Inside the fascinating world of artist Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning, Great River, Long Island 1944 The Destina Foundation, New York

Just opened this week at Tate Modern is a major new exhibition of the work of Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012).  An American polymath, who though embraced by the Surrealist movement (and was married to Max Ernst), also designed sets and costumes for Balanchine’s ballets, ran up her own cloth sculptures on her Singer sewing machine and at the age of 101 published her latest tome of poetry. We asked assistant curator at Tate, Hannah Johnston to explain her enduring appeal.

She skipped two grades at high school and only spent 3 weeks in art school.  Do you think this had an effect on her self-esteem or how she viewed herself as an artist?

No, I don’t think so. I think she just felt that being amongst the works in the galleries of The Art Institute of Chicago could teach her more about artmaking and the imagination than a classroom could. Speaking about it in her memoir, Between Lives, she said: ‘This was my academy, the place where adventure really began.’

Tanning did many different things throughout her career, from designing sets and costumes for Balanchine’s ballets to doing advertising at Macy’s. Do you think she separated her art into different entities or did she regard everything she did as art?

Tanning produced an incredible body of work over seven decades that included painting, drawing, printmaking, soft-sculpture and collage. She was also a prolific writer in later life, and published two collections of poems, two memoirs and a novel. Despite transcending media, her work is united by its efforts to suggest that there is more to life than meets the eye and depict what she called ‘unknown but knowable states’.

The Girl (Before): The Witch (costume design for The Witch), 1950. The Destina Foundation, New York

She rejected being known as a female artist but do you think being the wife of Max Ernst brought her recognition that she wouldn’t have got otherwise?

No. Tanning was welcomed into the fold of the Julien Levy Gallery – a key venue for the surrealist circle – on her own merit in 1941, a year before she had even met Ernst. She was given her first solo exhibition at the gallery in 1944, three years after she was added to the gallery’s roster of artists, and exhibited widely throughout her career.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943. Tate

Why did she get married in a double ceremony in Hollywood with Man Ray?

According to her memoir, Between Lives, Tanning and Ernst travelled to Hollywood in 1946 with the intention of marrying. Man Ray, who lived in Hollywood at the time, laughed with them about the cliché of marrying in Hollywood before saying: ‘Maybe we’ll go too. If Max can do it, so can I.’ So the four joined together in a double ceremony.

Why are there so many dogs in her paintings?

The image of the dog – first based on Max Ernst’s pet, a Lhasa Apso named Katchina, and then the Pekinese dogs that she would own herself in later life – reappears repeatedly in Tanning’s work. Sometimes she used the image of the dog playfully to represent herself.

Birthday, 1942. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Was she happy being known as a poet as she was an artist?

Tanning was a prolific writer in her later years, publishing two collections of poetry, two memoirs and a novel. She had deeply admired poetry and Gothic literature from her earliest years and, for her, the written word was a fundamental part of her artistic output. In her own words, she ‘gave full rein to her long-felt compulsion to write’ following Ernst’s death in 1976.

Why do you think we are still so intrigued by her art?

The diversity of work that Tanning produced over a seven-decade career is provocative, unsettling, curious and captivating – it’s impossible not to be intrigued!

Entreinte, 1969. The Destina Foundation, New York

Dorothea Tanning at the Tate Modern
Until 9 June 2019
Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG
— Francesca
27th February 2019