Tanning, Dorothea 1910–

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Tanning, Dorothea 1910–

PERSONAL: Born August 25, 1910, in Galesburg, IL; married Homer Shannon (divorced); married Max Ernst (a painter), 1946 (died, 1976). Education: Attended Knox College; studied at Art Institute of Chicago.

ADDRESSES: HomeNew York, NY. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Graywolf Press, 2402 University Ave., Ste. 203, Saint Paul, MN 55114.

CAREER: Novelist, poet, and artist. Exhibitions: Works exhibited at Julien Levy Gallery, New York, NY, 1944; Galerie les Pas Perdus, Paris, France, 1950; Alexandre Iolas Gallery, New York, NY, 1953; Galerie Furstenberg, Paris, 1954; Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1956; Galerie Edouard Loeb, Paris, 1959; Galerie der Spiegel, Cologne, Germany, 1963; Galerie d'Art Moderne, Basel, Switzerland, 1966; Casino Communal, Knokkele-Zoute, Belgium, 1967; Le Point Cardinal, Paris, 1970; Centre National d'Art Contemporain, Paris, 1974; Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer Gallery, New York, NY, 1979; Stephen Mazoh Gallery, New York, NY, 1983; Kent Fine Art, New York, NY, 1987, 1988; Stephen Schlesinger Gallery, New York, NY 1989; Runkel-Hue-Williams, London, England, 1989; New York Public Library, New York, NY, 1992; Konsthall, Malmo, Sweden, 1993; and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, 2002. Works included in permanent collections of Museum of Modern Art; Tate Gallery, London; Georges Pompisou Center, Paris; Menil Collection, Houston, TX; and Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Birthday (memoir), Lapis Press (Santa Monica, CA), 1986, expanded edition published as Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2001.

(Author of chronology and commentary) Roberta Waddell and Louisa Wood Ruby, editors, Dorothea Tanning: Hail, Delirium!: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Artist's Illustrated Books and Prints, 1942–1991, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, New York Public Library (New York, NY), 1992.

(Illustrator) James Merrill and others, Another Language of Flowers: Paintings (poetry), Braziller (New York, NY), 1998.

Chasm: A Weekend (novel), Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 2004.

A Table of Content (poems), Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2004.

Contributor to books, including Best American Poetry 2000, edited by David Lehman and Rita Dove, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000. Contributor of poetry to periodicals, including New Republic, Partisan Review, Yale Review, Parnassus, New Yorker, Poetry, and Paris Review.

SIDELIGHTS: Novelist, memoirist, and poet Dorothea Tanning is also a noted painter and sculptor often associated with the surrealism movement of the early-twentieth century. "The juxtaposition of familiar and fantastic objects set in barren landscapes or Victorian interiors, rendered with a uniform treatment notable for sharp outlines and careful finish, links these paint-ings to the 'magic realism' of the Surrealists," commented a biographer in Contemporary Women Artists. In addition, she has also been a printmaker and a costume designer for a number of ballet companies in New York City. Tanning is best known for paintings such as "Birthday," in which the artist is depicted in self-portrait, breasts exposed, a somewhat pensive and doubtful expression on her face, dressed in a skirt of vines and leaves, and standing in front of an endlessly repeated series of open doors. In the foreground, a demonic-looking winged creature, seemingly a combination of bird and cat, stands threateningly, as if ready to attack. It was this painting that first brought her to the attention of surrealism pioneer Max Ernst, whom she married in 1946. They remained married until Ernst's death in 1976.

Between Lives: An Artist and Her World is an expansion of Tanning's earlier memoir, Birthday. In this book, "Tanning uses language like paint, limning scenes dreamy in hue yet acute in detail and metaphoric in their images," telling colorful stories from her earliest days to her current life as a vibrant, creative nonagenarian, according to Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman. The author recalls numerous aspects of her life and work, including her association with some of the greatest creative artists of the twentieth century, such as Virgil Thompson, Dylan Thomas, Truman Capote, Man Ray, Igor Stravinsky, and George Balanchine. She fondly remembers her second husband, Ernst, and their many years together. "She is self-effacing," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor, "finding Ernst's life and story more interesting than her own, but describes their shared life poetically." The memoir is "never merely gossipy or needlessly namedropping," observed Martin R. Kalfatovic in Library Journal. Tanning simply refers matter-of-factly to those luminaries she truly did know, and who in turn held her in high esteem.

