Biography

Dorothea Tanning (b.1910, Galesburg, Illinois, US; d.2012, New York, US) explored the disciplines of painting, sculpture, printmaking, collage, design, soft sculpture, installation and writing throughout her career. As a young artist, Tanning drew inspiration from Gothic and Romantic literature and Surrealism, creating fantastical and dream-like realms to investigate the human form and condition. As her work imagery and techniques evolved over the decades, she maintained an ambition to give form to imaginary worlds, as she explained in her 2001 memoir, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World: ‘I wanted to lead the eye into spaces that hid, revealed, transformed all at once and where there would be some never-before-seen image, as if it had appeared with no help from me.’1

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After moving to New York in 1935, Tanning worked as a commercial artist to support herself, producing advertisements for clients including Macy’s department store. At first glance, her early oil paintings bear some resemblance to this commercial work, with detailed interiors and landscapes populated with finely drawn figures of women with their finery and flowers. Yet they also represent new freedom in their depictions of dreamscapes, nudity and more challenging themes. Her early images often feature domestic interiors, in which a door left ajar alludes to the threshold between spaces – sometimes ominous – between the conscious and the unconscious mind. In 1945, Tanning also designed costumes for George Balanchine’s ballet The Night Shadow, initiating a working relationship with him that would continue for the best part of a decade.

While Tanning’s early paintings invite the viewer to explore fantastical landscapes and architectural settings, in which multiple paths are open to the eye and the imagination, from the mid-1950s onwards, Tanning’s imagery became more abstract. Her brushstrokes became looser and more expressive, built up in gauze-like layers, veiling bodies that seem to be ecstatic in their movements. In departing from her earlier illusionistic style, she remained faithful to the figure, which evolved from a naturalistically rendered body to more mature, sensual, and often distorted feminine form.

Tanning never ceased to experiment beyond painting with different media and techniques. In the late 1960s through early 1970s, she worked in soft sculpture, stitching fabric and melding stuffed elements with items of furniture and architecture to create works that inhabited space in uncanny ways. Some of these soft sculptures evoke reclining figures and statuary from antiquity, while others are more dreamlike, emerging from the walls or conjoined with furniture. They culminated in an installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202, (Poppy Hotel, Room 202, 1970–73). In this sculptural room biomorphic human figures merge with and emerge from furniture, a hearth and the walls, literally breaking through the surface of the wallpaper. Her explorations also encompassed collages made from paper, photographs, photocopies and fabric whose torn elements recall the torn wallpaper as well as the clothing worn by the figures in her early paintings.

Tanning’s final paintings, made when she was in her 80s, are a series of 12 flowers, one for each month of the year, which she described in the accompanying book Another Language of Flowers (1998), as ‘naked, precise depictions of visions as real to me as botanical specimens are to the scientist’. These were in sense meditations on the relationship between images and poetry. Later in life, Tanning devoted herself more fully to her writing, producing two volumes of poetry, memoirs and a novel, Chasm: A Weekend (2004).

When she died in 2012 at the age of 101, Tanning’s life and work had spanned several historical epochs and cultural shifts, from modernity to postmodernity and the transition to a new millennium. Although Tanning lived through successive waves of feminism, she always resisted the idea that a woman’s art might be analysed according to different criteria than a man’s, asserting in 1990: ‘Women artists. There is no such thing – or person. It’s just as much a contradiction in terms as “man artist” or “elephant artist”.’2

In 2018, The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, held a major exhibition of the artist’s work which travelled to the Tate Modern, London in 2019. Major solo shows during her lifetime included Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia (2000); Camden Arts Centre, London (1993); Malmö Konsthall, Malmö (1993); and Centre Pompidou, Paris (1974). Tanning’s work has been acquired by museums worldwide, including The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate, London; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, and Centre Pompidou, Paris.

