Dorothea Tanning, an artist who initially gained recognition for her surrealist paintings and later expanded her oeuvre to include sculpture, theatre design, prose and poetry, passed away on Jan. 31. She died peacefully in her Manhattan home at the age of 101. Her second husband, Max Ernst, precedes her in death; she is survived by three nieces and a nephew.
Born August 25, 1910, Tanning spent her childhood in Galesburg, Ill., and later attended Knox College for two years. Feeling incongruous amongst a student body whose orbital center was Greek life and football, she often took to the shelves of the Galesburg Public Library, where she intoxicated herself with the works of Poe, Whitman, De Quincy and Anatole France — all restricted reading material at the time.
These works, along with her inherent sense of adventure, eventually led her to leave Galesburg, dropping out of school to live in Chicago and later in New York City.
In her most recent book of poems, “Coming to That” (Graywolf Press, 2011), Tanning reflected on her Midwest upbringing in a poem titled “Cedar Fork.” It is there that she writes, “Cedar Fork creek, had to be going to a somewhere else and we had to find it.”
That somewhere else included the art world of New York City, which was set on fire in 1936 by the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, a show that announced that the avant-garde was stretching its European roots. The 26-year-old Tanning saw these artworks as seductive signposts, each alluring her to challenge herself and her medium.
After a trip in the summer of 1939 to war-ready Europe, Tanning returned to New York City, and in 1941, Julien Levy began showing her work. It was also around this time that Tanning married Max Ernst.
They lived first in Sedona, AZ and later in France, where Ernst died in 1976. She met her husband’s death with strength, continuing to produce paintings of shocking vibrancy and fabric-like texture — though now and again, her mourning was palpable. Still in the Studio (1979) perhaps expresses this best: one of Tanning’s signature morphological bodies leans against a desk, the flesh slowly dissipating into an absence that is co-mingled with the negative space of the room.
As painting became more physically difficult, Tanning took to the written word, writing two memoirs, a novel and two volumes of poetry. Tanning was fond of calling herself “the oldest living emerging poet.”
The Tanning legacy
Tanning’s legacy will continue to inspire and thrive, if last year’s happenings are any indicator. In October, Tanning’s work was celebrated at the Museum of Modern Art — the very same venue where Tanning first experienced surrealism.
Knox’s own Phillip Sydney Post Professor of English Robin Metz attended the event to read Tanning’s “Cedar Fork” and discuss her Galesburg ties. In 1988, Tanning received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Knox College, and the Seymour Library is home to much of her undergraduate art and writing.
Additionally, last spring, Knox hosted a symposium on the life and artwork of Dorothea Tanning, “From Galesburg Roots to Worldwide Fame.”
That same weekend, a marker designed by Christie Ferguson was erected outside her childhood home. The world had changed drastically since Tanning’s youth, as was illustrated by the attendees, who came in cars and Nike tennis shoes, showing that time is the original surrealist. Certainly, it will continue its work.
That Tanning lived for over a century earns our comment; that she filled those years with the unparalleled richness of her own vision wins our praise; but it is the endurance of her work and the sensibility it continues to inspire that is worthy of our awe.