Dorothea Tanning, her early life and her love of Surrealism. Part 1.

Dorothea Tanning
Dorothea Tanning aged 18. (1928)

What does one mean when one says they like art.  What is art?  By definition, art is a diverse range of human activities involving creative imagination to express technical proficiency, beauty, emotional power, or conceptual ideas and it encompasses the three classical branches of visual art are painting, sculpture, and architecture, but the term “art” also embraces theatre, dance, and other performing arts, as well as literature, music, film and other media such as interactive media. So, I need to narrow down what I mean when I say I love art.  I should maybe say I love visual art and yet I am not a fan of conceptual or performance art.   I love the paintings created by numerous artists.  However, that is not quite true as I do not love all painting genres.  I neither find pleasure in looking at works of abstract art such as those by Kurt Schwitters nor the black lines and blocks of colour by Mondrian nor the works of abstract expressionist painters such as those by Robert Delaunay, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning nor the disturbing imagery of Francis Bacon. Having told you what I do not like I suppose I should tell you what I do like but if you have been following my blogs over the years, you will probably already know.

I love the paintings of the Dutch and Flemish Masters.  I like many of the painters of the Victorian era.  I like “busy” multi-figure paintings and love to delve into the depiction to see what is happening in narrative paintings.  I like narrative paintings which have a tale to tell or a moral to enforce.  Surprisingly, having said all that I also have a reluctant love of Surrealism and enjoy trying to figure out what the depiction is all about and what was in the painter’s mind when he or she put brush to canvas.

Dorothea Tanning with her mother, Amanda Tanning
Dorothea Tanning with her mother, Amanda Tanning, 1911

This was a somewhat long-winded introduction to today’s artist, the American Surrealist painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer, and poet, Dorothea Margaret Tanning.  Tanning was born on August 25th 1910.  She was the middle child of Andrew Tanning and Amanda Marie Tanning (née Hansen), who were of Swedish descent.  She had an elder sister Maurine and a younger sister Mary Louise.  Andrew Tanning, born Andreas Peter Georg Thaning, came alone from Skåne in the southernmost county of Sweden and settled in the conservative Midwestern town of Galesburg, Illinois.  In her memoirs Dorothea Tanning recounted that both her parents were very loving, indulgent and imaginative, the latter trait which she believed led to her creativity.  In her 2001 autobiography, Between Lives, Tanning wrote lovingly of her mother:

“…How could a tiny artist grow into a big one without the quilt of maternal love with its pattern of solace for hurts, its curving comfort, cloud-soft, its consolation for having to exist, its sweet smell?  The mother-goddess (the term would have embarrassed her), doctor and protector hovered over us in the full conviction that we were worth the trouble…”

Dorothea Tanning
Dorothea Tanning, aged 5. (1915)

By her own admission Dorothea was a small and delicate child prone to bouts of illness which often confined her to bed.  Like similar stories of young children who became well-known artists, it was this time during bed rest that she developed artistic skills and immersed herself into reading picture books.  Her favourites were the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and the stories and colourfully mesmerising characters from Greek mythology and the Bible.  It was from the likes of these that Dorothea gained an insight of the outside world, a world free from a cosseting mother.  She would also amuse herself by the simple game of staring at patterns on the wallpaper or furnishings and allow her imagination to form images which were not real.  In a way she was slipping from the real world into an imagined parallel existence.  Maybe it was this which would eventually lead her into the world of Surrealism.

Dorothea Tanning, Galesburg High School Yearbook, Senior Year
Dorothea Tanning, Galesburg High School Yearbook, Senior Year, 1926

In 1926, aged sixteen, Dorothea Tanning graduated from Galesburg Public High School.  The following year she managed to get a part-time job at Galesburg Public Library which gave her access to a world of literature.  She termed it the House of Joy.  One of her earlier jobs was cataloguing the books with a senior assistant who decided on whether the contents were deigned immoral and unfit for minors and were marked with a red cross in the catalogue.  Dorothea said that it was then much easier to find the “best” books.  In her biography she wrote about the time at the library and how it made her consider her future:

“…Over the years, the library became my haven, its treasures slyly challenging the voice of “art” in the tug-of-war for my ambitions, its sirens singing and crying by turns, its weight crushing my famous certitudes forever…”

Some Roses and Their Phantoms, 1952 - Dorothea Tanning
Some Roses and Their Phantoms by Dorothea Tanning (1952) represents a domestic world transformed by mysterious eruptions and inhabited by unnamed creatures. The table top setting, with its crisp white tablecloth and marks of ironed folds, suggests a safe world of bourgeois ritual. A recurrent motif, the white table cloth can also be found in other works of the same period. 

In 1928 she enrolled at Knox College in Galesburg and remained there for two years.  In 1930 she quit the college in order to pursue an artistic career and set off for Chicago under the guise of meeting up with a friend.  She had surreptitiously packed a trunk with her belongings which she left in her bedroom and later, once in Chicago, asked her parents to forward it to her !

Chicago at the time of Dorothea’s arrival, was a city in the grip of Prohibition, jazz-filled nightclubs and violent gang wars.  She lodged with an ex-library colleague.  She revelled in the nightlife of the Windy City and began a relationship with the writer, Homer Shannon.  To earn a living, she took on a number of jobs including waitressing at the Colonial Room.  She operated marionettes in the 1933 Chicago World Fair.  She must have accumulated some money as she loved to travel going to New Orleans in 1934 where she exhibited some of her watercolours. 

December 1936 newspaper cuttings about the Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism exhibition. 

