Dorothea Tanning: With Our Souls in Our Laps

Dorothea Tanning, painter and poet


He told us, with the years, you will come
To love the world.

And we sat there with our souls in our laps,
And comforted them.

–Dorothea Tanning

Tanning is that rare being who embodies gifts in the poetic domain as well as the visual. A woman with a long history in the American art world of the 20th century, Tanning began branching out into other forms of expression later in life. (Ah, that “later in life” theme again!)

This poem has a simple power and suggests to me the single minded intentionality of a bold stroke of paint across a large canvas. One movement of the arm, but it says so much.

A bit of background about Tanning, from

“It’s hard to be always the same person,” reads the epigraph for A Table of Content, Dorothea Tanning’s first book of poems, published in 2004. After half a century of acclaimed drawing, painting, sculpture, collage, and set and costume design—with pieces in major museum collections, including the Tate Gallery, London; the Centre Pompidou and the Musée de la Ville de Paris, both in Paris; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Chicago Art Institute, among others—Tanning turned her eye (and ear) to poetry, reinventing herself after retiring from visual mediums.

As W. S. Merwin put it: “She goes out of the room, comes back, and she’s someone else—and after a few hours I think, Phew, that’ll do for a while!” Tanning has long been known as a friend of poets, and her public shift toward poetry may very well have been due to years of private collaborations and intimacies.

Another Language of Flowers, a book published in 1998 documenting Tanning’s last paintings, what she calls her “foray into imaginative botany,” can be seen as another of the artist’s points of transformation. Tanning believed that she was finished with painting until she discovered a collection of blank and very valuable Lefebvre-Foinet canvases she’d bought in Paris twenty years earlier.

Determined to use the fine canvases, Tanning spent almost a year—between June, 1997 and April, 1998—sketching and completing twelve large paintings of imaginary flowers. Those paintings, and her preperatory sketches, are reproduced in the book, with each image given a fictional name—such as “Victrola floribunda”—and accompanied by a poem. James Merrill, who had been a kind of mentor to Tanning and had died three years before she began the flowers series, provides the lines for the first image: “A wish. Come true? Here’s where to learn.” John Ashbery, Richard Howard, J. D. McClatchy, Anthony Hecht, Adrienne Rich, and others also give voices to the flowers.

Within a year of completing her flowers series, Tanning, at eighty-nine, began publishing her own poems, and within another year was being recognized for poems in Poetry, Parnassus, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Plougshares, and others. Now, with a full collection of startling and perceptive poetry, which C. D. Wright has called “a meal not to be late for,” Tanning has fully transformed her career and earned her a place among American poets.

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst (they were married in 1946)

14 Replies to “Dorothea Tanning: With Our Souls in Our Laps”

  1. I love her painting and admire her drawing, but her poems feel rather precious and girlish to me. Many of them have at least an interesting line to offer, however. Which is more than you can say for…

    I consider that a girlish, fey tone is very much a late life hazard for women in the arts. Call me on it one day if necessary, okay? I’ve thought a lot about this, but you reminded me of it tonight. It’s just as much of a cliche as men in the arts arriving at a terribilita phase if they live long enough. Is this failed simplicity? The attempt to find a way back to a youthful vision of the world?

    Please, God — don’t let me get fey. Make me simple and mean, but not yet.

  2. E, You might have read more of her poems than I have. What few I have seen I have found a connection to. But I would not declare myself familiar with her body of written work, nor would I consider her one of my favorite poets. But I admire the late in life brave gesture, especially the ones that expose vulnerability. So that, along with her dual interest in painting and poetry, are themes I have written about here before.

    As for fey, it isn’t the pejorative for me that it appears to be for you. I have more interest in the magical view than the average bear, so that may be a major difference between us. Too many things have happened in my life that cannot be explained using logical methodologies, so I welcome any and all to my table. So fey may be my nature and fey may be my destiny. I hope we can still be friends in our old age, fey coexisting with “simple and mean.”

  3. Fey is not where you’re headed, not if I write the dictionary. When I use it, I mean something very close to high IQ-twee, self-consciously, insistently marvelous and darling and pseudo-magical. I don’t mean genuinely other-worldly or fairy-like in the good — the frightening, the immanent — way. I spent my childhood reading nothing but fairy-tales and mythology, so I have plenty of respect for all that. But if you do these things, I’ll still be your friend if you can stand me.

    I admire people who decide to do something completely different in late life too. It disposes me to like the thing they do, but it doesn’t mean I have to. Philip Guston and Nathan Oliveira are two examples of artists who created a radically different late body of work resulting from a conscious shift they made, not just from hanging around keeping at it and evolving decision-free. It was thrilling and I don’t like the work. In Tanning’s case, I have followed her all my adult life, and I bought a drawing of hers with my rent money, causing myself interesting problems. So I’m kind of in her corner, no? That she hauled off to do something different when she had (lots of) money and fame and great age is very moving. It’s as if Julia Child had gone Vegan at 90 — there’s grandeur aplenty there. What I think of the poetry she writes is not very important, even to me.

