Women in art: Dorothea Tanning

dorothea tanning

 

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.

 

Early life

 

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.

 

Her work

 

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.

 

Family

 

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.

 

You can read more about Dorothea Tanning in this essay, on her website or in her obituary.

 

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.

 

Women in art: Patti Smith

Women-in-art-patti-smith-creative-womens-circle-jasmine-mansbridge

By Jasmine Mansbridge

Patti Smith is a writer, performer and visual artist, often affectionately referred to as the “grandmother of punk”. She was born in Chicago on December 30, 1946 and is still touring and creating today. She grew up in rural New Jersey, moving to New York in the 1970’s. It was during these years, living with fellow artist and friend Robert Mapplethorpe, that she soaked up the atmosphere of the 1970’s experimenting with various art forms, including writing poetry and creating artwork.

My quest for information about Patti went as it usually does, “watching” YouTube clips while I painted, listening to interviews and reading whatever information might be available. I also read Patti’s memoir Just Kids, which she wrote in 2010. The book documents not only her own journey as a young emerging artist, but also her complex relationship with fellow creative Robert Mapplethorpe. Patti Smith’s written work is a pleasure to read. She has a natural way with words. She draws you in to her inner world and connects with readers on many levels.

On being in a relationship

Patti speaks openly about the key relationships in her life. Reading books Patti says, shaped her ideals about being female, romance, relationships and freedom.  She was given “The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera” for her sixteenth birthday and in Just Kids she says, “I imagined myself as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker. I dreamed of meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side.” These words indicated to me Patti’s romanticised ideal of a relationship.

Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe’s story is an intriguing one. They met not long after she arrived in New York and their relationship became one that was pretty much based on Patti’s muse/maker ideal. Their common bond as artists meant that they were able to maintain a bond and a deep friendship throughout their lives, even after their physical relationship changed.

In the early days, Patti worked various day jobs to support Robert while he worked on his art full time. She saw this as her contribution to his career, it wasn’t until later on that she was able to work of her own material full time.

The passing of time saw Patti and Robert’s relationship change, as Robert came to terms with his homosexuality. They continued to live together and support each other, however, agreeing to do so until such point at which they had both become independent of each other.

A high point in Patti and Robert’s relationship was the exhibition they had together at the Robert Miller Gallery in 1978. This was to be Patti’s first exhibition in the Gallery and the only time the two exhibited together. After this exhibition, they both went their separate ways, having kept their promise to see each other safely to success. Patti went on the road with her band and Robert’s focus became more and more on his photography, which was bringing him high acclaim.

Patti’s next significant relationship was with Fred Sonic Smith. Fred and her were both musicians and they met when she was touring. They bonded over a common love of poetry and Patti says it was Fred who she decided to marry in 1980, (the joke was apparently that she married Fred because she wouldn’t have to change her surname).

Patti talks warmly of her relationship with Fred and their move to the suburbs of Detroit. She said this time had been similar in feeling, to her early days with Robert Mapplethorpe. Starting with nothing but a few favourite things for possessions, and then waiting to see what the future would bring. Patti and Fred went on to have two children, Jackson and Jessie, and settled into a routine dictated by their domestic needs.

The next space in time was one of deep sadness for Patti. These two important men in her life both passed away. Robert died first of HIV AIDS in 1989 and then her husband Fred of heart failure in 1994. In this same period, Patti’s brother and her pianist also died. At this point Patti decided to take a break from her creative career to focus on bringing up her two children, moving from Detroit back to New York.

It is truly moving to hear Patti’s first hand accounts of these significant relationships as she shares them in her memoir. It is Patti’s openness and vulnerability that further endears her to her fans. One gathers that in her life Patti loves deeply, loyally and unreservedly. My observations are that Patti has always been an equal partner in her relationships. She talks about relationships in ways that take responsibility for her own actions in them, right or wrong.

I took away from this the importance of honesty and complete acceptance of another person. To allow each other freedom and space, for both difference and growth. Of course this is always easier said than done. But, as in Patti’s case, the rewards are reaped in having that understanding and room to move, granted to one’s self as well.

On being creative

Patti says that as a child she was not gifted, but she was imaginative and that she was rewarded at school for being so. She says of being an artist that, “I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, though I hungered to be one.”  From childhood Patti had devoured books and poetry and she talks about having the sense that there was something for her to say as an artist, and that somehow she would find her voice.

Patti has ended up a household name for being one of the first “poet” musicians. She was basically a published poet who went on to add rock/punk musical layers to her words. She landed a record deal and released the debut album “Horses” in 1975. Her work subsequently had a major impact on both the punk movement and the associated musical scene, especially in America and England. Patti became an icon to subsequent generations of punk rockers. Patti is also a visual artist and has been represented by the Robert Miller Gallery since 1978.

What struck me ,the more I researched Patti, is the calm she seems to have maintained about being an “artist”. Even when she felt like she had nothing to show for the fact. She never seems to have appeared anxious or desperate about having her work seen or heard. It seems like her sense of self was always there, unwavering. She credits her association with Robert Mapplethorpe for this attitude.

In her dress and her manner she never appears to be overly concerned with material things. It is her books and her tools such as pencils and notebooks that she treasures most. These things all speak to me of a deep inner self confidence.