She also made a number of trips to New York searching for work as a commercial artist and during one visit in 1936 visited the Museum of Modern Art to see the Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism exhibition.  The exhibition was rife with controversy and provoked fierce reactions from battling factions among the Dadaists and the Surrealists.  The press release by MOMA identified Surrealism and Dadaism as such:

“…”Surrealism, which developed in Paris around 1924, was the direct descendent of the Dadaist interest in the bizarre, the spontaneous, and the anti-rational. But while the Surrealist program carried on the iconoclasm of Dada it added serious research into subconscious images, dreams, visions, automatic and psychoanalytic drawings. Surrealism, so far as its serious adherents are concerned, is more than a literary or an art movement: it is a philosophy, a way of life, a cause which has involved some of the most brilliant painters and poets of our age…”

In a later interview Dorothea said of the exhibition:

“…For me it was the revelation, and I wasn’t the only one.  I would even say that most American artists – as well as poets – were deeply affected by that explosive event.  So, I became more impatient than ever – I just had to live in Paris…”

Once again in her autobiography Dorothea was certain that what she saw at the exhibition at the MOMA was a turning point in her artistic life.  She wrote:

“…Here, gathered inside an innocent concrete building, are signposts so imperious, so laden, so seductive and yes, so perverse that, like the insidious revelations of the Galesburg Public Library, they would possess me utterly…”

Deirdre
Deirdre by Dorothea Tanning (1940)

Dorothea had now caught the Surrealism bug and knew to explore the genre more she had to go to Paris.  She set sail on SS. Amsterdam for the France in July 1939 with the intention of meeting some of the Surrealist artists living there but her plans were thwarted by the onset of the Second World War.  Artists had hurriedly escaped from Paris and she managed to escape France and makes her way through Holland Belgium Germany and Sweden in August to the home of her paternal relatives. From there, in October, she managed to gain passage back to America on the SS. Gripsholm.  Another artist to take flight from France and journey to America was the leader of the Surrealism Movement, German-born Max Ernst who before his salvation had been interned twice in 1939, once by the French government having been labelled an “undesirable foreigner” and once by the Gestapo but he managed to escape with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, a member of a wealthy American art collecting family, and the journalist Varian Fry. 

Dorothea Tanning, Music Hath Charms. 1940.
Music Hath Charms by Dorothea Tanning (1940)

Once back home in New York, Dorothea Tanning sought employment as a commercial artist and for a time worked on the advertisements for Macy’s department store, producing adverts for perfumery products, clothing and accessories.  She continued with her own art and in 1940 produced a small painting entitled Music Hath Charms.  It was the beginning of her love of Surrealism being translated into her own work.  The painting depicts a young girl, dressed in red, playing the piano formed by the roots of one of two large trees which act as a frame for the scene.  She has long blonde hair which runs down her back.  Look at the background and at first it seems to be just a snow-capped mountain but with closer inspection it is the gigantic wave of a stormy sea in which we see a sinking tall ship.  The terrifying sight of the doomed ship is in stark contrast with the pastoral scene of the middle-ground with the grazing sheep and yet there is more.  Look carefully at the dark brown/olive hills which divide the space between the sheep-grazing field and the wild stormy sea.  It is the prone body of a hybrid beast, part human in the shape of a woman’s body and part animal being the face of a wild cat. Again it, like the sea and the fields, is the juxtaposition of human and animal.  The creature stares at the girl as if mesmerised by the sound of the music.  The depiction implies that the melodious sounds emanating from the piano is causing a metamorphosis in the landscape with the creature materialising from the “softened rocks”.

Portrait of Julien Levy by Jay Leyda (c.1932)

In 1942 after an up-and-down relationship and short marriage to Homer Shannon, the pair split up and Dorothea concentrated on her art and immersed herself in the artistic community and became great friends with Julien Levy, a gallery owner who offered her an exhibition at his gallery once she had built up a sizeable collection.  Levy had opened his new gallery in midtown Manhattan in November 1931 with a photography exhibition that included works by his friend and mentor, Alfred Stieglitz. As selling photographs became more difficult Levy shifted his gallery’s focus to Surrealism and to showing the work of artists like Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Man Ray and Joseph Cornell.

In May 1942 Julien Levy invited Dorothea Tanning to one of his afternoon soirees held in his Chelsea apartment.  Dorothea remembered stepping into Levy’s apartment and at that party, seeing her future road map lying before her:

“…A May afternoon as only May afternoons can be in the city.   And an apartment in Chelsea, all dark woof and those slated shutters peculiar to old New York.  A Recamier sofa, an iron sleigh-bed breathing Paris, a Bellmer doll, the Duchamp window and scattered everywhere, objects, pictures, books and more pictures.  Indeed, coming time, you were overwhelmed with vertigo that it was hard to register Julien’s easy, smiling introductions to – as I remember them – Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Kurt Seligmann, Kay Sage, Bob Motherwell with beauteous wife, Maria, Virgil Thomson, Max Ernst, Consuelo de Saint-Exupery, Peggy Guggenheim, Sylvia Marlowe, Max Ernst……Doesn’t the repetition say it all?  Because quite simply, this was a new door for me to open, and it was Julien Levy who held the key, who did it all, not deliberately – he didn’t believe in plans – who very nonchalantly launched my art and found me a life companion…”

………………………………….to be continued.

Most of the information in my blogs about Dorothea Tanning come from the excellent 2020 biography of the artist, entitled Dorothea Tanning: Transformations by Victoria Carruthers.

Many pictures of Dorothea came from the Dorothea Tanning Organisation website

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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