  1. Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), p.214
  2. ‘Dorothea Tanning by Carlo McCormick’, BOMB Magazine, 1 October 1990

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Works

Tableau vivant (Living Picture), 1954

Oil on canvas
116.6 x 88.8 cm (45 7/8 x 35 in); framed: 117.8 x 90.5 x 3.2 cm (46 3/8 x 35 5/8 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

The Moonstone Effect, 1959

Oil on canvas
114 x 146 cm (44 7/8 x 57 1/2 in); framed: 117 x 149 cm (46 1/8 x 58 5/8)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

L’Heure mauve (The Mauve Hour), 1965

Oil on canvas
18.1 x 14 cm (7 1/8 x 5 1/2 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

L’Avant-garde (The Avant-garde), 1966

Oil on canvas
161.9 x 130 cm (63 3/4 x 51 1/4 in); framed: (165.9 x 134 cm, 65 1/4 x 52 3/4 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

Pour Gustave l’adoré, 1974

Oil on canvas
framed: 119.5 x 92.4 cm (47 1/8 x 36 3/8 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

Study for Murmurs, 1976

Coloured pencil and graphite on paper
framed: 81.5 x 62 cm (32 1/8 x 24 3/8 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

Thoughtful Group, 1978

Oil on canvas
19.1 x 26.7 cm (7 1/2 x 10 1/2 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

Poses Outside the Studio, 1979

Graphite and coloured ink on Japan paper
27.9 x 38.1 cm (11 x 15 in); framed: 52.1 x 60.3 cm (20 1/2 x 23 3/4 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

Project for a Fainting, 1979

Oil on canvas
144.5 x 113.3 cm (56 7/8 x 44 5/8 in); framed: 151.5 x 120.3 cm (59 5/8 x 47 3/8 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

Odalisque Plagued by Eyrinis, 1982

Graphite and watercolour on board
47 x 69.9 cm (18 1/2 x 27 1/2 in), framed: 66.8 x 87.6 cm (26 1/4 x 34 1/2 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

Relationship: Friends or Enemies, 1985

Oil on canvas
framed: 33.7 x 44 cm (13 1/4 x 17 3/8 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

Untitled, 1990

Pastel on board
50.7 x 67 cm (20 x 26 3/8 in); framed: 71.4 x 87.3 cm (28 1/8 x 34 3/8 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

Blue Mom, 1994

Oil on canvas
130 x 97 cm (51 1/8 x 38 1/4 in); framed: 133.3 x 99.1 cm (52 1/2 x 39 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

Victory, 2005

Burnt toast, graphite and crayon on black paper with antique frame
24.8 x 29.7 x 3.8 cm (9 3/4 x 11 3/4 x 1 1/2 in)
© Artists Rights Society, New York, and ADAGP, Paris

  • Tableau vivant (Living Picture), 1954
  • The Moonstone Effect, 1959
  • L’Heure mauve (The Mauve Hour), 1965
  • L’Avant-garde (The Avant-garde), 1966
  • Pour Gustave l’adoré, 1974
  • Study for Murmurs, 1976
  • Thoughtful Group, 1978
  • Poses Outside the Studio, 1979
  • Project for a Fainting, 1979
  • Odalisque Plagued by Eyrinis, 1982
  • Relationship: Friends or Enemies, 1985
  • Untitled, 1990
  • Blue Mom, 1994
  • Victory, 2005

Press

The Super-Gallerist Putting Women in the Picture

Francesca Gavin, Financial Times

November 2020

A Slew of Shows Celebrates Surrealist Women

Philomena Epps, Frieze

September 2020

New Art Books for the New Season

Michael Glover, Hyperallergic

September 2020

National Galleries of Scotland acquire Dorothea Tanning painting

Phyllis Stephen, The Edinburgh Reporter

August 2019

Alyce Mahon on the Enigmatic Dorothea Tanning

Alyce Mahon, ART UK

April 2019

The Dark, Intriguing Legacy of Dorothea Tanning

Hannah Keegan, Stylist Magazine

March 2019

Lessons in Rebellion and Reinvention

Laura Cumming, The Observer

March 2019

Painting and Perception Collide in the Work of Dorothea Tanning

Claire-Louise Bennett, Frieze

March 2019

Surrealist Slips into the Unconscious

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times

February 2019

This Artist is the Surreal Deal

Matthew Collings, Evening Standard

February 2019

Where the Familiar Becomes Fantasy

Jackie Wullschläger, Financial Times

February 2019

Review: Dorothea Tanning, Tate Modern

Mark Hudson, The Telegraph

February 2019

Review: Dorothea Tanning, Tate Modern

Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

February 2019

The Shape-Shifter

Lauren Elkin, Tate Etc.