    For a painter turned writer of Tanning’s vintage who is far more interesting than Tanning as both a painter and a writer, please consider Leonora Carrington. She too was a bit eclipsed by “woman-about-Max” syndrome. Carrington was fey in the way you probably mean.

    What DO you mean, fey?

  4. I have read very little of Carrington’s writing. As a player in a terribly sexist period of art peopled by terribly sexist male artists, she was a female standout in her fierce eccentricity, free spirited view and willingness to dig in and deal with the egos and the posturing (while many other talented women just simply withdrew, as I think I might have done had I been in their place.) But thank you for that tip. I will definitely search more deeply into her story.

    Buying art instead of paying the rent–I love that level of devotion in anyone, at any time!

    As for my interpretation of fey, I have used it over the years as other worldly, slightly magical, existing outside the realm of rationality. Perhaps it is a less pejorative term than “air head, ” and a little lighter in spirit than “mystical” or “highly metaphysical.”

    Thanks for your contribution to this post. All the better for your thoughts and insights.

  5. It’s written in the Surrealist Manifesto that women must provide but not receive oral sex. When I finally read the damn thing, many years after imagining I “got” Surrealism, I wondered why all the women who were profoundly attracted to the movement for artistic reasons didn’t run screaming from it once the ground rules were understood. It must have compared favorably with other art coteries of the early mid-century — horrible to say.

    You would have simply withdrawn? That’s very evolved. I would have been soul-murdered while being happy to be enthralled for 15 to 20 years, wondering all the while if I were a highly preferred source of oral sex, or not quite the provider of first resort. To this day I do not know if knowledge of Surrealism was bad or good for my painting.

    I want to find out more about Toyen, the Czech woman who was Andre Breton’s most ardent true believer, painting by the rules of the Surrealist Manifesto long after most had moved on. She was a wonderful painter who seems to have been dropped by history.

  6. No kidding! I don’t remember this line from the Surrealist Manifesto, but I am not surprised. Damn the brutes! Thankfully you make me laugh instead of making me feel angry. I’ll save my righteous anger for things like the Iraq war, the Bush years and the passing of Prop 8.

    Toyen! I remember a reference to her when I was steeping myself in Dada and Surrealism. I looked at her paintings and drawings online–strange, haunting and many of them timeless in feel.

    Perhaps you will do a 3QD piece on her? In your hands, that could be quite a story.

  7. Oral sex? I can’t think of any surrealist that minded rules except Breton and only because he wrote them.


    Oh and I do love Tanning and not to forget Leonor Fini, Meret Oppenheim. Lee Miller and Leonora Carrington.

    Peace, Love and exquisite corpses,

  8. KM, great list. And about the rule breaking, I’d put my money on tje lot of them being transgressives in spite of Breton’s control issues…

  9. What wonderful work is being done here. Very thoughtful and with lots of thought provoking items. I am a contemporary artist myself and always enjoy seeing the art of fellow artists and join discussions about art. I just recently have started my own site and hope that over time it will grow into an online art community where artists and art enthusiasts alike can meet and discuss their thoughts on art. Will recommend your blog to my friends. Will come back for more and wish you all the best.

    P.s. Wish you all the best for your future work.

  10. Anna, Thanks for stopping by, and I will definitely keep an eye on your site as it evolves.

  11. Elatia, Deborah, To hell with your “fey”, just relax and enjoy the music of Tanning’s soul. Sheesh.

  12. […] Past and Present The Washed Colors of the Afterlife Walking at Night Between the Two Deserts Dorothea Tanning: With Our Souls in Our Laps Here are the extinct feathers, here is the rain we […]

  13. Elatia, I find your discussion of “fey” wonderfully literate and heavenly, not hellish. You’ve made me curious to see your paintings and I will try to google them. As for Andre Breton’s regrettable and stupid sexual predilections, well, he didn’t know what he was missing, did he? Presumably his sexist existence was its own punishment.

    Below, we see that you favor the 3rd definition of fey:

    fey adj ˈfā
    Definition of FEY
    1a chiefly Scottish : fated to die : doomed b : marked by a foreboding of death or calamity
    2a : able to see into the future : visionary b : marked by an otherworldly air or attitude c : crazy, touched
    3a : excessively refined : precious b : quaintly unconventional : campy
    — fey·ly adverb
    — fey·ness noun
    Origin of FEY
    Middle English feye, from Old English fǣge; akin to Old High German feigi doomed and perhaps to Old English fāh hostile, outlawed — more at foe
    First Known Use: before 12th century

  14. […] NYC subway people have brought back their “Poetry in Motion” series. This was the most recent one. I don’t know why it struck me, but it did. I haven’t stopped […]

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