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Dorothea Tanning

American Painter, Sculptor, Writer, and Poet

Dorothea Tanning Photo

Born: August 25, 1910 - Galesburg, Illinois

Died: January 31, 2012 - New York, New York

"Women artists. There is no such thing - or person. It's just as much a contradiction in terms as 'man artist' or 'elephant artist.' You may be a woman and you may be an artist; but the one is a given and the other is you."

Dorothea Tanning Signature

Summary of Dorothea Tanning

Art pervades Dorothea Tanning's life; not only have the many images, objects, and texts that she created become worthwhile art, her very presence transformed photographs and moments in time to make them more artistic. The same whirling energy that followed Tanning as a person is also found in her energetic brushstroke, a phenomenon linked to the day of her birth, "a day of high wind," which was said to terrify her mother and, as a result, Tanning was born. The dominance of a frightening, unstoppable life force characterizes Tanning's entire oeuvre. With ideas too big for rural Illinois, a place "where nothing happened but the wallpaper", the artist left for Chicago, and then, once in New York found that both in style and in company she identified as a Surrealist (she married Max Ernst). With distinct progression through a long career, Tanning began by meticulously depicting her own dreams. This penetrating psychological exploration continued while her work evolved to become more abstract and sculptural. The folds of childhood dresses link these different phases, as cloth transforms from being the depicted subject to the material used. The final phase of the artist's career saw her become the "oldest living emerging poet", alongside collaboration with other renowned poets, and the production of a series of large-scale flower paintings.

Key Ideas

Like other Surrealists and most notably René Magritte and Salvador Dalí, Tanning's paintings are often direct illustrations of her dreams. She aimed to make complex psychology visible - revealing a particular interest in the unconscious of one individual experienced through a single dream - by depicting at least one figure within her dream scene with their eyes closed.
Tanning's painting is characterized by a whoosh and a whirling kinetic energy, and by beliefs in dynamism, flux, and an immediacy that uncovers an interesting comparison of ideology with the Italian Futurists. Born in a storm and with a need to escape from the confines of childhood restrictions there is vitality and intent of purpose connected to everything that the artist does. Illustrations of the folds of fabric often serve to highlight this interest in constant movement.
A sexual charge pulsates throughout Tanning's work. Young girls' clothes appear torn and hair takes on a luxurious life of its own as the line between innocence and experience becomes blurred. Suggestions of violence recall Hans Bellmer's dolls, but more likely the eros at work for Tanning is like that found in the photography of Sally Mann, a force that transcends the specifically sexual and becomes a more general urge to life in any and all of its manifestations.
Dorothea Tanning Photo

Dorothea Tanning was born the second of three daughters to a working-class family originally from Sweden who had settled and made their home in Galesburg, Illinois. Her father had aspirations of becoming a cowboy in the American West, whilst her mother was a fantasist who insisted on dressing their daughters in taffeta and silk. The children were raised in an area that ascribed to strict Lutheran values making their parents at once devoutly religious but also big dreamers. Tanning expressed a love of art from an early age and would find her own peace reading the likes of Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Anderson. Having completed initial schooling, she then worked at the local public library before enrolling at Knox College, the closest liberal arts facility. Although the college did not offer art classes, alongside contributing illustrations to the school newspaper, Tanning always painted and drew in her spare time.

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