Art Même les jeunes filles by Dorothea Tanning

Published on February 7th, 2013 | by Julie Davis


Review: Dorothea Tanning: Unknown but Knowable States

In a few words...

Summary: The prolific work of Dorothea Tanning can be judged for itself, rather than as part of art history, or an outgrowth of her personal life.


The Gallery Wendi Norris exhibit, Dorothea Tanning: Unknown but Knowable States, focuses on paintings, drawings and sculptures created between 1960 and 1979 by celebrated artist Dorothea Tanning. This is barely a glimpse of the full output of an amazingly prolific creator, whose career began with commercial illustration in the 1930s and eventually encompassed Surrealist paintings, stage sets for the Ballanchine ballet, abstract artworks, fabric sculptures and finally novels and poetry, until her death (barely a year ago) at age 101.

That said, the constrained timeframe of Dorothea Tanning: Unknown by Knowable States is clearly a deliberate choice, as the 30 selections presented offer a view of the artist at her most individual and personal, and are (perhaps) least likely to provoke comparisons to the artworks of her husband for 30 years, Max Ernst.

Still in the Studio (1979) by Dorothea Tanning

Still in the Studio (1979) by Dorothea Tanning

Within those boundaries, Tanning’s work can be judged for itself, rather than as part of art history, or an outgrowth of her personal life. The flip side of this, of course, is that if you go to the gallery knowing little about Tanning, you won’t necessarily leave knowing much more. (For a deeper examination of the pieces on display, an 80-page catalog, featuring an essay by Catriona McAra, is available for purchase at the gallery.)

Unlike her earlier Surrealist work, Tanning’s figures from this period are shadowed, morphed — frequently hazy as if underwater or blurred by smoke, wavy as though disrupted by some interfering signal. Fairytale narratives seem to hover just out of sight. The colors range from bright to muted: some works featured cobalt blues, vivid greens, dabs of yellow and red, while others revel in pearlescent, flesh-toned pinks and peaches.

Nudes are a popular choice for subject, but the effect is less erotic than simply organic. In “Portrait de Famille” (Family Portrait, 1977), golden skin fades into dark shadows that flatten and merge with each other, creating a literal family unit. Faces are rarely shown: “Pour Gustave l’adoré” (1974) shows a lower half of a woman’s body in turquoise and sea green, her head again vanishing into darkness, one foot is speckled with color like a gilded Klimt.

Chiens de Cythère (1963) by Dorothea Tanning

Chiens de Cythère (1963) by Dorothea Tanning

“Chiens de Cythère” (Dogs of Cythera, 1963), the largest painting on display, does show faces, but they are the upturned mugs of dogs, puglike creatures with expressions that make them look more like Chinese lions. These dogs blend with the knotted, fleshy, humanlike figures that Tanning favors, in shades of pearl and beige: a blend of human and animal that evokes legends and myths.

A more recognizably figurative piece is “Notes for an Apocalypse” (1978). A female figure does a backbend between two indistinct shapes — a dwarf, maybe, and a mythic giant, whose gnarled foot stretches into the foreground. The woman grasps at what appears to be a glowing orb, her head hidden by billowing sheet or tablecloth in the process of being pulled away from the dining room table. As a vision of an Apocalypse, the piece invites questions about the meeting place between domesticity and legend…Or perhaps a strange game of after-dinner Twister.

Même les jeunes filles (1966) by Dorothea Tanning

Même les jeunes filles (1966) by Dorothea Tanning

In other pieces, Tanning is even more playful with conflicting images and emotions. “Still in the Studio” (1979) shows a naked, redheaded female form splayed across a drawing table with paints dotted across her chest. A creeping brown fuzz crawls up the window frame to a surprisingly mundane Parisian street view. “Étreinte” (1969), from the collection of the Centre George Pompidou in Paris where it was originally exhibited, is a flannel and fur sculpture resembling nothing so much as two Muppets wrestling, each losing its head, so to speak, within the other.

But perhaps the image with the greatest graphic impact is “Birthday 1976”. Drawn in black felt tip marker on white mat board, it has the languid, dark imagery of an Edward Gorey cartoon, sketching out a female figure — presumbly a self-portrait — lying on what would appear to be freshly tilled flower beds, or possibly graves. (Tanning’s L.A. Times obituary credits another work titled “Birthday” — a self-portrait from 1942 — with connecting her to her future husband Max Ernst, who died in 1976: “Ernst was entranced by Tanning’s unfinished self-portrait — later dubbed “Birthday” — and equally taken with the beautiful artist.”)

Étreinte (1969) by Dorothea Tanning

Étreinte (1969) by Dorothea Tanning

Given the time period in which these works were originally created, some of the pieces cannot help but appear dated. There are the autumnal color palettes of the 1970s: an abundance of harvest golds, browns and beiges. There are abstract painterly shapes that invite contemplation like a scene from Annie Hall; and images that would look perfectly at home beside a 1970s chrome orb lamp and a hi-fi stereo turntable. But this isn’t so much a problem as the beginning of an interesting question about our own postmodern era, and what exactly has changed about art from that time to this. Tanning’s works beg the viewer to try to “get it,” whatever “it” might be — a mythical reference, an emotion or a commentary on relationships. Tanning’s work is personal — not only for the artist herself, but for each and every viewer — finding meaning in the tensions she creates and the suggestive narratives of figures that almost, but not quite, come into focus.

Dorothea Tanning: Unknown by Knowable States is on display at the Gallery Wendi Norris until March 2, 2013. For more information, visit

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About the Author

Writer, editor, photographer and sometime cartoonist Julie Davis became addicted to comics and Japanese animation at a young age and hasn't yet grown out of them (and probably never will). Former editor in chief of Animerica, Anime & Manga Monthly, an English-language magazine about Japanese animation, she co-authored the book Anime Classics Zettai! 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces and contributed to The Complete Anime Guide and Manga: The Complete Guide. A native of Michigan, she now lives in San Francisco and teaches classes on comics writing and history at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University and creates graphic designs for the Cartoon Art Museum.

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