• Robert Buratti

Surrealism Was Only a Small Part of Dorothea Tanning’s 70-Year Career.

Updated: Mar 18

Dorothea Tanning is known as one of the great Surrealists, but a new show at New York’s Kasmin Gallery reveals a very different side of the artist.

In the artist’s biggest U.S. show in decades, the New York gallery has staged a remarkable showcase of Tanning’s work. Many of the dreamlike canvases, in washes of color and light, blur the boundaries of figuration and abstraction with fragmented imagery.

The show, titled “Dorothea Tanning: Doesn’t the Painting Say It All,” features works dating from 1947 to 1987. Organized in conjunction with the Destina Foundation, it brings together 19 paintings, including major loans such as the show-stopping 1962 canvas Aux environs de Paris (Paris and Vicinity), from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

As in many of the works on view, mysterious figures seem to shimmer in and out of focus in the painting. Hazy body parts emerge piecemeal from swaths of vibrant colors.

“Around 1955 my canvases literally splintered,” Tanning wrote in her memoir. “I broke the mirror, you might say.”

Yet Tanning, who died in 2012 at the age of 101, remains almost exclusively associated with Surrealism, and for works like her haunting Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, an unsettling interior scene of a girl whose hair stands on end, a life-sized doll in a state of undress, and a massive sunflower.

“Dorothea would say, ‘I am a Surrealist, but my art is not necessarily Surrealism,'” Kasmin Gallery director Emma Bowen told Artnet News. “What you think of with Surrealism are these dreamscapes that don’t really make any sense, that are highly figurative and highly rendered.”

But while Tanning’s best-known work tends to be from the 1940s, there’s little knowledge of the very different styles she was working in for most of her life. The show encapsulates her growth over the later years of her career, including after the death of artist Max Ernst, her husband of 30 years, in 1976.

“While she didn’t want to subscribe to specific genres of paintings, she kind of hits them all,” Bowen said. “There’s Expressionism and abstraction and figuration and Mannerism and Impressionism—she’s not doing any of those things specifically, but she’s pulling from them.”

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