Featured Master | Dorothea Tanning

Each December, Sager Braudis Gallery brings significant 20th-century masterpieces to Columbia, Missouri for the Masters Exhibit. This year’s exhibit features women of Surrealism and Abstraction, who may just be the most important names in modern art history that you’ve never heard. In keeping with a current trend among museums and galleries worldwide, we’re shedding light on the work of these master painters for whom credit is long overdue. In the coming weeks, we’ll feature each of the 6 masters of the exhibit here on our blog, as well as in a 3-minute radio spot on our NPR affiliate, KBIA. Watch for the launch of our podcast, Portrait of the Artist, in which we’ll also discuss the artists of the Masters Exhibit, in early December. This week, we’re featuring painter Dorothea Tanning.

Dorothea Tanning was born in 1910. She lived to be 101, and painted for a solid 8 decades. Tanning 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.

Dorothea Tanning, Title unknown, Oil on canvas, c. 1960

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,” we think it matters that she created numerous masterpieces right alongside some of the biggest names in art history and 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.