Dorothea Tanning : In Conversation with Victoria Carruthers

In our latest 'In Conversation' article, Victoria Carruthers - author of Dorothea Tanning: Transformations - talks to Meris Ryan-Goff about Tanning’s life and art, key works and ‘Transformations' in Tanning's career, and her approach to writing this fascinating book.


MRG: When and how did you decide to write about Dorothea Tanning?

VC: I first met Dorothea Tanning in 2000 on a visit to New York. I had just started my PhD at the University of Essex on women surrealists but after our first meeting, I refocused my research entirely on her work. We struck up a friendship right from the outset and over the next 12 years, we discussed her work on my visits to her apartment and in letters. She was always very open, witty and generous in our conversations, even when they occurred over several hours. She was sharp, mischievous and full of life, even in her 90s, and I admired enormously the way she had lived a creative life, undeterred by the social expectations of women in the 20th century.  She was a trailblazer in so many ways and, of course, right from the very start, I felt a deep resonance with her art. It seemed to speak to me in an intimate way, it reassured me that imagination was limitless and anything’s possible. It was a natural step for me to write this monograph, as an art historian, academic and as her friend, especially as I had the full support of her niece, Mimi Johnson, and the Dorothea Tanning Foundation. 

Music Hath Charms, 1940, Oil on canvas, 
45.7 x 40.6 cm, Private collection, courtesy of The Destina Foundation, New York

MRG: The subtitle of your book seems to hold the key to understanding Tanning’s life and work - can you tell us about a particularly pivotal moment of transformation for Tanning?

VC: Tanning herself maintained, that in hindsight all the work produced over her 70 year (or more) career, were steps along the same path in which the same preoccupations and obsessions would surface and resurface again and again. In each return there is there is always a sense of something otherworldly, something full of possibility, happening within the confines of everyday existence. The implication of this is that the extra-ordinary is folded into the fabric of everyday life, that each moment holds imaginative potential for all of us. This also means that throughout Tanning’s life there were a series of pivotal moments. I would suggest that two such instances are key to understanding her life and career: firstly, meeting Max Ernst in 1942, which she always referred to as her ‘birthday’; and, second, their first visit to Sedona, Arizona in 1943 (and subsequent move to live there in 1946).  Tanning loved Sedona immediately. As she said, 'You could almost cut my life in two, before and after Arizona.' Assisted by a handful of local people, she and Ernst built a very basic house that, she recalled was never really finished. I think it was an idyllic time for her. Even though she and Ernst ultimately left Sedona for France finally in the late 1950s, imagery and motifs from her time there resurface throughout her career.  This is particularly true of the paintings produced after Ernst’s death in 1976, when she invokes the memory of their ‘magical’ time together, painting in their unfinished studios and listening to music under the stars in the evenings. In my book, I try to create a sense of what life was like for them in Arizona. The palpable sense of freedom Tanning experienced in that eerie landscape which was so foreign yet so familiar to her having grown up under the big skies of Galesburg, Illinois. They were away from the intensity of the New York art world and yet there seemed to be a steady stream of visitors to add to the creative ferment of talking, dancing and game playing. Many of these remained close, lifelong friends: Marcel Duchamp, Roland Penrose and Lee Miller, Man Ray, John Cage, Caresse Crosby, George Balanchine and his wife Tanaquil LeClercq; Julien and Muriel Levy; Henri Cartier-Bresson; Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy; and Dylan and Caitlin Thomas, who spent a week there whilst Thomas was on a lecture tour in the US.  

Pages from ‘Dorothea Tanning: Transformations’, featuring a photograph of Tanning taken by Lee Miller in Sedona, 1946.

MRG: I was struck by Tanning’s words when she spoke of painting in the Arizona desert - she says she 'dare[d]' 'to paint the un-paintable'. Do you see Tanning’s work as consciously playing with limits of representation? Does this change when her style progresses from naturalistic to abstracted?

VC: Tanning’s response to the vast open sky, the 'crushing heat', isolation and raw jagged landscape was visceral in a way that enlivened her body and, paradoxically, encouraged her withdrawal into her own richly imaginative interior.  Tanning described the works produced at this time as a series of 'chilly, secretive paintings' that typified her response to the 'diabolical landscape outside'.  The canyons and colours around her were so strange and suggestive that they are often reimagined by the artist as underwater landscapes – which perhaps they once were millions of years ago. In 2004, she returned one last time to the atmospheric landscape of Sedona as the setting for her gothic-style novel Chasm.  As I mentioned previously, the move to Sedona was pivotal and it’s clear that it acted as a liminal space physically, emotionally and metaphorically through which Tanning began to experiment with the limits of both representation and imagination.

Pages from ‘Dorothea Tanning: Transformations’, featuring Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (left) and Children’s Games (right).

MRG: Tanning’s style itself undergoes a Transformation when she moves to Paris with Ernst and experiments with abstraction. Would you say that this is part of her creative ‘Search’, part of the ‘enigma’ of her work?

