The Forgotten Books of Dorothea Tanning

This article was first published by MutualArt on 4 April 2019

It has often been said that Dorothea Tanning had two careers in her exceptionally long life: first as a visual artist, then as a writer. At the current Tate Modern exhibition of Tanning’s paintings and sculptures, you can read her statement that it was after the death of her husband Max Ernst in 1976 that she “gave full rein to her long felt compulsion to write.” The decades before her own death in 2012 were increasingly dedicated to literature, as she produced two memoirs, a novel, and two well-regarded collections of poetry.

Nonetheless, it would be truer to say that word and image went hand-in-hand throughout Tanning’s career. She published a steady stream of texts during the height of her visual output from the 1940s until the 1970s. Moreover, as the wealth of literary allusions in her paintings suggests, she drew constant inspiration from the horde of books she and Ernst kept in their home. Tanning told the New York Times in 1995: “All my life I’ve been on the fence about whether to be an artist or writer.”

But the most overlooked aspect of Tanning’s literary-artistic career is her involvement in numerous books of poetry and printmaking in France from the 1950s onwards. These include collaborations with several French authors, and two books of Tanning’s own French poetry and prints – Demain (1963) and En chair et en or (1974).

These works deserve more attention. For one thing, the etchings and lithographs Tanning produced for these books amount to a significant and distinctive part of her oeuvre. According to Clare Elliott, curator of an upcoming show of Tanning’s graphic works at the Menil Collection in Houston, her prints “achieve a variety of visual effects impossible to achieve with other materials. Ranging from dreamlike representation to near total abstraction, they reveal the breadth of her formal innovation.”

What is more, a closer look at Tanning’s bookmaking years can give us a unique perspective on her as an artist – her working methods, her outlook, and her relationship to the movement she was most influenced by, Surrealism.


Book mania

Arriving in Paris in 1950, Tanning discovered a thriving scene around the beau livre, or limited edition artist’s book. “Paris in the first fifty years of our century spawned more beau livresthan the rest of the world together,” she recalled in 1983. “To call it mania would not have surprised or displeased anyone.” Mostly these books were collaborations between an artist and a poet, “with mutual admiration as the basic glue that held them together,” as well as an editor who normally bankrolled the project.

Tanning dove straight into this milieu. In 1950 she produced a series of lithographs, Les 7 Périls Spectraux (The 7 Spectral Perils), to accompany text by the Surrealist poet André Pieyre de Mandiargues. Here we can recognise several motifs from Tanning’s early paintings – most notably in Premier peril, where a female figure with a dishevelled mask of hair presses herself against an open door, which is also the cover of a book. But with her combination of visual textures, Tanning achieves a new depth in these images, showing her embrace of the lithographic process in all its layered intricacy.

As the collaborations continued during the 1950s and 60s, Tanning’s printmaking ambitions grew. Like many artists before her, she discovered in etching and lithography a seemingly limitless arena for experimentation, attempting a wide range of techniques and compositions. And in 1963 she went a step further, replacing the poetry of other authors with her own.

Screenshot 2019-05-14 at 13.17.58
Dorothea Tanning, “Frontispiece for Demain” and “Untitled for Demain” (1963). Courtesy of the Dorothea Tanning Foundation.

The result was Demain (Tomorrow), a book of six etchings and a poem in French dispersed across several pages. Though modest in size – just ten squared centimetres – it is a punchy work of Surrealism. The poem progresses through a series of menacing images, as language breaks down in the presence of time and memory. It concludes: “The night chews its bone / My house asks itself / And deplores / Tonight, bath of mud / Evening fetish of a hundred thousand years, / My vampire.” The etchings convey a similar sense of dissolution, with vague forms emerging from a fog of aquatint.

Making Demain involved frustrations any printmaker could recognise. She would later describe watching her printer, Georges Visat, “wiping colours on the little plates while I stood by, always imploring for another try. There must have been fifty of these.” She was, however, thrilled by the result: “For my own words my own images – what more could one ask?”

Eleven years later Tanning produced En chair et en or (Of flesh and gold), a more substantial and, in every respect, more accomplished book. Its ten etchings, in which curvaceous, almost-human figures are suspended above landscapes of pale yellow and blue, show us what to expect from the accompanying poem. Everything expresses a sense of poise, a dazzling, enigmatic tension:

Body and face drift
Down with nightfall, unnoticed.
Draw near, draw nearer
Your destination.

Gradually, Tanning introduces notes of violence and desire, culminating in the striking final stanza: “Death on a weekend / Opened the dance like a vein / Flaming flesh and gold.”


