The Magical Surrealism of Dorothea Tanning in a Traveling Exhibition

October 21, 2018

Aside from radical tactics and experimentation, the international avant-garde of the interwar period introduced quite a number of women artists which indeed was in accordance with the overall quest for modernity. One of the most prominent figures among them was American painter Dorothea Tanning, who quickly rose to fame with her associative aesthetic full of suspense, sensuality, and esotery.

Namely, she started painting actively in the 1930s while supporting herself by working as a commercial artist. After Tanning saw the iconic exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at the MoMA in 1936, she fell for the Surrealist movement and practically for the rest of her long career, she somehow remained loyal to this particular visual language. During the 1940s, the artist started exhibiting her work and met Max Ernst, who became her partner, and the two lived together for thirty years.

In the following decades the artistic practice of Dorothea Tanning became even more complex, as she continuously searched for other forms and means of expression, leading her to produce a number of installation works, films, and published books. She devotedly nurtured her creative visions all until her death in 2012.

In order to explore, reevaluate, and interpret the legacy of Dorothea Tanning in a contemporary manner, Museo Reina Sofía opened the first major retrospective of this important artist under the title Dorothea Tanning: Beyond the Door, Another Invisible Door.

Left Dorothea Tanning – Deirdre Right Dorothea Tanning – Maternity
Left: Dorothea Tanning – Deirdre, 1940. Oil on canvas, 53, 5 x 43,3 cm. Private collection / Right: Dorothea Tanning – Maternity, 1946 – 47. Oil on canvas, 142 x 121 cm. Private collection

The Surreal Voyage of Dorothea Tanning

The curator of the exhibition Alyce Mahon curator decided to provide a new insight into Dorothea Tanning's extraordinary career by focusing on the symbolical meaning of the door. This particular motif can be treated as a unifying element of her entire practice. The door is ambiguous – it is both an invitation for exploration of the world of dreams behind it, as well as a reminder of uncertainty and fear. The perspective behind to door opens up a whole composition further and it alienates and seduces the observer.

Furthermore, the symbolism of the door has much to do with the division or separation of the private and public space which suggests how Dorothea Tanning perceived the importance of the personal experience in regards to social cannons. The doors in her paintings are an obstacle for the human figures which have to be demolished regardless of the reveal. The artist once stated about her works:

You coax the picture out of its cage along with persona […] You are merely the visitor, grandly invited: Step in.

A number of references can be found in Tanning’s practice, and perhaps the most important ones come from literature - especially the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and Horace Wimpole and the poems of Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. Tanning was well connected and she witnessed various debates within her Surrealist circle in the United States and France.

Dorothea Tanning – Endgame
Dorothea Tanning – Endgame, 1944. Oil on canvas, 43 x 43 cm. Collection of Harold and Gertrude Parker

The Installment

The exhibition in Madrid gathers over one hundred artworks produced in a period of more than sixty years, and it will unravel the domains of Tanning's visions expressed through different media - paintings, drawings, collages, fabric sculptures and installations. Eight thematic sections are meticulously constructed and the installment opens with a delicate pencil self-portrait from 1936 and ends with a late self-portrait Woman Artist, Nude, Standing from 1986.

The first section presents Dorothea Tanning's early works, mainly her self-portraits and works produced while she worked as a freelance illustrator for department stores. Here, it is important to point out that from the beginning of her career, the artist was interested in text as an extension of images, so she wrote and published short stories, novels, and poems.

The second section is titled Chess Games and is entirely focused on her relationship with Max Ernst. They married in Hollywood, in a joint wedding ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet Browner in 1946. This section further reveals the importance of the game of chess, which was a motif adorned by Tanning. One of the shown works is a painting Endgame from 1944.

The third one is devoted on the femme-enfant, or child-woman in Tanning’s paintings and writings, while the fourth section explores the artist’s subversive articulation of the institution of the family and the moral cannons it represents.

During the late 1940s and mid 1950s Dorothea Tanning did costume and stage designs for the ballets such as Night Shadow (1946), The Witch (1950), and Bayou (1952) of the Russian choreographer George Balanchine. These designs are on display in the fifth section titled Tango Lives as well as oil paintings from that period. In the 1960s, Tanning started producing soft fabric sculptures and the selection of these often erotic forms are on display in the sixth section.

Alongside the mentioned six thematic sections, the ghoulish installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970-73) is on display, while the final aspect of this retrospective is a summary of all the recurrent themes present in her oeuvre - from the self-portrait and intimacy, to movement, play with scale and space, and desire.

Left Dorothea Tanning – Tango Lives Right Dorothea Tanning – Woman, Artist, Nude
Left: Dorothea Tanning – Tango Lives, 1977. Oil on canvas, 130 x 97 cm. Moderna Musset, Stockholm / Right: Dorothea Tanning – Woman Artist, Nude, Standing, 1985 – 1987. Oil on canvas, 162 x 130 cm. The Destina Foundation, New York

Dorothea Tanning at Museo Reina Sofía

Aside from Dorothea Tanning’s loyalty to Surrealism, her practice can also be described as feminist, although she herself refused to be labeled a woman artist and stated in 1990:

You may be a woman and you may be an artist; but the one is a given and the other is you.

However, it seems that the institution and the curator Alyce Mahon made great efforts to construct conceptually stable and visually impeccable exhibition on the rather complex practice of Dorothea Tanning, in order to reveal all the possible readings of the same.

An extensive and fully illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition and is edited by the curator, with an essay of her own, as well as the texts by Idoia Castro Murga and Ann Coxon, and a selection of writings by Dorothea Tanning.

Dorothea Tanning: Beyond the Door, Another Invisible Door is currently on display at Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid and the public can see it until 7 January 2019/ Afterwards. it will travel to Tate Modern in London.

  Editors’ Tip: Between Lives: An Artist and Her World

Dorothea Tanning, one of the twentieth-century's most original and provocative painters, delivers a vivid account of a fascinating life lived as an artist among artists. Tanning reveals not only her life story, but the irresistibly creative mind that propelled her to live it. From the small town of Galesburg, Illinois, to the art hubs of New York and Paris, Tanning traveled the world of Surrealism and went beyond it, with fellow explorers Virgil Thompson, George Balanchine, Alberto Giacometti, Dylan Thomas, Truman Capote, Joan Miró, James Merrill, and Max Ernst, to whom she was married for over thirty years. Their life together forms an important and moving part of her unforgettable story; a story which, spanning almost a century, magically unfolds through Tanning's incandescent prose.

Featured images: Installation view of Dorothea Tanning: Beyond the Door, Another Invisible Door; Dorothea Tanning – Chambre 202, Hotel du Pacot, 1970 – 1973. Installation. Wood, fabrics, wool, wallpaper, carpet and light bulb. Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musee national d’art modern / Centre de creation industrielle. All images courtesy Museo Reina Sofia Madrid.

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