Dorothea Tanning, a leading Surrealist painter during the 1930s married to Max Ernst, has died aged 101
Tanning achieved recognition for her vivid and often disturbing portrayals of dream imagery, such as ‘Maternity’ (1946), showing a troubled mother, her long gown ripped to rags at the belly, holding a fretful baby, while at her feet lies a poodle with a child’s face. But in the mid-1950s Ms. Tanning rejected the tight symbolic narratives of contemporary Surrealism and developed what she called her ‘prism’ paintings, later renamed ‘Insomnias’ – enigmatic canvases in which bodies and body parts, barely discernible visages and biomorphic forms float in fractured dream spaces.
Dorothea Tanning was born and raised in Galesburg, Illinois. She attended Knox College there from 1928-30 before living for several years in Chicago. In 1935, Tanning moved to New York, where she discovered Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, in 1936. By the early 1940s, Tanning was working on her own surreal paintings while supporting herself as a commercial artist. Impressed by her creativity and talent in illustrating fashion advertisements, the art director at Macy’s department store introduced her in 1941 to the gallery owner Julien Levy, who immediately offered to show her work. Levy later gave Tanning two one-person exhibitions (in 1944 and 1948), and also introduced Tanning to the circle of émigré Surrealists whose work he was showing in his New York gallery, including the German painter Max Ernst. As she recounts in her memoirs,Birthday and Between Lives, when Ernst visited her studio in 1942, they played chess, fell in love, and embarked on a life together that soon took them to Sedona, Arizona, and later to France. She married Ernst in 1946, in a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner.
In recent years, Tanning moved away from art to focus on her work as a writer and poet. In 1986, she published her memoir, called Birthday, which has since been translated into four other languages, and in 2001, she wrote an expanded version of the memoir called Between Lives: An Artist and Her World. A collection of her poems, A Table of Content, and a short novel, Chasm: A Weekend, were both published in 2004. Tanning continued to write poetry until her death, and her poems appeared regularly in such literary reviews and magazines as The Yale Review, Poetry, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker. Her second collection of poems, Coming to That, was published by Graywolf Press in 2011.
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