Grande Dame in Eternal Exile: Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)
Long assumed to be already dead, often confused with someone else, Dorothea Tanning managed to maintain the mystique of the true artist, muse even, whilst all her contemporaries fell victim to the obligatory museum retrospective and illustrated biography.
Yes, she was still alive, and all of 101, and no, she was neither Leonora nor Dorothea Carrington, but what Tanning maintained above all else was the grand patrician aura of the lover of arts, connoisseur and patron, the ‘amateur’ in the French and best sense of the word, for whom literature, music, theatre, civilised conversation were as important as her own work.
What made this the more refreshing was that unlike certain self-promoters and media darlings, unlike those who hustle to maintain their supposèd importance, Tanning had actually produced a handful of major, significant and influential art works.
Whenever I went past that rather noble corner of Fifth Avenue where she resided I thought with a discrete, private pleasure, “Ah, the last of the secret society of Surrealists is still hidden here, being herself, even in our own ghastly era” and would tip the metaphoric hat up at her curtains, chintz even I recall.
Thanks to that unusual name, and no Surrealist should be called ‘Smith’, every passing sunbed-emporium blaring TANNING would make me think of her, I hardly knew her, triggering a brief flow of pleasant associations, bus-musings, until the next shop should catch my eye.
She loved poetry – she wrote it and supported it, financially and more importantly morally, and actually actively read the stuff. She loved flowers and was expert upon them. She was witty, sharp, smart, had known ‘everyone’ and still knew a vast range of intriguing, important people. And I really liked her apartment. Everyone loved to talk about her in terms that recall those Japanese ‘Living National Treasures’, whether America’s greatest contemporary composer, Robert Ashley, to whom she was somehow related, or the Filipacchi family who rightly treated her with utmost reverence.
The first time I went to interview her, after more than an hour of highly enjoyable dirt dishing she paused dramatically, “And now I think it’s time….” So I scrambled to my feet agreeing I certainly should be on my way, I could not exhaust her any further, after all she was already over ninety, “No, no… it’s time for the champagne!”
Two bottles and as many hours later I emerged onto the sparkling mica of the midsummer pavement, “drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue” filled with a bonhomie, an old-fashioned wellbeing worthy of Sedona, Arizona in 1947 or Paris in the early fifties.
She did not like being labeled a ‘woman’ artist and she did not like being branded a ‘Surrealist’ and she would have surely hated the boom in exhibitions, books, Phd dissertations and catalogues devoted to the theme of ‘Female Surrealists’, one of which, inevitably, is currently duitfully trundling round the institutions.*
Indeed Tanning had lasted long enough to already fall prey to a first flurry of such academic researchers coming round to prove their already-fixed assumptions, and had given them suitably short shrift, exploding their neat categories: “I am not even a woman, let alone a Surrealist!”
I had read her book Birthday (proud she signed it for me) which was incredibly good, an exceptional piece of writing quite aside from all art-historical interest, a book I remain surprised is not better known nor regarded as a ‘Modern Classic’ or whatever they call them nowadays. In fact, if she had done nothing else the creation of Birthday would have been achievement enough.
I also got her to sign a collection of poems that she had chosen and paired with her own paintings, many by her many writer friends, which made clear the literary affinities, the skein of poetic associations, within her own work, ‘Surrealism’ having of course been first and foremost a literary rather than visual movement.
To tell the truth I was never really interested in Max Ernst anyway, his looks, though obviously impressive, were too Aryan for my taste, and thus luckily I had no temptation to dwell on him.
Likewise Leonora Carrington, also Ernst’s lover and hence the occasional confusion, never struck me as particularly engaging. For she even shares her name with another woman artist, that Dora of Bloomsbury-fame (who even had a feature film, the eponymous Carrington all about her) and the first duty of any artist is to have a unique name that not one other artist shares. Dorothea Carrington’s work also seemed a bit kitschy and derivative, an impression confirmed by a recent exhibition at Pallant House, Chichester, where such sketchy whimsy failed to awe.
By contrast Tanning’s work never seemed overtly indebted to Ernst, or any other artist, and her most famous painting Birthday of 1942 is a key Surrealist image, resonant, disturbing, long-lasting, and closely-matched by Eine kleine nachtmusik of the next year.
Anyone who knows about poetry knows that one only has to write one good poem, in terms of posterity that’s all anyone is likely to achieve, more than most of us will manage. Likewise one really great, really memorable painting is sufficient to go down in the annals of art-history, and with Birthday Tanning had won her immortality already. And in terms of her own poetry I would suggest that just one really good title is something, and no title was more appropriate than her perfect invention of ‘Sequestrienne’.
But that’s not all! For even if her later paintings are perhaps not quite one’s tasse, there was to be yet one more major breakthrough in an entirely different medium, namely the soft-fabric sculptures she started in 1969. These not only prefigure the work of Louise Bourgeois, who certainly saw them, but also that of Sarah Lucas, who had not seen them but was later astonished by their similarities. These are truly weird, utterly uncanny objects, especially when assembled in tableaux groupings, such as the installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–73) at the Pompidou. And they broke completely new ground in their compound of corporeal presence and ‘women’s-work’, all that stitching, synthetic fur and sensual softness. With this clearly female concentration on the body, on sex, fatness, femininity, Tanning single-handedly kick-started a whole style, heralded an entire sub-genre of such work.
I would prefer to remember her as an elegant dilettante, an Grande Dame in eternal exile, a latter-day society hostess, the Dada Mrs Dalloway, one who never had to try too hard, but the truth is that Tanning was also a damn good artist, despite herself.
Just three of her major early 1940s paintings and a room of her early ‘70s sculptures should be enough to convince anyone of her continued importance.
The last time I talked to Tanning was on the phone and after that classic clatter of all nonagenarian telephonic openings, distant kitchen noises and female-helpers and several false starts, she could not have been clearer. “ I’m just too old to talk to anyone….I have to die, it’s been going on for far too long, I’m far too old, I’m sorry but I really have to die. It’s time I died now.”
Tanning has at last achieved her ambition and as she put it in that perfectly entitled poem for herself, Secret: “Why hear congratulations for doing nothing but live?”
* In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, January 29 to May 6, 2012.