Madonna Has Nothing on Dorothea Tanning: Reinventing the Creative Life From Age 15 to 101
When Dorothea Tanning died this week, at age 101, the New York Times proclaimed: "Surrealist Painter dies at 101."
Too bad the Times didn't have more room in its headline. "Surrealist Painter" doesn't even begin to describe this remarkable woman.
That label, in fact, leaves out the entire second half of Tanning's long, "eventful, capricious and cerebrally screwball life". Surrealism was "a big part of my life," she told Gaby Wood in an interview in the Guardian when her first novel was published seven years ago, "but not all."
Yes, when she died, Dorothea Tanning was the last living member of the surrealist movement. Yes, she was the widow of surrealist painter Max Ernst whom she had married in 1946 in a joint wedding ceremony with surrealist photographer Man Ray and his bride. But Tanning was 45 when she broke away from the surrealist movement. And she was 66 when Ernst died in 1976.
She did a lot of living -- and achieving -- after all that.
In the mid-1950s, after abandoning surrealism, she turned to abstract painting and developed her own unique style: prismatic paintings like Insomnias (shown at left).
In the '70s, she was making soft, cloth sculptures like the Reclining Nude (shown above), now owned by the Tate Gallery in London.
Tanning never talked art with her famous artist husband, she told Wood in that Guardian interview. "We just had fun. We both had senses of humour, and we enjoyed using them." But when Wood asked her if she felt a kind of artistic liberation after her husband died, Tanning admitted that she "made as much art" after Ernst died as she had during their marriage.
Tanning, in fact, continued to paint and exhibit and sell her work until her late eighties. She had painted her first painting at age 15. She stopped in 1998 at age 88.
Then she turned to another creative endeavor: writing.
First poetry. Then a memoir. And finally a novel.
At age 89, Tanning started publishing poetry. In "Another Language of Flowers," Tanning paired each of her last paintings -- 12 large canvases of imaginary flowers -- with a poem by a favorite poet. Within a year, she was publishing her own poems in Poetry, Parnassus, the Paris Review, the New Yorker, Ploughshares and the Yale Review.
At age 91, she published her second memoir. "Between Lives: An Artist and Her World" expanded on an earlier memoir called "Birthday" (named after her 1942 surrealist self-portrait shown below) that she had published at in 1986.
At age 94, she finished her first novel. "Chasm: The Weekend," the story of a little girl and a lion in the Arizona desert. It was published by the feminist UK publisher, Virago in 2004. The Guardian called it "a brilliant debut."
Also that year, an American publisher, Graywolf Press, issued Tanning's first book of poetry, "A Table of Content." "Each word is a deliberate stroke, somehow perfectly right," one critic raved. The book's epigraph reads: "It's hard to be always the same person."
Reinvention? Madonna has nothing on Dorothea Tanning. "She goes out of the room, comes back, and she's someone else -- and after a few hours I think, Phew, that'll do for a while!"
Born and raised in Galesburg, Ill., the daughter of a Swedish born father who was friend's with poet Carl Sandburg, Tanning said her parents were always afraid she would become a "bohemian." No wonder she hated labels. She once said the term "woman artist" disgusted her.
Still, despite all her late-in-life achievements, Tanning knew she would never be able to shake the surrealist label. "I guess I'll be called a surrealist forever," she told Salon in 2002. "...But please don't say I'm carrying the surrealist banner. The movement ended in the 50s and my own work had moved on so far by the 60s that being called a surrealist today makes me feel like a fossil!"
There was though at least one person in her life who refused to reduce her to a single description. Max Ernst, her husband of 30 years, never referred to her as his "wife," she always proudly pointed out. He simply called her "Dorothea Tanning."