In 2009, her current dealer, Douglas Walla, mounted We're All in It Together, a show of works by Ms. Tanning and Surrealist compatriots she chose. Her work is in a current show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art titled "In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States."

Besides Ms. Johnson, she is survived by two other nieces and a nephew.

Asked in 2002 by Salon to sum up the impact of her work, Ms. Tanning replied modestly, "I'd be satisfied with having suggested that there is more than meets the eye."

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Galesburg, Illinois to Swedish parents, Dorothea Tanning became a leading Surrealist painter. Her work focuses on sensuality, fantasy, and also explores the unconscious and the irrational. She has lived a long life and continued in her early 90s to make paintings and sculpture, now concentrating on writing and publishing poetry.  She had more recognition in France than America; a major solo exhibition in her own country was in November, 2000 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At a youngster, she showed art talent and later said that by the time she was age seven, she had dedicated herself to being an artist.  She was bored by school and did much of her learning by reading books at the local library.  She attended Knox College in Galesburg but hated that environment, writing later that the two things that dominated academic life were the Saturday football games and the Greek Societies of which each "was a kind of mini Ku Klux Klan"...(Tanning 23).  After two years in college, she quit, traveled and then settled in New York City, where, to the dismay of her conservative Lutheran parents, she established a Bohemian lifestyle.

Living in that big city, Tanning studied Hindu dance and philosophy, was an "extra" at the Metropolitan Opera, and became a member of the Surrealist group that exhibited at the Julian Levy Gallery.  Levy became a great admirer of her fantasy paintings.  She also produced stage and costume designs for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and the New York City Ballet.

In 1939, having been much inspired by the Museum of Modern Art exhibit "Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism" (1936), she moved to Paris, taking with her letters of introduction to Picasso and Max Ernst ("the grand master of surrealism") and other avant-garde artists of that city.  However, Paris was in turmoil because of the looming war, and discouraged, she returned to New York and worked as a commercial artist.

To her great pleasure, she discovered that many members of the French artistic group had moved to New York and were establishing a community of Surrealists, which she joined.  Peggy Guggenheim, then married to Max Ernst, invited Tanning to exhibit in a 1943 show titled "31 Women" and sent her husband to pick up Tanning's entry.  Thus began a relationship that caused Guggenheim to lose her husband and later say "I should only have had thirty women in the show." (Rubinstein 294)

In 1946, in a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliette Browner, Ernst and Tanning married and remained together until his death in 1976.  Shortly after the marriage, they moved to Sedona, Arizona where they built a house and lived until 1952, when they moved to France.  Tanning admitted that her happy marriage to Ernst and her devotion to him detracted from her career, but she voiced no resentment, stating that they lived "without shadows." (295) She returned to New York in 1980, and has lived and worked there since then.

Charlotte Rubinstein, American Women Artists
additional information courtesy of Pam Johnson

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