Tanning's biography is seeped with the world of surrealism. In 1946, she married fellow artist Max Ernst - who had divorced his previous wife Peggy Guggenheim - and the couple lived in the States until 1957. Ernst was refused American citizenship, so the couple headed to France, first to Paris and the Loire valley and then to Provence.

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning photographed by Irving PennImage: HG Issue Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning photographed by Irving Penn
Image: HG Issue

The two artists enjoyed a long marriage, and Tanning lived a long life, passing in 2012 at the age of 101. Dorothea grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, in a bourgeois class, reflected in the depiction of children she presents in her work. Her only formal art eduction was three week at the Chicago Academy of Art.

In the mid-1930's, Tanning head for New York. And it was here in Manhattan, working as a commercial artist, that Tanning was enlightened by a range of artistic movements . From gothic novels to the MoMA's Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition in 1936, Tanning was spurred on to create art works in this new way. Her passion for surrealism took her to Paris in search of the surrealists. However, artists had already left Paris as WWII approached.

Two works of art which are important both in terms of Tanning's oeuvre and the surrealism movement are Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943, which is now in the Tate's collection, and Birthday, 1942, which is part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's collection and a ca. 1970 lithograph of which is hitting the auction block this month at Ro Gallery.

Dorothea Tanning, Birthday (Self Portrait at age 30, 1942)circa 1970, lithograph on arches, signed and numbered in pencil, edition: 150 Dorothea Tanning, Birthday (Self Portrait at age 30, 1942)circa 1970, lithograph on arches, signed and numbered in pencil, edition: 150

The latter work is a self-portrait, in which Tanning stands, her breasts uncovered, in front of a corridor of infinite doors with a small mythical creature at her feet. In the artist's memoir Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, Tanning explained how an idea for the piece first came to light. ''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.''

The self-portrait portrays the bewitching nature of women, as the enigmatic subject, the artist, stands and stares frankly at the viewer, not phased by her bare breasts; the eternity of doors being her or the creature that stands beneath her. Exactly why the subject is dressed the way she is, or where the doors lead to or indeed what the creature is, is entirely unknown to the viewer. As Tanning once beautifully put it in her poem Artspeak:

If Art would only talk it would, at last, reveal
itself for what it is, what we all burn to know.

This couplet from the poem captures the spirit of Tanning's work, and indeed surrealism, art of this kind may raise many questions, however, it is not the job of the viewer,  or even the artist to seek to answer them

The featured Lithograph will be up for auction at Ro Gallery in their Summer Prints auction on July 12, 2017. Check all lots here.

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