Dorothea Tanning was born in 1910 and painted for a solid 8 decades. She was one of the only American-born Surrealists. In fact, she was Midwestern, born and raised in small-town Illinois and educated in Chicago. Tanning was already making a living through a combination of freelance commercial painting, fashion illustration, and fine artwork when she first encountered Surrealist works in 1936, at the MoMA. In 1943, curator and arts patron Peggy Guggenheim included Tanning in the groundbreaking exhibit entitled “31 Women.” This was alongside other greats of the era such as Frida Kahlo, Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, and Meret Oppenheim. Tanning met the Surrealist painter Max Ernst around this time, and married him in 1946. Tanning and Ernst lived and worked together in Arizona and then in France until his death in 1976, after which she moved back to New York.
Tanning had a very smooth, almost straightforward way of depicting surreal scenes. Her paintings are often like dreams that are so realistic that you almost cannot tell they’re dreams but for an oddness of perspective or slight stylization. Even her highly abstract, later works seem like photographs of colorful, nebulous forms.
Including Dorothea Tanning in an exhibit of all women masters of the 20th century, while appropriate, is also complicated. Though Tanning herself disliked discussion of her gender, and was resistant to the very term, “woman artist,” it is imperative to note that she created numerous masterpieces right alongside some of the biggest names in art history, yet was not granted the same recognition as these men. There is still work to be done when Max Ernst is a household name but Dorothea Tanning is not. The art critic Soo Kang has said, “ Tanning never intended to make a feminist statement through these images. Yet, as she genuinely focuses on on her own dream images and discloses the unconscious mind, she inevitably expresses the voice of a woman. To do otherwise would be a fallacy in representing her inner world.” She used a Surrealist method, but dreamlike, female forms are different when coming from a woman painter, because instead of mere objects of gaze, her female subjects were protagonists, representing the fertile mind of the painter, rather than mindless muses.