The art and poetry of Dorothea Tanning

On January 31, 2012 Dorothea Tanning passed away at home at the age of 101. Dorothea was a woman of many talents. She worked as an author, sculptor, and painter, as well as a set designer and costumer for theatre and ballet. Tanning’s second book of poetry was released by Graywolf Press in 2011. She most widely known for her work in Surrealism. More examples of Tanning’s work can be found at, the site maintained by the Dorothea Tanning Foundation to honor her work as well as her life.

Notes for an Apocalypse


Back then, with time on my hands
and in our back yard, I waited for the future.
The Future. For me as for everyone else,
the very words had a whiff of promise.
If things were not going too well at present

they would surely delight us in the future.
Long in coming, the future, it never came
to the back yard, front yard, palace yard,
church yard, prison yard, and especially
the junk yard that prefers the past.

Later I understood that waiting is an art
and the best place to practice it is in waiting
rooms where you can wait for hours on end
for the train you’ve already missed, for the
sky to fall, the doctor, for hell to freeze over.

The sky hangs higher than ever and
at night is studded with stars
“The Doctor had an emergency.
He’ll be here tomorrow.”
And hell? Nobody goes there anymore.

Still later, when I was more in touch with
the world, they told me, “You have a future.”
I thought that over. Even if I believed them,
what did my little future, whatever that was,
have to do with the real thing, whatever that is?

Surely this everywhere present is real
enough and eager, yet unable, to tell me
what I am waiting for now.

For a further example of Dorothea’s work as an author please see the short story Legend from 1949. All material provided by The Dorothea Tanning Foundation.

photo by Peter Ross

And in her own words :

“Dorothea Tanning was born in 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois and attended Knox College in her hometown before studying painting in Chicago (haunting the Art Institute where she learned what painting was.) In 1941, now in New York, she met the art dealer, Julien Levy, and his surrealist friends, refugees from Nazi occupied France. Late in 1942 Max Ernst visited her studio, saw a painting, (Birthday), and stayed to play chess. They would have 34 years together, at first in Sedona, Arizona (a mere outpost at the time). Here she would continue to paint her enigmatic versions of life on the inside, looking out: The Guest Room, The Truth About Comets, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Interior with Sudden Joy, Insomnias, Palaestra, Tamerlane, Far From. By 1956 Max and Dorothea had chosen to live and work thenceforth in France. Though Paris was headquarters, they preferred the country quiet lure in Touraine and Provence. These years included, for Dorothea Tanning, an intense five‐year adventure in soft sculpture: Cousins, Don Juan’s Breakfast, Fetish, Rainy Day Canapé, Tragic Table, Verb, Xmas, Emma, Revelation or the End of the Month, Hôtel du Pavot Room 202.

Max Ernst died on April 1, 1976 and Dorothea faced a solitary future. “Go home,” said the paint tubes, the canvases, the brushes. Returning to the United States in the late 1970s, and still painting, Tango Lives, Woman Artist, On Avalon, Door 84, Still in the Studio, Blue Mom, Dionysos S.O.S., she gave full rein to her long felt compulsion to write. Words, poetry. Written, read, heard. Would she join these voices even then? Her poems have since appeared in a number of literary reviews and magazines, such as The Yale Review, Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, The Boston Review, The Southwest Review, Parnassus, and in Best Poems of 2002 and 2005. Her published works include two memoirs, Birthday and Between Lives, a collection of poems, A Table of Content, and a novel, Chasm.

At present Dorothea Tanning lives in New York City, breathes words, as well as air, and looks at her paintings with amazement. It is 2009.”

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