Over more than a century, Dorothea Tanning collided and consorted with artistic titans of the 20th century who included Pablo Picasso, John Cage and Joseph Cornell. She designed sets for George Balanchine ballets, played romantic matchmaker for poet Andre Breton and appeared in Hans Richter's avant-garde films — but she remained best known as the wife of Surrealist Max Ernst, to whom she was married for nearly 30 years
Tanning, who was also a celebrated American artist and poet, and came to be known as "the last living Surrealist," died Tuesday at her New York City home, according to the Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive, a foundation she established in 1995 to preserve her work. She was 101.
Several of her best-known paintings are on display through May at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art show "In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States." The "most riveting portrait" in the exhibition's introductory gallery is "Birthday," Tanning's hyper-realist 1942 self-portrait, Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote last month. He called it "an image of awakening power."
In "Birthday," the artist presents herself as bare-breasted and bare-footed, grasping roots emerging from her skirt. Lurking at her feet is a mythical beast, a basilisk, "which could kill with just a puff of its poison breath," Knight wrote. "Tanning seems capable of accomplishing the same with just a glance."
She began her extraordinary life as Dorothea Margaret Tanning in Galesburg, Ill., on Aug. 25, 1910, the child of Swedish immigrants.
Determined to escape small-town conservatism, Tanning moved to Chicago in 1934 after dropping out of Knox College in Galesburg. She briefly attended the Chicago Academy of Art and embarked on big-city adventures that must have made her parents blanch — Tanning later claimed a liaison with a Chicago gangster who was murdered during their date and a job interview in which she was persuaded to shed her clothes.
Tanning soon moved to New York City and eventually settled into commercial illustration until a 1936 show, "Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism," at the Museum of Modern Art inspired her to become a serious painter. She set off for France in the summer of 1939 hoping to meet some of her heroes, but the advent of World War II led her to return home.
Back in New York, Tanning's art career received a boost when gallery owner Julien Levy took her under his wing and another boost when art patron Peggy Guggenheim sent her then-husband, Max Ernst, to Tanning's studio to choose a painting for inclusion in "Exhibition by 31 Women," an important 1943 show at Guggenheim's New York gallery.
Ernst was entranced by Tanning's unfinished self-portrait — later dubbed "Birthday" — and equally taken with the beautiful artist.
Within two years, Tanning had her first solo exhibition, at Levy's gallery. Within four, she became Ernst's fourth wife (in a double ceremony with photographer-filmmaker Man Ray and Juliet Browner) and moved to Sedona, Ariz., where they built a house with their own hands.
Tanning collaborated on Balanchine ballets and painted some of her best-known canvases in the late 1940s and early '50s, including such theatrical tableaux as "Interior With Sudden Joy" and "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik."
Living and working alongside Ernst until his death in 1976, Tanning continued to make paintings and sculptures in the shadow of an art world legend. She created many of her stunning works despite being regularly interrupted by such visiting luminaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marcel Duchamp and Dylan Thomas.
"I even made a note one summer in my notebooks: 44 days, 47 visits," she once said. "I would have painted three times as many pictures otherwise."
The couple moved to France in 1949 and spent more than two decades there. Tanning's paintings grew increasingly abstract, her figures becoming so fluid that bodies dissolved altogether. By the late 1960s she had turned to soft fabric sculptures, fantastical furniture in which tweed torsos burst through walls and furry limbs mingle.
After returning to New York in 1980 and recovering from a stroke, Tanning focused her creative energy on another childhood pleasure: writing. She wrote a novel, "Chasm," and a 1986 memoir, "Birthday," which she expanded into the 2001 book "Between Lives."
In her late 80s, Tanning found a new outlet in poetry. She jokingly referred to herself as "the oldest living emerging poet."
By 90, she had published poems in the Paris Review and won a place in "Best American Poems of 2000." She later wrote two well-reviewed volumes of poetry, "A Table of Content" (2004) and "Coming to That," which the New Yorker called one of the best books of 2011.
She is survived by three nieces and a nephew.
When asked a decade ago how her life might have been different if she had not thrown in her lot with Ernst, Tanning said she had no regrets. But "Stain," a poem she wrote in the 1990s, was more revealing:
Many years ago today
I took a husband tenderly
This simple human gentle act
Seen as a hard decisive fact
By all who dote on category
Did stain my work indelibly
I don't know why that is
For it has not stained his.