February 2019

A Call to New Adventures

Skye Sherwin, The Guardian

February 2019

A Pilgrimage to Dorothea Tanning’s Arizona Studio

Ilene Dube, Hyperallergic

December 2018

Dorothea Tanning’s Surrealist Depictions of Women’s Pain

Debra Brehmer, Hyperallergic

December 2018

Surreal Ideas About Sex

Ben Luke, The Art Newspaper

November 2018

The Magical Surrealism of Dorothea Tanning

Balasz Takac, Widewalls

October 2018

Dorothea Tanning Gets Long-Merited Major Survey

Hannah McGivern, The Art Newspaper

October 2018

The Market for Female Surrealists Has Reached a Tipping Point

Tess Thackara, Artsy

September 2018

5 minutes with… The Temptation of St. Anthony by Dorothea Tanning

Vanessa Fusco, Christie’s Magazine

May 2018

Overlooked Female Artists Getting Attention

Margaret Carrigan, Observer

March 2018

Dorothea Tanning’s Brazen, Bizarre Flower Paintings

Louisa Buck, The Telegraph

September 2016

Review: Dorothea Tanning, Alison Jacques Gallery

Mark Harris, Artforum

September 2016

Review: Dorothea Tanning, Alison Jacques Gallery

Robert Barry, The Quietus

September 2016

September Exhibition Round-Up

Louisa Buck, The Art Newspaper

September 2016

Review: Dorothea Tanning, Alison Jacques Gallery

Anne Blood, The Arts Desk

July 2012

Review: Dorothea Tanning, Drawing Room

Valery Oisteanu, The Brooklyn Rail

June 2010

Dorothea Tanning: ‘I’ve Always Been Perverse’

Gaby Wood, The Guardian

August 2004

Quiet Mystery

Jennifer Mundy, Tate Etc.

August 2003

Review: Dorothea Tanning, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Richard Howard, Artforum

April 2001

Review: Dorothea Tanning, New York Public Library

Roberta Smith, The New York Times

July 1992

Dorothea Tanning in conversation with Carlo McCormick

Carlo McCormick, BOMB

September 1990

Exhibitions

Dorothea Tanning: Worlds in Collision

24 January30 May 2020

Books

Dorothea Tanning: Transformations

Victoria Carruthers

2020

Dorothea Tanning

Tate

2018

Dorothea Tanning: Web of Dreams

Alison Jacques

2014

Dorothea Tanning: Early Designs for the Stage

The Drawing Center

2010

Chasm: A Weekend

Dorothea Tanning

2004

Between Lives: An Artist and Her World

Dorothea Tanning

2001

Dorothea Tanning

George Braziller

1995

News

Dorothea Tanning

in ‘Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity’, Guggenheim, Venice

The Graphic Work of Dorothea Tanning

The Menil Collection, Houston

Dorothea Tanning

in ‘She Models For Her’, The Shed, New York

Dorothea Tanning

Tate Modern, London

Dorothea Tanning

in ‘Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde’, Barbican Centre, London

Dorothea Tanning: Behind the Door, Another Invisible Door

Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid

Dorothea Tanning

in ‘Modern Times: American Art, 1910 - 1950’, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Maria Bartuszová, Birgit Jürgenssen, Michelle Stuart, Dorothea Tanning & Hannah Wilke

in ‘Virginia Woolf’, Tate St Ives, Cornwall

Dorothea Tanning

in ‘We are Completely Free: Women Artists and Surrealism’, Museo Picasso, Málaga

Lygia Clark, Sheila Hicks & Dorothea Tanning

in ‘Making & Unmaking’, Camden Arts Centre, London