Dorothea Tanning was one of the foremost Surrealist artists in the United States whose paintings explored the female psyche through the medium of dreams.
Born in Illinois, Tanning was a sexually precocious child who made anatomically correct drawings and hid them away from her father. She painted works about childhood sexuality and often painted prepubescent girls compelled to fulfill their own erotic needs. Tanning focused on adolescent girls often naked or swathed in twisted drapery, which questions the exact nature of the atmosphere of the artist’s childhood home.
Tanning went to New York in 1936 and worked as a commercial artist. She worked as a freelance illustrator for Manhattan department stores while pursuing her own painting career. A visit to the 1936 exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” at the Museum of Modern Art determined the course of Tanning’s artistic development. Her paintings would combine childhood memories in a Surreal style. Her first solo exhibition was held in 1941 at a gallery in New York.
In the 1940s and 1950s, she depicted quiet interiors featuring young women in mysterious, often sexually charged emotional states. Her iconic oil painting “Birthday” 1942 presents a likeness of the artist set in a space that is more dream than reality. It was given its title by the Surrealist emigre artist Max Ernst, who encountered it while scouting for works for Peggy Guggenheim’s upcoming gallery exhibition of women’s art. A lifelong supporter of her work, she and Ernst married in 1946. They shared 34 years of marriage living in Sedona, Arizona from 1946-1956 and in Paris from 1956-1979.
When the couple moved to France, Tanning gradually moved away from Surrealism for a more lyrical abstract style of large, lush oil paintings of reveries occurring in quasi-abstract baroque spaces. She worked as a graphic artist and designer of theatrical sets and costumes.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s she created soft sculptures, created on her own sewing machine and stuffed with the wool from the sheep on her property in France. In her 1970-1973 installation, “Chamber 202, Hotel du Pavot,” the walls of an early 20th century hotel room burst with female bodies, made from soft, puffy pink fabric with a mysterious creature emerging from a fireplace.
A few years after the death of her husband, Tanning returned to New York where she wrote poetry and produced paintings, drawings, collages, and prints. She lived to be 101 years old.
Her work has been seen in one person exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe and is in the permanent collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as in many other museums. There was a recent retrospective of her work at Tate Modern, which focused on her rich symbolism, particularly her use of enclosed spaces that appear to metamorphose before a viewer’s eyes. Other retrospectives of her art have taken place in Paris, Sweden, London, New York, and Philadelphia