Saturday, October 1, 2016

Artist Blog: Dorothea Tanner by Lizzet Clifton

Dorothea Tanning was born in Illinois in 1910. She attended Chicago Academy of Art in 1930 before realizing that such a tightly controlled curriculum was not for her. She became a self-taught artist who made a place for herself within the surrealist movement with her early works. Her imagination was always a dynamic one, and her wish was to represent it. Because of this desire, her works began to change and mature throughout the course of her career. She reinvented the human body in a dynamic and fluid way, focusing on luring in viewers and distracting them at the same time, showing impulse and ephemerality in her older works.

This piece, “Doors”, by Dorothea Tanning is one of the most important of her works. It represents a culmination of her life’s work, through which she sought to personify her thoughts into paintings that were always fluid and free of any hesitation. Created in 1984, “Doors” shows the uncontrolled brushing of color and imagination in which Tanning plunged her mind. This was arguably the aim of her whole artistic career and the style she achieved near the end of her artistic development.This work is starkly different to the surrealist but concrete images she started her career with. One important example of these works is “Birthday”, shown below:

Because of this piece, Tanning gained much acclaim and got the attention of Max Ernst, whom she would later marry. In these early years (1940s), her goal was to remove things from the imagination by painting them. She used normal perspective and there was a motif of open doors, which are very pronounced in “Birthday”. Tanning aimed to create images that no one else could imagine and to bring back forgotten memories of hers. Although the ideas that she used in her paintings at this time were very abstract, most of the modes that she actually used were very realistic and detail-oriented. Some of these realistic details would continue throughout her career, but the forms themselves would become metaphysical. Throughout her early stages, Tanning would paint many empty areas that contained simplified forms and subject separations. Eventually, she reached the point in her career in which each canvas was about total exploration and an infinite furthering of experimentation and understanding of form. Figures became abstract and complex depictions of constant transformation. Over time, her works became filled with movement, Baroque-esque.At the beginning of her career, however, she considered beauty to be “torn between dream and reality, the moment and eternity” (Plazy). The following image, “Maternity” depicts perfectly the surrealist style that made up Tanning’s works. The arid land of Arizona and the motif of doors played a strong part in shaping this particular piece.
In the 1950s, one could begin to see there are elements in her paintings that try to perfect form while trying to gain understanding of the abstract. For example, “The Philosophers”:

In this piece, there is definitely a change of gesture and speed occurring, by this time, she had already wed Max Ernst and had a home in Arizona with him. She still, however, traveled back and forth from Arizona to New York to Paris. She was ready for change, perhaps that change would be depicting time instead of space. Many of her works during this time start to blend still life precision with more imagination, transparency, and a variation of stroke and scale. The idea of maintaining form while having free rein to form as an idea. One example of this is “Sunday Afternoon”:

In 1957, Tanning’s settled down in Arizona so that her husband, Max, could have a better chance at achieving American citizenship (A new piece of legislation called the McCarran act during the McCarthy era made it harder for him to do so since he had overstayed in France). In these new surroundings, Tanning pulled and pushed at depth in order to achieve the ephemeral while maintaining form. This led to works such as “Insomnias”:

These paintings resemble clouds, light, and shadows that act as veils for corpalities. The lines and design in this work are “thoughts mixed with visions of dreams caught in the fabric woven under reality” (Bailly). She did not consider this to be abstract, but an idea of physicality that looms and vanishes as we look at it. A direct quote from her is “my dearest wish: to make a picture with no exit at all, either for you or for me” (Bailly).           
By March 1968, there was much political unrest and dark violence in Germany because of the authoritarian government. This unrest showed in Tanning’s work. Instead of having isolated and separated figures in her works, Tanning began to represent packed groups that invade the surface of the canvas. One example is “Down in the Streets”:

This painting is filled with energy and a hopeless passion. Soon after this stage, Tanning’s works continued their dark and somber tone. This time, however, in a different way. Tannings husband died in 1976, leaving her in solitude. One piece from this time period is “Murmurs”:

This piece shows many of the motifs that Tanning implemented in her works at this time, including the use of moonlight and crescent shapes. In this painting, the figure is not fully human, possibly mirroring the loss that Tanning suffered. The idea of night, dreams, and darkness continue until the 80s, when Tanning moves away from France and settles in New York. Her paintings are no longer uncertain, but confident. She experiments with distortion, delineation, and boldness. It is during this time in which she paints the dramatic “Door”.I chose Dorothea tanning as my artist because as I flipped through her paintings, I was immediately attracted to the abstract but somehow realistic quality that they contained. I wanted to know more about her life and style, specifically what led her to this idea of maintaining corporality in a non-concrete way. This is something that I could be interested in experimenting with myself. I like the more gestural and expressive strokes and bold colors that she uses at the end of her career, but the quality with which she paints is very admirable. I also really loved the sketches that she used to further herself as an artist. Dorothea was definitely more involved in the painting medium, but her drawings also follow the path she took from surrealist to more imaginative and abstract. For example this drawing of hers in 1944 very clearly shows the ideas that went hand in hand with her famous painting “Birthday”:

Entitled “Illustration for Ramon Sartoris’s If Caesar Be”, this drawing (graphite on paper) could easily have become one of her early paintings. It contains solid subjects that are set in an environment of the imagination, but are very realistic. By the 1950’s her drawings have also changed:

This piece, “A Drawing for Midnight”, has elements of fluidity and transparency, even though it is in black and white. The figure is floating, and one could say that she is trying to hold on to her essence, which is drifting away the more that Tanning experiments. The next drawing shown contains elements that we see from her pieces during the 60’s, when the Soviet Union was powerful. The title, “Turbulents”, fits the era well.

The last image that I would like to show is a charcoal and pastel drawing from the 80s. Entitled “Combat“, it demonstrates her maturity as an artist and the final stages of extreme development in her style.

Works CitedA Drawing for Midnight. Digital image. Dorothea Tanning. Dorothea Tanning Foundation, 2016. Web.Bailly, Jean Christophe. Dorothea Tanning. Trans. Richard Howard and Robert C. Morgan. New York: George Braziller, 1995. Print.Birthday. Digital image. Dorothea Tanning. Dorothea Tanning Foundation, 2016. WebCombat. Digital image. Dorothea Tanning. Dorothea Tanning Foundation, 2016. Web.Doors. Digital image. Dorothea Tanning. Dorothea Tanning Foundation, 2016. Web.Down in the Streets. Digital image. Dorothea Tanning. Dorothea Tanning Foundation, 2016. Web.Illustration for Ramon Sartoris’s If Caesar Be. Digital image. Dorothea Tanning. Dorothea Tanning Foundation, 2016. Web.Insomnias. Digital image. Dorothea Tanning. Dorothea Tanning Foundation, 2016. Web.Maternity. Digital image. Dorothea Tanning. Dorothea Tanning Foundation, 2016. Web.Murmurs. Digital image. Dorothea Tanning. Dorothea Tanning Foundation, 2016. Web.Plazy, Gilles. Dorothea Tanning. Trans. Filipacchi Books. Paris: E.P.I. Editions, 1976. Print.Sunday Afternoon. Digital image. Dorothea Tanning. Dorothea Tanning Foundation, 2016. Web.The Philosophers. Digital image. Dorothea Tanning. Dorothea Tanning Foundation, 2016. Web.Turbulents. Digital image. Dorothea Tanning. Dorothea Tanning Foundation, 2016. Web.

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