Dorothea Tanning sits in a genteel downtown apartment surrounded by paintings and sculpture. A frail 90 years old, she is a virtual prisoner there. Just a few weeks before the openings of two New York City exhibitions of her art, Tanning has suffered a fall and hopes she can shed some of her bruises in time to make the parties.
Tanning spent her long career as an artist inventing startling and subtle new ways to portray the body. Her work is all about mutation and transformation, the human form depicted in ways that are as disturbing as they are beautiful. Yet what fame she has achieved is based not on her own brilliant oeuvre but on her status as one of the last living surrealists. Her association with the movement began in 1942, when Tanning fell in love with Max Ernst, working alongside the legendary dadaist until his death in 1976.
Sitting on her couch beneath a Gustave Doré painting teeming with fleshy nudes, Tanning seems simultaneously indomitable and endearingly grannylike. “I have three labels to battle,” she says firmly. “One is woman artist; one is widow of a famous man; the other is freak. If you’re 90 years old, you’re like a two-headed cow—you’re not supposed to live that long! If I tell someone I’m 90, they say, ‘Bless you,’ as if I’ve done something miraculous. I’m still breathing, that’s all I can say.”
Tanning busies herself with more than just exhaling. In her eighties, she began shifting her energies from visual art to writing. Her poems have been published in The Paris Review and The Best American Poems of 2000, and her new memoir, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World (W.W. Norton), is just out. A mix of acidic critique, clear-eyed remembrance, and funny, name-dropping anecdotes, this autobiography offers a glimpse of the creative process and reveals some of the sacrifices required of an ambitious, creative woman wed to a more famous man.
Tanning was born in 1910, in the small Illinois town of Galesburg, to religious, Swedish-immigrant parents. After a short stint in Chicago, she moved to Manhattan and worked in advertising illustration. But in 1936, the epic “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” show at MOMA rocked her world. The decisive moment, professionally and personally, came in Christmas of 1942. Art patroness Peggy Guggenheim sent her then husband, Max Ernst, to choose pictures for “Exhibition by 31 Women,” a legendary all-woman show. Ernst was awestruck by Tanning’s self-portrait, which he named Birthday.
Birthday is a brazen self-portrait of the artist that combines dream logic with steely, almost photographic exactness. It depicts a bare-breasted Tanning with grasping roots emerging from her skirt, a winged monkey-beast lurking below. Although clearly indebted to surrealism, it feels utterly contemporary, too—there’s a sense of self-exposure as self-empowerment that brings to mind Courtney Love.
Jettisoning Guggenheim, Ernst immediately moved in with Tanning. She writes, “There was no discussion. It was as if he had found a house. Yes, I think I was his house. He lived in me, he decorated me, he watched over me.” The marriage was an unusual one, by her own admission—Tanning has always craved privacy, and she often depicts Ernst as a rather self-enclosed figure, “isolated as an unnamed island.” The two didn’t really share a common language, and mostly communicated nonverbally. They were partners in solitude.
By the early ’40s, surrealist refugees from war-torn Europe swamped Manhattan. Tanning recalls evenings spent playing surrealist games with Ernst’s pals and playing matchmaker for the freshly divorced André Breton. The surrealists were notorious for their chauvinism, and Tanning agrees that their mystification of Woman had the effect of reducing females to an enigmatic essence: “They liked to dream over the idea of Woman, to make her into something fictional, almost mythological. Or a victim . . . Most of them painted fierce pictures of all kinds of tortures practiced on the female figure.” In the last few decades, feminist historians have grappled with the subject of women in the avant-garde—the surrealists, the beats, and other modernist movements treated women as some combination of mommy, muse, mistress, and manager. In reaction, there’s been a trend toward examining women’s art as a separate genre—a development Tanning thoroughly despises as ghettoization: “For years and years I’d get these letters about women artist shows, and I’d always refuse,” she says, scowling.
During the late ’40s and ’50s, living first in Arizona and then in France, Tanning painted some of her most well-known pictures: theatrical, nightmarish tableaux littered with clues that lead nowhere. Many feature Victorian little girls stripped of sugar-and-spice innocence, such as the two overripe pubescent nymphets who coolly embrace in Interior With Sudden Joy. By the ’60s, Tanning’s paintings had moved in an increasingly abstract direction, her once “formal, naturalistic, delineated” figures becoming more and more fluid and amorphous until, in pieces like Insomnias and A Gap to Be Filled, there’s barely any distinct body at all, just arabesques of flailing flesh. Her paintings had gradually shed all traces of surrealist influence (by then outmoded by abstract expressionism), although her own preoccupations and sensibility remained essentially the same as ever. Even the soft-fabric sculptures she began in the late ’60s—fantastic erotic furniture in which furry limbs mingle and merge, and tweed torsos ooze against doors—suggest the same secretive sensuality, the same cryptic fantasy world, as her earlier works on canvas.
To read Between Lives is to understand the painful double life of a female artist who spent her prime time partially as a devoted companion. “What had happened to my petulance?” she writes late in the book. “How had my lifelong lordliness wound up in a tangle of maneuvers having to do with woman rather than artist?” Yet Tanning also suggests that falling in love was not a career decision: It was her life. “Does the sharing of a direction deprive a female of her imagination? . . . To have been in a way a helpmate to so splendid and mysterious a human being . . . was in no way painful or degrading.”
Still, Tanning can’t help thinking about what her story might have been if Max had never entered the picture. Without hesitation, she offers, “I would have been an American artist. I certainly wouldn’t have lived in France all that time. When I came back to New York, I thought immediately they would have a retrospective of my work in one of these museums.” To this day, there has been no major U.S. exhibition. “At first it amazed me, then it worried me, and now I’m grateful, because it’s finally so peaceful. You just can’t regret anything in your life.”
Tanning will have exhibitions of works on paper at NYU’s Maison Française (opens August 30, 212-998-8750) and the Zabriskie Gallery (opens September 6, 212-752-1223).