Unknown Woman/great figure in twentieth-century art

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.

From the New Yorker (10/17/2011, p. 91):

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:

3 thoughts on “Unknown Woman/great figure in twentieth-century art

  1. Hi Anne

    If you’re interested in reading more about Tanning, I highly recommend the chapter “Antinomies of the Female” in Christine Battersby’s excellent book, The Sublime, Terror and Human Difference.
    Tanning also has her own website

    The other women artists that Battersby writes about are also well worth exploring.

  2. Holy Crap. Thank you. As a poet I’m interested in ekphrasis and constantly on the lookout for 20th century surrealist artists who speak to me…I’m putting together a collection largely of ekphrastic poems. Thanks so much for pointing me to this artist!

  3. Her autobiography, Birthday, is also pretty amazing. It came out 25 years or so ago–it’s a fascinating life story, laid out in very unexpected terms (as one might expect from somebody so imbued with Surrealism). In terms of the many, many women involved with/part of/running parallel with the Surrealist movement, it’s also incredible that the first major work of scholarship wasn’t published until 1986 or so (Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement). Art history has plenty of feminist issues to deal with, too, you know!!

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