In 1936 Dorothea Tanning visited The Museum of Modern Art on the occasion of Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, an exhibition of nearly 700 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and films that each presented a radical departure from day-to-day reality. On display were Joan Miró’s The Hunter (Catalan Landscape) (1923–24) and Max Ernst’s Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924), Salvador Dalí’s Persistence of Memory (1931) and Alberto Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932). The exhibition astonished Tanning, who was working as a graphic designer in New York. “Here, here in the museum is the real explosion,” she recalled in her memoir. “Here is the infinitely faceted world I must have been waiting for. Here is the limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY.”1

Artistic “POSSIBILITY” had been scarce during Tanning’s childhood. Born to Swedish immigrants in small-town Illinois, the artist was raised to be a dutiful wife, mother, and churchgoer. “I had other plans, not well received at home,” she later wrote.2 These plans took her to Chicago for art school, then to New York for its art scene. There, Tanning supported herself by freelancing for advertising agencies. She also frequented the Manhattan galleries that she called her true art academy, and produced increasingly personal artworks in the privacy of her studio. One of them, a self-portrait titled Birthday (1942), caught the attention of the art dealer Julien Levy. At his gallery, Levy promoted Dalí, Ernst, Giacometti, René Magritte, and other Surrealist artists who were rejecting rules and reason in favor of the surréalisme (“superior realism”) of the subconscious. By the mid-1940s, Tanning was exhibiting alongside them.

Like Birthday, Tanning’s paintings of this period contain precise renderings of dreamlike people, things, and places. In On Time Off Time (1948), for instance, a wooden structure stands in a flat, desolate landscape. Crimson flames at its base emit a billowing plume of pinkish-gray smoke, while the large shadow it casts stretches all the way to the horizon line. The structure and its desert setting evoke the handcrafted cabin in Sedona, Arizona, where Tanning moved with her husband, the artist Max Ernst, in 1946. Yet other incongruous elements and figures populate the painting. What to make of the dark gray-green vortex in the smoke, or the sunflower hovering in the distance? What to make of the bright sky-blue or pool-blue area at right resembling a painting or a view out the window or underwater, where a blindfolded, bubble-blowing head is framed by the enigmatic phrases “off time” (above) and “on time” (below)? “I’ve always been drawn toward esoteric phenomena: the illogical, the inexpressible, the impossible,” Tanning explained in a 1990 interview. “Anything that is ordinary and frequent is uninteresting to me.”3

Throughout her career, Tanning explored the out of the ordinary in mediums ranging from painting and printmaking to sculpture and poetry. In 1950 she published a portfolio of seven lithographs, The 7 Spectral Perils, in which a solitary female figure makes her way through a disorienting world of wild-eyed creatures and inside-out rooms. Other publications followed. “In the kind of life we led,” Tanning wrote of her Surrealist artist friends, “bookmaking was as necessary a part of it as buttons on a coat.”4 Still, she continued to paint during the 1960s and 1970s, revisiting Surrealist themes in Dogs of Cythera (1963) and Notes for an Apocalypse (1978). By then, Tanning was beginning to rethink her relationship to this artistic and literary movement. She had been a surrealist, she decided, long before Surrealism.

Annemarie Iker, independent scholar, 2024

  1. Dorothea Tanning, Birthday (Santa Monica and San Francisco, CA: The Lapis Press, 1986), 73-74.

  2. Ibid., 63.

  3. Carlo McCormick and Dorothea Tanning, “Interview. Dorothea Tanning,” BOMB magazine, October 1, 1990,

  4. Tanning, Birthday, 124.

Wikipedia entry
Dorothea Margaret Tanning (25 August 1910 – 31 January 2012) was an American painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer, and poet. Her early work was influenced by Surrealism.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Tanning was inspired to become a painter after viewing the MoMA Surrealism and Dada exhibit in 1936-1937, and eventually became associated with the group of New York expatriate Surrealists. In 1946, two years after her first solo exhibition, she married painter Max Ernst, staying with him in Europe until his death in 1976, whereupon she returned to New York City. She has since remained active as an illustrator and a scenographer.
American, French
Artist, Author, Designer, Fashion Designer, Writer, Lithographer, Poet, Graphic Artist, Illustrator, Painter, Sculptor
Dorothea Tanning, Mrs. Max Ernst, Dorothea Ernst, Dorothea Ernst Tanning, Dorothea Ernst-Tanning
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


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  • MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art Flexibound, 408 pages
  • MoMA Now: Highlights from The Museum of Modern Art—Ninetieth Anniversary Edition Hardcover, 424 pages

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