Dada is the sun, Dada is the egg. Dada is the Police of the Police.


"Art is the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity"

To my mind, one of the best painters of the 20th century was Dorothea Tanning. Tanning was born in Illinois in 1910 and claimed to have learned how to paint simply by visiting art museums. Later, she became affiliated with the Surrealists. Her most famous painting is her self-portrait, "Birthday" (the image below does not, of course, do the work justice):

Tanning ended up marrying the great Max Ernst in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet Bowser. Tanning and Ernst would be together until Ernst's death in 1976.

Surprisingly, Tanning is still alive--and still painting at age 94. She is also a poet, and last year published her first novel. Recently she even did an interview with Salon:

At the age of 91, how do feel about carrying the surrealist banner?

I guess I'll be called a surrealist forever, like a tattoo: "D. Loves S." I still believe in the surrealist effort to plumb our deepest subconscious to find out about ourselves. But please don't say I'm carrying the surrealist banner. The movement ended in the '50s and my own work had moved on so far by the '60s that being a called a surrealist today makes me feel like a fossil!

Surrealism must have had a strong appeal for you at the time.

When I saw the surrealist show at MOMA in 1936, I was impressed by its daring in addressing the tangles of the subconscious -- trawling the psyche to find its secrets, to glorify its deviance. I felt the urge to jump into the same lake -- where, by the way, I had already waded before I met any of them. Anyway, jump I did. They were a terribly attractive bunch of people. They loved New York, loved repartee, loved games. A less happy detail: They all mostly spoke in French. But I learned it later.

You came to New York to be an artist in the midst of the Depression -- just got on a bus one day from Chicago -- with no plan and without knowing where you would stay. I don't imagine there were many young woman doing that. Did you see yourself as a pioneer?

Not a pioneer but headstrong. Now when I look back, I'm amazed at my stupid bravery, going off like that with just $25. My head was full of extravagances, I'd read Coleridge and a lot of other 19th century dreamers and I had to be an artist and live in Paris. So New York was on the way. I finally got to Paris, just four weeks before Hitler started his March. Americans were told to go home; I went to my uncle's in Stockholm on a train with Hitler Youth. I got the last boat out of Gothenburg in September of 1939. In 1949, I went back to France and stayed there for 28 unbelievable years.

You write in your recent memoir that, even in those days the art world was "a kind of club based on good contacts, correct behavior, and certain tactical chic." How chic were you in those days, Ms. Tanning?

Chic! I didn't have any money to throw away on frivolities. I wore discount $5 dresses from a wonderful place on Union Square called Klein's. Also thrift shop stuff. A few of us took to wearing old clothes, but they had to be really old, from another time, way back. We'd show up in these rags as if it were perfectly natural. You had to be deadly deadpan about it. One of these appears in my painting "Birthday." It was from some old Shakespearean costume.

Well, excuse me for this, but "Birthday" is among other dreamlike things, a topless self-portrait. Is it fair to say that at that time, 1942, people thought you were immodest?

Well, I was aware it was pretty daring, but that's not why I did it. It was a kind of a statement, wanting the utter truth, and bareness was necessary. My breasts didn't amount to much. Quite unremarkable. And besides, when you are feeling very solemn and painting very intensively, you think only of what you are trying to communicate.

So what have you tried to communicate as an artist? What were your goals, and have you achieved them?

I'd be satisfied with having suggested that there is more than meets the eye.


I imagine you have struggled with the label of being a "woman artist" as well as the "wife of" Max Ernst, who was a founder of surrealism and a seminal figure in 20th century art. Would things be different for you today?

Yes and no. You need fortitude and patience. This goes with a big dose of indifference to the art world; you absolutely need that indifference. If you get married you're branded. We could have gone on, Max and I, all our lives without the tag. I never heard him use the word "wife" in regard to me. He was very sorry about that wife thing. I'm very much against the arrangement of procreation, at least for humans. If I could have designed it, it would be a tossup who gets pregnant, the man or woman. Boy, that would end rape for one thing. And "woman artist"? Disgusting.


You've lived through the Depression and several wars. What is the role of art in such times?

Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity. I don't see a different purpose for it now.

What do you think of some of the artwork being produced today?

I can't answer that without enraging the art world. It's enough to say that most of it comes straight out of dada, 1917. I get the impression that the idea is to shock. So many people laboring to outdo Duchamp's urinal. It isn't even shocking anymore, just kind of sad.

As you mentioned, there was a lot of shock value in the work of the dadaists and the surrealists that you fell in with. Was that somehow different?

In its beginning, surrealism was an electric time with all the arts liberating themselves from their Snow White spell. There is a value in shaking people up, meaning those who have forgotten to think for themselves. Shock can be valuable as a protest. Like the dada fomenters, sitting there in the Cafe Voltaire in 1917 -- their disgust with the world they lived in, its lethal war, its politics, its so-called rationales. Shock had value at that time. But ideas and innovation will always prevail without any deliberate effort to shock.

What about folks like Dali, walking his lobster on a leash?

Dali used his silly shenanigans to get publicity, to which he was extravagantly addicted. He made some sublime paintings, he was a master painter and his exhibitionist tricks didn't enhance him as a person or as an artist. It was a pity really.

What's your take on recent controversies at the Brooklyn Museum: the "Sensation" exhibition, the elephant dung and the more recent Last Supper in which the artist portrayed herself, nude, as Jesus Christ?

The Brooklyn show was blatantly shock-hopeful. And our mayor took the bait like a fish. I probably would not have liked it any more than the mayor if I'd bothered to go.

Were you in favor of the Guiliani's moral standards panel on art?

Hitler banned and burned "degenerate art." Stalin did the same. I suppose they had their moral standards too. I can only say that if a work doesn't make being sane and alive not only possible but wonderful, well, move on to the next picture.


We are also obviously living in a society that prizes youth. Has this larger cultural bias had any effect on you in recent years?

You are so right. Even old people want to be teenagers. But if my memory serves me well it wasn't all that glorious. To my surprise, I have come to like being old. You can do what you want.

You have been friends with so many important cultural figures. May I ask you to play a little pseudo-surrealist free-association game? How about your husband Max Ernst?

His humor. Ironic, amused, bemused. We laughed a lot. Even today, I have to keep from finding things absurd, which mostly they are. At the same time I'm crying my eyes out.

How about André Breton, founder of surrealism and dadaism?

Severely: "Dorothea, do you wear that low neckline just to provoke men?"

René Magritte?






One time when I was at his house, Jhuan-les-pins, for an afternoon visit, we stood at the kitchen door yard for farewells and he broke off the last flower from an old rose bush and handed it to me. How would you feel?


What are you working on now?

I still write poems. Not that I overestimate them, but it gives me such pleasure why deny myself? The other day I read a beautiful pair of lines by Stanley Kunitz: "I have walked through many lives/some of them my own."

If you could change anything in your life, or lives, what would it be?

More color in my dreams.

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