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Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond


"'Birthday' announces an artist who emerged into the public eye with a fully formulated vision and exquisitely flawless technique," says Ann Temkin, The Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, of Dorothea Tanning's celebrated self-portrait. Painted in 1942, when Tanning was 32-years old, "Birthday" was acquired from the artist in 1999, with funds contributed by Charles K. Williams II. The painting is a central icon of the surrealist era, as well as one of the great self-portraits of the 20th century. To celebrate this major acquisition, the Museum will present a salute to the artist, Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond, from November 24, 2000, to January 7, 2001. (left: Birthday, 1942, oil on canvas, 40.25 x 25.5 inches, Purchased with funds contributed by Charles K. Williams II)

An Illinois native, Tanning studied at The Art Institute of Chicago. At the time she painted "Birthday," Tanning was living in New York City and working as a freelance illustrator. Fantastic Art. Dada and Surrealism, the groundbreaking 1936 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, catalyzed her artistic approach, and it was the Surrealist émigré artist Max Ernst (1891-1976) who suggested this painting's title, "Birthday." While scouting works for gallery-owner Peggy Guggenheim, Ernst encountered the painting at Tanning's Greenwich Village studio. Captivated by the model as much as her painting, Ernst later married Tanning in a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner in Beverly Hills, followed by a reception at the home of art collectors (and later Philadelphia Museum of Art benefactors) Louise and Walter Arensberg. (left: Traffic Sign, 1970, fabric, synthetic fur, wool, metal and cardboard, 66 1/4 x 13 7/8 x 13 7/8 inches, Collection of the artist)

An astonishing likeness that pairs verisimilitude with imagination, "Birthday" presents an unsmiling Tanning in exotic dress, perched on a steeply: tilting floor that leads through an infinite recession of doors. Her purple, ruffled jacket reveals bare skin, and tops a long skirt embellished with limb-like tendrils. She is accompanied by a fantastic, furry creature -- perhaps an ally in the adventures that wait beyond this hallucinatory space.

Birthday and Beyond was chosen by the artist in collaboration with Ms. Temkin and Assistant Curator Michael Taylor. A selection of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper -- some 18 works in all -- will explore the presence of the body in Tanning's work, and examine the astonishing variety of ways in which she approached the theme of metamorphosis. Among the works joining "Birthday" are "Notes for an Apocalypse" (1978), a large-scale canvas in which a tablecloth becomes a nightmare, and the unsettling fabric-sculpture "Rainy-Day-Canapé" (1970). a sofa metamorphosing into a group of writhing bodies. Other works, such as "Insomnias" (1957) present energized, illuminated fields of crystalline figures. (left: Heartless, 1980, oil on canvas, 57 1/4 x 44 1/2 inches, Collection of the artist; right: Some Roses and Their Phantoms, 1952, oil on canvas, 29 7/8 x 40 1/4 inches, Collection Antony Penrose, Chiddingly, England)

Birthday and Beyond will showcase quintessential work by Tanning drawn from five fertile decades in France and the United States. While celebrating the acquisition of "Birthday," it will also reveal Tanning as an artist who, at the age of 90, has invented a realm still to be discovered by American audiences.

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For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/30/11

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