Second languages

Dorothea Tanning, “Quoi de plus,” from “En chair et en or” (1974). Courtesy of the Dorothea Tanning foundation.

By the time of En chair et en or, we can identify some characteristic features in Tanning’s printmaking and poetry. Her etchings typically present coarse background textures, ghostly colours, and loosely organic forms. Her poems, meanwhile, reveal her exposure to the international Surrealist movement during the 1940s. (In “Demain”for instance, there are direct echoes of the Mexican poet Octavio Paz).

But this is not the most insightful way to approach Tanning’s books. For what really appealed to her, an English-speaking painter, about printmaking and French poetry was the opportunity to escape familiar forms of expression.

“Much of this work, and etchings that follow, have to do with chance,” she wrote about one of her collaborations, “for so many things can happen to a copper plate, depending on how you treat it, that implications are myriad.” Very few artists master the printmaking process to the degree that they know exactly what they are going to get at the end of it, but for Tanning this was part of its allure. In her comments about printmaking, she often used words like “discovery” and “adventure.” Unpredictability, in other words, was a creative asset.

The same can be said of her poetry in this period. The Irish playwright Samuel Beckett claimed that he wrote in French precisely because he did not know it as well as English, and so was less confined by conventional style and idiom. Likewise, it is striking how raw and immediate Tanning’s French poetry is by comparison with her later work in English.

All of this resonates with what originally drew Tanning to Surrealism – in her often quoted phrase from 1936, “the limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY.” In its earliest and most dramatic phase, an important aim of Surrealism had been for artists to loosen their control over expression, thus allowing more spontaneous, expansive forms of communication and meaning. This is what printmaking and French – both, in a sense, second languages – allowed Tanning to do.

Notes on The Artist’s Studio

The series of paintings known as Concetto spaziale, by the Argentine-Italian artist Lucio Fontana, is one of those moments in art history whose significance is easily overlooked today. It is difficult to imagine how radical they must have looked during the 1960s: plain white canvases presenting nothing more than one or a few slits where Fontana slashed the surface with a blade. Moreover, as I realised when I reviewed an exhibition featuring Fontana in 2015 (you can read that review here), it is only by considering the atmosphere of post-war Europe that one can grasp how freighted with purpose and symbolism this simple gesture had been.

But there are always new ways of looking at an artwork. The other evening I was visiting some galleries near Piccadilly and found myself, unexpectedly, confronted by one of the Concetto spaziale paintings once more. Only I wasn’t looking at the painting itself, but at a series of photographs that showed Fontana in his studio making it. Where previously there had been the stark aura of an iconic artwork, now there was melodrama and a rye sense of humour. The images, taken by the Italian photographer Ugo Mulas, were arranged in a climactic sequence. First we see Fontana poised at some distance from canvas, Stanley-knife in hand, his tense wrist and neatly folded sleeve suggesting the commencement of a long-anticipated act. There is a mood of ritual silence in the room, heightened by the soft light pouring through a large window. Then Fontana is approaching the canvas uncertainly, and making the first incision on its white surface – a moment pictured first in wide-angle, then close-up. Finally, the deed done, he lingers in a ceremonious bowing posture, the canvas now divided by a metre-long cleft.

Installation shot of Ugo Mulas, Lucio Fontana, L’Attesa, Milano 1-6, 1964 (2019). Modern print. Gelatin silver print on baritated paper. Edition of 8. Courtesy of Robilant+Voena.

These are just some of the photographs Mulas took of artists in their studios during the 1960s and 70s, which can be seen at Robilant+Voena gallery on Dover Street. Much like Fontana’s paintings, Mulas’ photographs require one to step imaginatively backwards in time; they now appear so classical in style, and so gorgeous in tone, that one can overlook their more subtle aspects. In particular, I get the sense Mulas was aware of his role as a myth-maker. His images playfully pander to the romance surrounding the artist’s studio – the setting where, in the popular imagination, unusual individuals go to perform some exotic and mysterious process of magic.

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I have always been fascinated by studios, probably because I grew up with one at home. This was my mother’s studio. It was located between the kitchen and my brother’s bedroom, but I was always aware that it was a different kind of room from the others in the house. A place of inspiration, yes: a realm of coffee, bookshelves, and classical music. But also a site of labour, which smelled of turpentine and had a cold cement floor, a place where my old clothes became rags to wipe etching plates. Above all it was (and remains) a very particular setting, shaped by the contingencies of one person’s working life as it had evolved over many years.

