Dorothea Tanning, 1910 – 2012

Birthday, 1942

A lot of buzz about artist Mike Kelley’s passing earlier this week, but I wanted to take a moment to also acknowledge & celebrate the life of Dorothea Tanning, the last living member of the Surrealist movement, who passed last Tuesday. Tanning rose from her origins in Galesburg, Illinois – a small town with a soft spot in my own heart – to become an active member of an international circle of artists, working in a variety of media over the course of her lifetime – and yet hers is not a household name, nor often raised in Western Art survey courses.

Her self-portrait, Birthday, is one of my favorite works in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In her own words from her website:

At first there was only that one picture, a self-portrait. It was a modest canvas by present-day standards. But it filled my New York studio, the apartment’s back room, as if it had always been there. For one thing, it was the room; I had been struck, one day, by a fascinating array of doors—hall, kitchen, bathroom, studio—crowded together, soliciting my attention with their antic planes, light, shadows, imminent openings and shuttings. From there it was an easy leap to a dream of countless doors. Perhaps in a way it was a talisman for the things that were happening, an iteration of quiet event, line densities wrought in a crystal paperweight of time where nothing was expected to appear except the finished canvas and, later, a few snowflakes, for the season was Christmas, 1942, and Max was my Christmas present.

It was snowing hard when he rang the doorbell. Choosing pictures for a show to be called Thirty Women (later Thirty-One Women), he was a willing emissary to the studios of a bouquet of pretty young painters who, besides being pretty, which they couldn’t help, were also very serious about being artists.

“Please come in,” I smiled, trying to say it as if to just anyone. He hesitated, stamping his feet on the doormat. “Oh, don’t mind the wet,” I added. “There are no rugs here.” There wasn’t much furniture either, or anything to justify the six rooms, front to back. We moved to the studio, a livelier place in any case, and there on an easel was the portrait, not quite finished. He looked while I tried not to. At last, “What do you call it?” he asked. “I really haven’t a title.” “Then you can call it Birthday.” Just like that. –from Birthday, Santa Monica: The Lapis Press, 1986, p. 14, and Between Lives: An Artist and Her World. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001, pp. 62-63.

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst, Sedona, Arizona, 1946
Photograph by Lee Miller

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Located:

    319 N. 11th St 2L
    Philadelphia, PA 19107

  • Email:

  • Gallery Hours:

    most Saturdays and Sundays
    2 - 6pm
    or by appointment
    (check current show dates)

  • Enter your email address to follow and receive updates news, show listings, and musings by email.

  • Sign up to receive NAPOLEON emails:

    mailchimp redirect
%d bloggers like this: