Well, perhaps I am one of the few who hasn’t known of Dorothea Tanning. But I sort of doubt that, and so I’m stunned to read the opening sentences of a review in the New Yorker of Tanning’s new book of poetry. It’s as though we first thought there just weren’t any great women artists; next we find out that there were or are some who remained unknown. Now it seems to be something of a commonplace that a largely unknown women can be one of the outstanding artists of the century. As though there is nothing remarkable about the fact that the name of her husband, Max Ernst, has a very different fame.
I am not sure what sort of poems we expect from a centenarian, but by any measure Dorothea Tanning’s poems come as a surprise. At a hundred and one, Tanning, one of the great figures of twentieth-century art, and a woman of extraordinary personal power and seductiveness (everyone who meets her seems to agree), has just published her second book of poetry, “Coming to That” … Its wry title suggests her unique predicament: she is both ancient and precocious, a veteran and a neophyte, the “oldest living emerging point,” as she calls herself….
What threatens to happen to the brightest lights of any artistic milieu happened to tanning; she became a sole survivor. Tanning is the oldest living Surrealist, a tag she dislikes (since she made art for decades after surrealism’s heyday)… (My stress.)
Among other things, her poems employ metaphors that related to women’s experience; thus, she thinks of herself as a young artist as having “enough to hold/enfolfrf as in a pregnancy,/those not-yet-painted works.”
In this video of her paintings, she is the young women with the monkey sitting before her: