By Jasmine Mansbridge
The thing I enjoy most about researching and getting to know the women I write these blog posts about, is how I inevitably find myself stimulated, inspired and almost spoken to by them. They lead me along little information tunnels to new ideas and old wisdom. I don’t always agree with them or relate to certain choices they have made, but they stick with me and challenge me all the same. These ladies of art history have paved the way for living creatively, for women such as myself to follow, and for that their stories will forever be etched in my mind.
Dorothea Tanning is one of these memorable, unique women. She lived a long and productive creative life. She was a painter, sculptor, poet and novelist, who passed away at the age of 101 in 2012. I am so very inspired by her to do the same, to create for a lifetime, to continue to push the boundaries of my work. It seems that in many cases art making stimulates a long life, and vice versa. While Dorothea is best known for her surrealistic paintings and her long relationship with the artist Max Ernst, there is so much more to this offbeat, beautiful, hardworking woman.
There is not a lot of information about Dorothea’s early life and she did say that this was because it was on the whole uninteresting, and she felt, “bound to chafe at the bonds of a loving but austere family life”. She was the middle daughter of Swedish immigrants, both once having had ambitious dreams of their own, her mother of being an actress and her father a cowboy. Their plans were to be replaced by the realities of domestic life, yet it would seem the seeds of their idealism took up in their daughter. Dorothea determined at a very young age that she would like to be an artist, so she left the small town of Galesburg to pursue her own success as soon as she was able.
In 1930, at the age of twenty, Dorothea spent a very short period of time studying at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art, before promptly dropping out. Aside from this short stint, she was a self taught artist and her style continued to develop and evolve over her lifetime. In 1936 Dorothea arrived in New York, very much a wide eyed midwestern girl, from a small town in Illinois. At first she was something of an outsider, but in time she became somewhat accepted as part of the artistic crowd in the city.
Her early works were in the Surrealist style. One of her most well known being; “Birthday”, which Max Ernst is said to have named. This painting shows Dorothea in a confident, bare chested pose, the surrealist qualities being the dream-like winged creature and the many doors opening down an endless corridor behind her. In these early works, Dorothea painted dream-like situations and the workings of the subconscious mind. She was meticulous in her attention to detail. Through the late 1940s, she continued to paint depictions of these surreal scenes, some of which combined erotic subjects with enigmatic symbols and desolate space.
Over the next decade however, Dorothea’s paintings become less explicit and more suggestive, and after her move to France, she began to move away from Surrealism and develop her own unique style altogether. As she explains, "Around 1955 my canvases literally splintered... I broke the mirror, you might say.”
By the late 1960s, Dorothea’s work was almost completely abstract, yet almost always suggestive of the female form. The biggest shift in her work came was after this though, when she created a body of three-dimensional, soft, fabric sculptures, five of which comprise the installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202, now in the permanent collection of the Musée National d'Art Moderne at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Her time in France from the 1950s to 1970s was a creative one and it was during this time that Dorothea also became an active printmaker and began writing as well. Her husband Max passed away in 1976 and so by 1980 she had relocated her home and studio back to where it all began in New York. Here she embarked on an energetic creative period, in which she produced paintings, drawings, collages, and prints, as well as writing volumes of poetry and books.
Dorothea’s 100th birthday in 2010 was celebrated by a number of exhibitions during the calendar year, these exhibitions in New York, France, Germany and Stockholm, recognised her contribution as an artist, across many mediums, movements and generations.
Her relationship with Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a successful artist, and when he met Dorothea he was already married to the wealthy socialite and art collector, Peggy Guggenheim. It is reported that the very day Max visited her studio to see her work, they “played chess and fell in love”, and he and his dog moved in literally a week later. Dorothea was different, sharp and clever and Max was smitten by her.
Dorothea's determination to leave her small home town for the promise and bright lights of New York had already started to pay off, and her work had begun to catch the eye of the 'right' people in New York. One can only speculate then, as to how far her talent would have taken her on her own, as there is no doubt that having the well connected Max become both her lover and a champion of her work, was instrumental in the instant rise of her artistic profile.
While Dorothea’s career was no doubt initially bolstered by her relationship with Ernst, her lifetime of artistic output is testament to the fact that she was indeed herself a creative force to be reckoned with and that with him or without him she would most likely have found success on her own. Max believed in Dorothea as an artist and referred to her a visionary, and a great talent. This belief would have been a wonderful encouragement over the years.
Dorothea became Max’s fourth wife after the couple married in 1946. Theirs was a joint wedding in Hollywood, alongside Man Ray and the dancer Juliet Browner.
The pair were together for thirty four years and in that time they changed location frequently. There were escapes from city life in New York to a remote outpost in Arizona, years spent in France working alongside other artists, and time spent soaking up the sun in Hawaii. They also lived apart some of the time, pursuing separate creative projects, but it seems they were always drawn back together and shared a common mind and a strong friendship. Max was comfortable with Dorothea’s need for independence and referred to her always as Dorothea Tanning, and not as his wife.
After Max’s death in 1976, Dorothea remained in France for several years, and began working with a new sense of concentration and vigour. She was to outlive him by almost three decades.
Dorothea made it clear that she had chosen to not have children, doting on her Pekinese dogs instead. In an interview she did with the Guardian in 2004
, she said that “children would have done more than interfere with my career, they would have ruined my life, as I was too poor
”. Perhaps she was aware of her own parent’s sacrifices for their family life and this informed this decision.
What we can be learn from Dorothea
To be bold in chasing your dreams! From a tender age Dorothea had a clear vision of herself as a successful artist and she pursued this dream relentlessly. When she arrived in New York she is said to have told the cab driver, “take me to Greenwich Village”, which at that time was the place for artists to live and work in New York. Don’t forget it took her until the painting of Birthday when she was thirty, to get her first big break. After years of working as a commercial artist, illustrating Macy’s fashion catalogues, eventually it was the quality of this work that caught the attention of the art dealer Julien Levy. This speaks of her commitment to doing her best work, even if it felt unrelated at the time, to her end goal.
I also think there is something to be said about her love for Max. Their 34 years together is testament to the great bond they shared. They may have started their relationship with some impulsivity but it certainly stood the test of time.
In Dorothea there is also the reminder that creativity comes in many forms. She didn’t just restrict herself to one way of doing things, but over her lifetime and right until the very end of her life, she continued to explore new ways of expressing her creativity.
Jasmine Mansbridge is a painter and mum to five kids. She regularly blogs about the intersection of creative work and family life at www.jasminemansbridge.com, and you can also find her on Instagram @jasminemansbridge.