Last term I had the opportunity to give an art lecture. My chosen artist was Dorothea Tanning.
I first came across her work at the Alison Jacques Gallery on the occasion of a retrospective exhibition entitled Web of Dreams. It was named after one of her paintings and spanned the periods 1939-89. She has since become one of my most favourite artists, from whom I draw great inspiration. The title, Web of Dreams, really sums up what I love about her work: the jumble of fractured ethereal spaces, tangled bodies, prismatic surfaces and rich colours. Together, they deliver a deeper emotional richness and at times a dark eeriness that I really enjoy.
Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) lived until she was 101. She was an American artist who, to begin with, was closely associated with surrealism; over time she developed a more individual style. In addition to her work as a painter, she wrote two autobiographies and several novels, launching a second career as a poet in her 80s. She won the Wallace Stevens Award of the Academy of American Poets. Dorothea Tanning was married to Max Ernst, the German painter and pioneer of the Dada movement and Surrealism.
‘Family Portrait’, oil on canvas, 1977
An evening in Sedona, oil on canvas, 1976
To my mind, the series Insomnias, beginning in 1955, is amongst some of her most poignant work, described by her in unpublished notes: all of my pictures of this period I felt you should discover slowly and that they would almost be kaleidoscopes that would shimmer and that you would discover something new every time you looked at it.
‘Midi et demi’ (Half Past Noon), oil on canvas, 1957 – Full of hidden forms, the colours in these paintings seem almost crystalized in their fragmentation.
Alongside Insomnias, and bearing the same intensity are her ‘living sculptures’, completed towards the end of the 60s, and her matured paintings in the 70’s. The latter encompasses her series of flower paintings exhibited this year in London – the first time since 1999.
‘Asclepius formidabilis’ (Griefbane), oil on canvas, 1997 – Dorothea Tanning: Flower Paintings, September/October 2016, Alison Jacques Gallery
I prepared feverishly for the talk and in the end it paid off, I enjoyed sharing sharing, and in some cases introducing, the work of Dorothea Tanning to my peers. The time spent researching was beneficial in enriching my own knowledge and understanding of her journey as an artist. This was aided by the fact that Dorothea Tanning was a proloific writer as well as artist who left behind a wealth of fascinating and insightful material. It felt as if I were receiving a guided tour into her life.
For those keen to learn more I would recommend her autobiography, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, 2001 and her novel, Chasm: A Weekend, 2004. A Public Space is a NY based literary and cultural magazine that this year featured a short story by Dorothea Tanning, Dream It Or Leave It, along with extracts from her personal journal, rough sketches and letters written to friends while she resided in Sedona. These can be found in Issue 24, Spring 2016.
‘Pounding Strong’, oil on canvas, 1981