In June 1997, the 86-year-old Dorothea Tanning embarked upon what was to be her final series of 12 enormous flower paintings, which she made over the ensuing 12 months. Six of these fantastical, hybrid blooms which Tanning described as her “foray into imaginary botany” remained with the artist until her death 15 years later in 2012, at the age of 101. Now they have been reunited at Alison Jacques Gallery, along with the smaller preliminary pencil sketches that she considered to be her “touchstones on the way to the flowers”.
And what wonderfully brazen, bizarre blooms they are. At first glance their forms are recognisably botanical: the bonnet of a columbine, the trumpet of a morning glory, the frilly petals of a sweet pea. But, as is appropriate for an artist who is best known for her associations with surrealism and who once famously stated “all is libido, nicely smothered,” there is also something more subversively sexy going on.
The fleshy and the floral seem to have morphed into a parallel species that pulsates with a faintly ominous libidinousness. Stems curl back as if to pounce; flurries of petals sprout surreptitious nipples amongst their frills; and heavy flower heads droop against a backdrop of what look like limbs and prone figures.
Dorothea Tanning Victrola Floribunda, 1997
Painted in an arresting palette dominated by hot oranges, salmon pinks, chalky purples and moody blues, they pulsate with life, and sometimes literally seem to smoke and smoulder. There’s certainly nothing genteel or old-ladyish about these flower arrangements, and absolutely no indication that they were painted by an octogenarian. But then, Dorothea Tanning had a lifelong commitment to confounding expectations.
Brought up in the flat mid-western town of Galesburg, Illinois where she later recalled “nothing happened but the wallpaper”, the rebellious Tanning alleviated her restrictive Lutheran surroundings by escaping into a fantasy world. It was fuelled by devouring the likes of Carroll, Poe, Coleridge, Flaubert and Wilde in the public library and then in the Chicago Institute, scrutinizing the Pre-Raphaelite and early Renaissance paintings and their meticulous techniques, which she spliced with what she described as her “raging imagination”.
Installation view of Dorothea Tanning: Flower Paintings
However it wasn’t until she moved to New York and encountered the Museum of Modern Art’s massive 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism that this imagination was truly unleashed and Tanning found her true artistic direction. “It was as if a door had opened and I was able to go through,” she remembered.
She went through with a vengeance and also married Max Ernst, one of the movement’s most famous figures, who had first come across a self-portrait of Tanning bare breasted and wearing a skirt of seaweed, whilst he was scouting for an all-woman show in the New York gallery of his then-wife Peggy Guggenheim. (The working title of the show was 30 Women but after Ernst’s encounter with Tanning it was amended to 31 Women, with Guggenheim wryly commenting that perhaps it would have been better to have remained with a round 30.)
Ernst and Tanning were together for more than 30 years, until Ernst’s death in 1976. “I like to think that it was my painting that seduced him,” she dryly remarked. But professionally her marriage proved a disaster, with Tanning eclipsed by the fame of her older husband, and bemoaning the fact that “I could never have an exhibition without people saying that I was Max’s wife and that he influenced me”.
However this did not prevent Tanning from producing a flood of paintings, drawings collages and soft sculpture throughout her long and prolific career, for which she received increasing recognition in the years following Ernst’s death. In everything she did, her raging, restless imagination and mischievous love of playing with and off the human form is evident and these late, great flower paintings are no exception. “I want people to look at my art with three eyes, two outside and one inside,” she once said – and in her final sexy, suggestive and also arrestingly beautiful blooms it is almost impossible not to do so. Catch them while you still can…