VC: Tanning experimented with new practices, styles and media throughout her life. Whilst similar preoccupations and motifs are threaded through her work, this experimentation with how best to portray them never ceased.  Tanning was a maker through and through, a consummate artist.  The move to France was liberating in many ways. She mixed with a different creative milieu and was influenced by the move to modernist formalism prevalent in France at the time. This new period of experimentation signalled a gradual move away from the precise narrative style of the 1940s to an interest in abstraction where the figures are caught in hybrid states and there is a level of ambiguity around what we are actually seeing. This is perhaps what you are referring to as enigmatic, but for Tanning this was the result of her desire to communicate more directly and immediately with the viewer on an emotional and sensual level. I argue in my book that Tanning always had a desire to ‘collaborate’ with the viewer, to share a journey with them and by making her pictures more abstracted, she came closer to capturing what she described as 'unknown but knowable states', moments of movement and intensity without a fixed narrative or meaning. In doing this her work lends itself to multiple interpretations, allowing the viewer to bring something of themselves in every piece.


Portrait de famille (Family Portrait), 1977, Oil on canvas, 146x114cm &
Murmurs, 1976, Oil on canvas, 130x97cm, The Destina Foundation, New York

MRG: Tanning’s work spans so many media and various experimental styles. Can you talk to us about her relationship to the media she used?

VC: There are many examples of Tanning’s experimentation with materials in her visual arts practice from producing theatre designs and costumes to jewellery making. However, two specific examples stand out in my mind as you ask this question. When the artist arrived in France she joined the studio of master lithographer and printmaker Edmond Desjobert. She became enchanted by the visceral nature of working with the lithographic materials and the craftsmanship of preparing the stones to receive an image. The first project was a collection of seven interrelated pieces, deliberately given a French title Les 7 périls spectraux (The 7 Spectral Perils) (1950). They were published in 1950 in a portfolio along with a prose poem by André Pieyre de Mandiargues entitled ‘Pourquoi Rester Muets?’, of which the artist wrote 'My first lithograph adventure has become a book. An album with seven perils in it. Because to the seven deadly sins I preferred the seven spectral perils, life being more perilous than sinful. The writer, a good judge of both, naturally agreed. You might say that these interrogate the stone. And the stone, like an oracle, answered sometimes with effects never possible to achieve with other materials.' It is interesting that she described her experience of lithography from the outset as iterative and certainly it may have seemed ‘mysterious’, given that the outcome of the printmaking process is always more unexpected and harder to control than the practice of painting. The other example is her foray into making cloth sculpture which only really occurred intensively from 1969-1970 and yet the body of work is truly an astonishing achievement. Hotel du Pavot (1970-73) is amongst her best known works and stands as a life size tableau installation on permanent display at Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. 

Pages from ‘Dorothea Tanning: Transformations’, featuring Hotel du Pavot (right).

MRG: Literature evidently played a large part in Tanning’s life. Your book spends time tracing the many connections between the artist’s paintings, literature and poetry. How integral to our understanding of one, is the other?

VC: Tanning loved poetry, literature and literary allusion. She understood the profound effect of books and their capacity to create worlds that thrilled, enlightened and enticed the reader. From an early age she read voraciously, immersing herself in the highly charged psychodramas of gothic fiction, fantasy tales and the heightened intensities of 19th century novels and poetry.

A Mrs. Radcliff
e Called Today, 1944, Oil on canvas, 46.1x39.4cm, Private collection,
courtesy of The Destina Foundation, New York.

In Transformations, I focus on the many threads of these connections and the way in which the themes, characters and motifs of her favourite books appear and reappear in her works, sometimes decades apart. Tanning commented on this return to literary influences (and the italics are all mine): 'Old obsessions die hard. I have just named a collage L’education sentimentale [sic]. I have my reasons [. . .] And A Mrs. Radcliffe called today painted in 1945, has turned up again in Mrs. Radcliffe called again, and now again in a new collage called, Still calling still hoping.' In many ways, Tanning’s return to New York from living many years in France, was also a return to words - English (or American) words - and, of course, to her ‘mother’ tongue. It’s clear that literature and poetry were never far from influencing the artist’s visual art practice, and her imagery often oscillated between visual and literary metaphor.

Pages from ‘Dorothea Tanning: Transformations’, featuring the collages: Mrs. Radcliffe Called Again (Left No Message), 1988, (top left) and Still Calling Still Hoping, 1988 (bottom left).

Whilst producing a considerable body of large paintings, collages, prints and drawings after her return to America in 1980, she also began to write and publish poetry at a steady rate. In 2004, she published her first collected volume, A Table of Content and described herself that year as ‘oldest living emerging poet’. Her humour was unrelenting even at 94. In the same year she published her novel Chasm and another volume of poetry came out in 2011, a year before her death. I am struck by Tanning’s prodigious output. Until the end of her life, not a moment was wasted in her visceral desire to create.

Victoria Carruthers' book, Dorothea Tanning: Transformations is available from our website here
Hardback • 224 Pages • Size: 270 × 228 mm
Includes 167 colour and 33 b&w illustrations
ISBN: 9781848221741 • Publication: January 31, 2020

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