Tanning's oeuvre includes sculptures as well as paintings, and in her more advanced years she also emerged as a novelist and poet of note. New Yorker contributor Jane Kramer noted that Tanning will sometimes ironically refer to herself as the "oldest living emerging poet." Her book of poetry, A Table of Content, contains works "like collages, softly surreal, delicately personal, but somehow perfectly right," observed Library Journal reviewer Louis McKee. Demonstrating what a Publishers Weekly contributor called "a curious mix of numerous styles," Tanning explores images and ideas of family, love, life, place, regret, and lost opportunity. In some of her poems, she demonstrates a "straightforward, unmannered approach to the deconstruction of icons, references and symbols," commented the Publishers Weekly critic, while in others she speaks in a quieter voice, punctuating explorations of loss and regret. The collection will "admirably serve to introduce her to a whole new generation of readers," attested a reviewer in Wisconsin Bookwatch.

Tanning has also taken up the mantle of novelist, albeit one with a surrealistic tinge to her writing. In Chasm: A Weekend seven-year-old Destina Meridian has witchcraft in her background, being the descendant of a woman tried for practicing the dark arts in 1692 Massachusetts. She lives in the Arizona desert with her father, Raoul, and Nelly, a woman who is presented as the girl's governess but is actually Raoul's sexual plaything. When Raoul invites the beautiful Nadine and her ne'er-do-well fiancée Albert to spend a weekend at his desert estate, the two houseguests find their familiar lives transformed. Nadine becomes entranced by the desert landscape and captivated by the charismatic but ultimately despicable Raoul. He even convinces her to cut off her long blonde hair to satisfy one of his fetishes. Separated from Nadine, Albert wanders through the enormous house, where he encounters the mysterious Destina. The child shows him a box full of peculiar items, such as lizard claws, reptile skins, and tiny eyes preserved in bottles. She describes the friend in the desert who brings these items to her, and to Albert the description sounds like that of a lion. A raucous dinner party leads the guests to their separate fates, with Albert and Nadine searching the desert for Destina's lion friend and Raoul, once again, with Nelly. Tanning's "roots as a surrealist painter are evident throughout her creepy, erotically charged first novel," observed reviewer Emily Mead in Entertainment Weekly. Tanning "describes the desert with poetic precision," noted a Kirkus Reviews critic. "While her plot wavers at times, she concludes with a series of truly gruesome set pieces and a final moment of grace." The reviewer declared the book to be a "spare gothic jewel."



Bailly, George Christophe, Dorothea Tanning, translated by Richard Howard and Robert C. Morgan, Braziller (New York, NY), 1995.

Contemporary Women Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.


Art Business News, March, 2005, "Reviewing the History of Surrealism in the USA," p. 78.

Art Criticism, 1987, Donald B. Kuspit, "Dorothea Tanning's Occult Drawings."

Art in America, November-December, 1974, Linda Nochlin, "Dorothea Tanning at the CNAC."

ARTnews, March, 1988, John Gruen, "Among the Sacred Monsters."

Arts, September, 1983, Ann Gibson, "Dorothea Tanning: The Impassioned Double Entendre."

Bomb, fall, 1990, interview with Dorothea Tanning.

Booklist, July, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, p. 1968.

Entertainment Weekly, October 22, 2004, Emily Mead, review of Chasm: A Weekend, p. 101.

Feminist Art Journal, spring, 1974, Cindy Nemser, "In Her Own Image."

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2004, review of Chasm, p. 775.

Library Journal, October 15, 2001, Martin R. Kalfatovic, review of Between Lives, p. 73; May 15, 2004, Louis McKee, review of A Table of Content, p. 91.

New Yorker, May 3, 2004, Jane Kramer, "Self Inventions," profile of Dorothea Tanning, p. 40.

Publishers Weekly, June 4, 2001, review of Between Lives, p. 66; June 21, 2004, review of A Table of Content, p. 59.

Wisconsin Bookwatch, August, 2004, review of A Table of Content.

Woman's Art Journal, spring-summer, 1981, Paula Lumbard, "Dorothea Tanning: On the Threshold to a Darker Place."

Women's Art, September-October, 1995, Alison Rowley, "Lapses of Taste."


Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (February 11, 2002), John Glassie, "Oldest Living Surrealist Tells All," interview with Dorothea Tanning.