August 25, 2010
Having outlived all of her contemporaries—including her late husband, the Dadaist and Surrealist painter Max Ernst—New York City-based artist, sculptor and writer Dorothea Tanning is 100 years old today.
“Artists can change and move on,” Tanning told the UK Observer in 2004, “and that’s much more interesting than being like Chagall, who painted the same damn thing all his life. Don’t you think?” Tanning’s artistic evolution has adhered to this spirited motto. Although she spent much of her life as a painter, she has participated in many other artistic forms over the years, earning recognition as a set designer, a sculptor and, most recently, a poet and writer.
Born to Swedish emigrés on August 25, 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois, Tanning’s first artistic impulse was towards the theater. At age five, she developed the ability to make herself weep while performing tragic poetry. It wasn’t long until Tanning began dabbling in the visual arts, and at age 15 she painted a naked woman with a flowing mane of leaves—much to her family’s chagrin.
After attending Galesburg’s Knox College, Tanning moved to Chicago and began frequenting the Art Institute of Chicago, where she drew inspiration from the paintings in the halls. She then moved to New York City, which she used as home base over the next several years, punctuated by stints in New Orleans, San Francisco, Sweden and France. In the late 1930s she visited an exhibit on Dadaism and Surrealism at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which inspired her to join the Surrealist movement. In 1941, she met gallery owner Julien Levy, who signed her to his roster of like-minded artists. One of the artists Levy happened to represent at the time was the German painter, Max Ernst.
Tanning met and married Ernst in 1946, becoming his fourth wife in a marriage lasting 30 years. The couple lived in Sedona, Arizona, and then in France for the majority of their marriage. When Ernst passed away in 1976, Tanning returned to New York City. She has lived there ever since.
Throughout her long life, the artist has never ceased producing art; not when she suffered a stroke, not even when, at age 88, she was forced to give up painting because it was too physically demanding (she had an accident and broke her wrist). Her oeuvre includes soft sculptures, torturous depictions of bodies intertwined, fantastical self portraits and absurd table scenes. Her last painting series (completed in 1997), titled Another Language of Flowers, was made up of large canvases with dreamlike imaginary flowers. The haunting, otherworldly quality of her canvases also appears in her written works, which include the memoir Birthday, an expanded autobiography entitled Between Lives, the poetic work A Table of Content, and her only novel, Chasm: A Weekend.
With a century of artistic accomplishments under her belt, Tanning maintains a wry sense of humor. “As for still being here,” she told Salon.com in 2002, “I can only apologize.”
Tanning’s pencil drawing, Fire, is in the collections of the American Art Museum, and a some of her correspondences are held at the Archives of American Art.
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