During the early years of her career Patti seems to have met the right people at the right time. People who encouraged her and gave her opportunities. Patti says in her memoir that at times her success had seemed to come a bit too easily, and that she hadn't wanted that. Patti actually turned down the first opportunity to publish her poems because she felt she had not earned the right and “the spoils of battle were not yet to be hers”.

Of all the knowledge I gleaned from Just Kids, there is one quote that will remain for me: “That we are mortal, our work is not, do your best work, let your work stand alone”. This is wonderful advice for any artist at any stage in one’s career.

Patti has gone on to have a lifetime of achievement. In 2005, Patti Smith was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and in 2007 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both fitting honours for this artist who has lived true to her ideals of creating original work throughout her lifetime.

On being a woman

It is hard to not make a comment about Patti’s appearance. It is one of the things about her that has impressed me. With her strong nose and thin frame, Patti has an androgynous, raw beauty which adds to the uniqueness of her character. Throughout her life she appears to not give a damn about what others think. The original “messy hair, don’t care” girl. I see much of a current “it” girl, Alexa Chung mirrored in her look. Rail thin with bangs and over sized t-shirts (I wonder what Patti thinks of that?).

Patti often describes herself as having been an outsider and a wallflower in her youth. As a young girl she found the changes in her body as she grew, awkward and unwanted.  She says she wished she could have stayed a child forever, just like Peter Pan.

In her role as artist Patti has never made an issue of her gender. She talks about this as being a deliberate act on her behalf, so she could be a kind of “third” gender. She sought to call attention to herself as an artist, not as a woman. Patti simply dressed and performed in the spirit of her male rock and role models, as if no alternative had ever occurred to her. In the process, she obliterated the expectations of what was possible for women in rock, and stretched the boundaries of how artists of any gender could express themselves. Patti saw her music as a way to be genderless and many of the lyrics of her songs are ambiguous with regards to meaning and sexual references.

Another fact about Patti that I found interesting is that she was not a drug user.  And I am not alone in presuming that with her waif like appearance and with the culture of drug use in her time, that she would of been “on” something. Her peers back in the day also presumed she was a drug user. Patti didn’t even smoke, although she modelled for photos with a cigarette to perfect a “look”. Patti had the occasional high, but had always felt that drug use wasn’t for her. Patti is the perfect example of why stereotyping people is unfair (and perhaps her choice to not use drugs is a contributing factor in her success even today). Patti was a women who blazed a trail for many other artists to follow.

On being a mother

Patti says that she had felt it a cruel betrayal of nature when after a brief experience with another boy as inexperienced as herself, she found herself pregnant at age nineteen. She speaks beautifully and poignantly of this time in her memoir. She went on to have the baby, adopting it to a couple who could not have a child of their own.

When she became a parent again later in life, Patti took the role seriously, leaving the professional music scene to take care of her children. I admire her decision to do this and once again it speaks of her confidence in herself and in her abilities as an artist.

Patti says that it had been perfect timing for her and Fred to marry and for them to become parents. She had started to feel like she had accomplished her mission with her music and that there was no more room for growth just being on the road.

Later on, after her husband Fred’s death, Patti was left a sole parent to her children. Patti says that her years spent mostly at home being domestic were not wasted and had made her a better human being. Upon reflection she states that being a mother had made her more empathetic and more knowledgeable about the world. That the discipline of caring, cooking, cleaning and washing etc had been good for her. It was also in this period that she began to focus on her writing. Piecing together the story that was to become her memoir.

There is a beautiful quote from “Just Kids”, when Patti talks about being pregnant with her daughter Jessie and visiting Robert for the last time before he passed away. He was gravely ill and she had travelled from Detroit with Fred to New York to spend time with him. Patti recalls, “Within that moment was trust, compassion, and our mutual sense of irony. He was carrying death within him and I was carrying life. We were both aware of that, I know.” 

Patti remains close to her children, they are both musicians and she performs with them on stage when she has the opportunity. She says that through them she feels the presence of their father Fred and that they have been a wonderful gift to her life.

Things to learn from Patti Smith...

When you see Patti performing her music in all her rock and roll glory, you only see one side of her. Dig deeper and her writing and speaking reveals a very different side. Patti talks about this contradiction and says it is true, she is as comfortable screaming down a microphone as she is cooking dinner for her children, or curled up reading a book. She is the same person doing all these things. I found this interesting as it is something I wrestle with sometimes myself, the contradictions within ones self. These contradictions Patti says give her the platform to create meaningful work.

I could go on, but in short, here are the most useful things from I gleaned from Patti’s story:

  • Remember to keep focused on doing your best work as an artist (not always the most popular work).
  • Try not to get caught up in being competitive with other creatives and be creative in whatever way comes to you.
  • Avoid wanting the “celebrity” of art, without the work and the sacrifice.
  • Remember that it may take a lifetime to work out what it is you want to say, and that what you want to say might change.
  • Be prepared for hard times as well as good times.
  • Be independent as a women, but also being able to love and be loved.
  • Don't let being a women affect your work or how you allow yourself to be perceived.
  • It is okay to put your family first when needed.
  • You can step back from your creative career and still be successful long term.
  • Be your own wise counsel.
  • You are mortal, your work is not, so make your work your best.

For more about Patti Smith, check out this video, and this one, and this one; this article at The Guardian; some info about Fred Sonic Smith; and of course, her memoir, Just Kids

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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.