Insofar as artists’ studios really are special, mysterious places, it is because of this particularity. This is rarely reflected, though, in the photography and journalism that surrounds them. Rather, studios tend to attract attention according to how well they embody a particular conception of the artist as an outsider, an unconventional or even otherworldly being. One studio that fits this template belongs to the monk-like painter Frank Auerbach, who has worked in the same dank cell in Mornington Crescent more or less every day since 1954 (Auerbach once quipped that age had finally forced him to reduce his working year, from 365 days to 364). Not only is the room cramped and barely furnished, but to the delight of various photographers over the years, Auerbach’s scraping technique has left the floor coated in layer upon layer of calcified paint. This is nothing, however, compared to the iconic lair of Francis Bacon – a disaster zone that resembled a trash-heap more closely than a studio, and captured perfectly Bacon’s persona as a chaotic, doomed madman.

Jorge Lewinski, “Frank Auerbach,” 1965. © The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth.
Perry Ogden, “Francis Bacon’s 7 Reece Mews studio, London, 1998.”

The fact is, of course, that studios are often highly utilitarian spaces – clean, carefully organised, with most consideration going to practical questions such as storage and lighting. Of course some artists are messy, but their clutter is not qualitatively different to that which exists in many workspaces. And yet, even the apparently humdrum reality of a studio can provide a mystifying effect. Journalists and visitors often dwell precisely on the most ordinary, relatable aspects of an artist’s working life, thereby implicitly reinforcing the idea that an artist is something other than ordinary. In one feature on “Secrets of the Studio,” for instance, we learn that Grayson Perry likes to “collapse in an armchair and listen to the Archers,” while George Shaw “pretty much work[s] office hours.”

This paradox was observed by Roland Barthes in his wonderful essay “The Writer on Holiday.” After noting the tendency of the press to dwell on such domestic aspects of a writer’s life as their holidays, diet, and the colour of their pyjamas, Barthes concludes:

Far from the details of his daily life bringing nearer to me the nature of his inspiration and making it clearer, it is the whole mythical singularity of his condition which the writer emphasises by such confidences. For I cannot but ascribe to some superhumanity the existence of beings vast enough to wear blue pyjamas at the very moment when they manifest themselves as universal conscience […].

Sometimes artists themselves appear to use this trick. Wolfgang Tillmans’ photograph Studio still life, c, 2014 shows a very ordinary desk spread with several computers, a keyboard, cellotape, post-it notes, and so on. There is just a suggestion of bohemia conveyed by the beer bottle, cigarette packs and ashtray. It is tempting to interpret this image, especially when shown alongside Tillmans’ other works, as a subtle piece of self-glorification – a gesture of humility that makes the artist seem all the more remarkable for being a real human being.

Wolfgang Tillmans, “Studio still life, c, 2014.”

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We shouldn’t be too cynical, though. The various romantic tropes that surround artists are not always and entirely tools of mystification, and nor do they show, as Barthes suggested, “the glamorous status bourgeois society liberally grants its spiritual representatives” in order to render them harmless. Such “myths” also offer a way of pointing towards, and navigating around, a deeper reality of which we are aware: that artistic production, at least in its modern form, is a very personal thing. This is why we will always have the sense, when seeing or entering a studio, that we are intruders in a place of esoteric ritual.

As I said, the beauty of a studio lies in its particularity. Does this mean, then, that one cannot appreciate a studio without becoming familiar with it? Not entirely. I was recently lent a copy of the architect MJ Long’s book Artists’ Studios, in which she chronicles the numerous spaces she designed for artists during her career. These include some of the most colourful and, indeed, most widely mythologised studios out there. But as an architect, Long is uniquely well placed to tell us the specific practical and personal considerations behind them. As such, she is able to bring out their genuinely poetic aspects without falling into cliché.

That poetry is captured, I think, in some notes left by Long’s husband and partner, Sandy Wilson, to encourage her to write her book. He briefly summarises a few of their studio projects, and the artists who commissioned them, as follows:

Kitaj, scholar-artist worked surrounded by books and the works of his friends. In his studio books lie open on the floor at the foot of each easel like paving stones in a Japanese garden.

Blake works in a sort of wonderland mirroring and embodying his magical mystery world of icons that feed into his imagination.

A dance photographer required a pure vacuum charged with light but no physical sense of place whatsoever.

Auerbach’s studio is the locked cell of the dedicated solitary.

Ben Johnson requires the clinical conditions of the operating theatre shared with meticulous operatives in a planned programme of execution.