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Bright Star of Surrealism

Dorothea Tanning’s retrospective exhibition is now on display at Tate Modern, London. Phantasmagorical images capture attention and monstrosity triggers your mind. I am not exaggerating. I always loved fairy tales.

Dorothea Tanning was a surrealist painter, a sculptor, a printmaker and, eventually, a writer. She was born in 1910, in Galesburg, Illinois. And she famously described that “nothing happened [there] but the wallpaper”. She lived a long life up to 101 and died in New York, having a career that lasted for more than 70 years. To illustrate what happened in between, I made an image to point out briefly several things what happened in the world, art market and Tanning’s lifetime.

Figure 1. Timeline of the events in the world, art world market and Tanning's lifetime.

What does it mean to live a century?

To be a witness, indirect on direct, of wars, assassinations, technological breakthrough, high achievements in areas that previously haven’t even existed.

What about 20thcentury in the Art World?

Neoclassicism, Social Realism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Post-Impressionism, Pop Art, Neo-Pop art, Primitivism, Neo-Expressionism, etc. Art World market represents a particular artist’s work that earned him a place at the list of the world’s most expensive paintings sold. Although the surrealists’ most iconic artworks aren’t on the list, this movement dating since 1920s had great influence on Abstract Expressionism, Pop art and Conceptualism, most notably, and the works by Young British Artists.


Surrealism started in Paris, and officially spread with André Breton’s first Surrealism manifesto. It looks that nothing was more popular than Surrealism during the 1920s and 1930s, almost all famous painters of the time produced surrealist works. Many artists, such as Francis Picabia, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, even Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara joined the group, as well as many writers and literary figures, film and video makers. I guess, the famous members of the group include Joan Mirò, René Magritte, and Salvador Dalí.

Figure 2. Group of Surrealists: (Top row, from left to right) unidentified, Hans Arp, Yves Tanguy, unidentified; (bottom row, from left to right) Andre Masson, Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Man Ray.


The exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1936 inspired Dorothea Tanning to embrace surrealists’ “efforts to plumb our deepest subconscious to found about ourselves”. She actively tried to encounter surrealists, sailed to Paris in 1939, but due to the outbreak of the Second World War, she was forced to return. However, the war brought many cultural refugees from Europe to New York at the time. In 1942, Tanning was introduced to Max Ernst, the German painter, who became her husband in four years. In 1944, Tanning received a first solo exhibition at her friend’s Julien Levy’s gallery in New York. Since then, she had numerous exhibitions worldwide with the latest retrospective at Tate Modern. In 1945, Tanning met a choreographer George Balanchine, with whom she later collaborated on creating four ballets, taking her part in costume design.

Artistic approach

To me it looks that Tanning’s interest in artworks developed within the places where she lived. The New York creative scene saw her style in meticulously rendered oil paintings in the early 1940s; once she moved to Arizona, her paintings responded to the desert landscape by corresponding colour pallet and alternative reality indoors; whereas in Paris she acquired more abstractedprismaticstyle of painting. Also, in Paris she turned her attention to soft cloth sculptures and printmaking. After her husband’s death, she returned to New York, where she explored her abilities in writing novels and poetry. The examples of each type of artworks are listed below.

+ Images of interiors and the dining tables

Precisely figurative renderings of dream like situations with details developing into surreal narrative were often seen in Tanning’s works. Eine Kleine Nachmusik,Max in a Blue Boat, Maternity,The Mirror,The Philosophers,La Truite au bleu, Portrait de famille show domestic objects, indoors settings with distorted reality.

+ Abstracted prismatic paintings

While previous images precisely and realistically rendered scenes with easily recognisable and associative symbols, Tanning’s later works feels like hiding the objects through veils. She said that she “wanted to make a picture that you didn’t see all at ones”. To my view, she succeeded in this. I was standing in front of Chiens de Cythere (Dogs of Chytera) counting ugly creatures, completely lost in her fantasy world. Poppies,Stanza, Crepuscula glacialis, Insomnies imply fairy-tales vision beyond ordinary imagination.

+ Soft sculptures

Tanning started making soft sculptures in the mid-1960s. She combined and juxtaposed textiles, table tennis balls, jigsaw pieces and pins to create bodily sculptures. Cousins, Verbe, Emma, Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 sculptures look grotesque, yet captivating attention.

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 deserves additional comment, as it is an unsettling sculptural installation, where bodies emerge through wallpapers and are part of furniture. The title comes from a popular song she remembered from her childhood and creates the effect of claustrophobic nightmare.

Longevity is not the characteristics that could be attributed to fabrics, might be said following Tanning’s choice of the material for sculptures. However, this is the main point: Tanning’s cloth sculptures speak more of fragility, like temporality of love and life.


Several symbols appearing continuously in Tanning’s works:

- Doors. Works from across Tanning’s career show doors left ajar or leading to other doors. The door becomes a surrealist symbol, a portal to the unconscious. While the open door represents choice and possibility, doors may also be used to lock up our most secret fairs and desires. A real door appears in her late painting Door 84 in 1984.

- Sunflowers. The only flower that could grow in heat of Arizona.

- Little young girls, about the age of entering the adults’ world, a point where dream and fantasy world is overcome by the ordinality.

- Dogs. The image of the dog – often based on Max Ernst’s pet, named Katchina – reappears in Tanning’s work. Sometimes she used the image of the dog playfully to represent herself.

Thinking about all the unrealistic setting of Tanning’s work I feel thrilled. Dorothea Tanning encourages to see the world differently, with its fairies and fantasies, consciously or unconsciously observing the everyday.

As her niece said, she was a glamourous and happy woman. Happy through (and in) her own world.


Dorothea Tanning – Pushing the Boundaries of Surrealism

Take a walk on the exhibition

All You Need to Know about Surrealism

Dorothea Tanning

Tate Modern


27 Feb – 9 Jun 2019

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