Dorothea Tanning

(b. 1910)

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Painter, sculptor, and printmaker. Also a writer. With almost no formal training in art, she made a place for herself among the surrealists who congregated in New York during the early 1940s. As the wife of Max Ernst from 1946 until his death in 1976, she lived mostly in Europe. Since her return to New York a few years later, she continued to work productively, although she turned from art to poetry in the late 1990s. In addition, she established a foundation to support the study of surrealism and endowed an annual poetry prize (among the most remunerative literary awards offered) through the Academy of American Poets. Born in Galesburg, Illinois, she attended Knox College there for two years before moving to Chicago. She enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago but left after a few weeks, finding its curriculum dull. In 1935 she departed for New York, where she was fascinated by the following year's landmark “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” at the Museum of Modern Art. Realizing that surrealism encompassed her own imaginative objectives, she quickly began to develop a distinctive approach. Through Julien Levy's gallery, where she first showed her work in 1942, she became personally acquainted with surrealists, including Ernst. Their marriage followed her divorce from journalist Homer Shannon. She and Ernst built a house near Sedona, Arizona, where they lived much of the time for six years before moving to Paris. From the mid-1960s they resided in Seillans, in the south of France. Literature and book illustrations had first captured Tanning's dreams as a child. From the beginning her own work drew on such sources as she portrayed invented, enigmatic subjects with a minutely realistic technique. Frequently harboring sexual overtones, these most often focus on girls and young women seemingly caught by external forces. During the 1950s she abandoned sharp-focus representation, and some of her work became almost abstract, suggesting ineffable presences within billowing colors, as in Paris and Vicinity (Whitney Museum, 1962). In the late 1960s and 1970s she created soft sculpture, sewn creations that continue her interest in the expression of mystery through the human body. Her last major series of paintings, completed in 1997, featured enlarged, sexually inflected flowers. Tanning also worked as a designer for theater and ballet. In 1986 she published Birthday, an autobiographical memoir. A fuller account, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, appeared in 2001. A volume of poetry, A Table of Content, was issued in 2004, as was her novel, Chasm. Another book of poetry, Coming to That, appeared in 2011.

Subjects: Art.

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