Surrealism in print, part 3 (updated)

Having reposted two posts on written works linked, perhaps at times loosely, to surrealism, I thought I’d continue with more, and toss in a few selected paintings from her long and varied career. (Update at the bottom)

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943 Dorothea Tanning 1910-2012 Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 1997

Dorothea Tanning Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943 Collection Tate Gallery, London. Her surrealism in full flower (pun intended)

Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) was a painter and writer often associated with surrealism. She was married to fellow surrealist Max Ernst from 1946 until his death 20 years later, but her work deserves to be considered on its own. Late in life she took to writing, at times with a surreal bent. A Table of Content (2004) was Tanning’s first book of poetry. Her poem, Collage (La Femme 100 Tetes), subtitled (for M.E.) seems to refer to Ernst’s collage work:

A two-dimensional leopard wrapped in instinct
loves herself alone. You carve her out of paper,
out of context.
Glue thickens like a plot. (p. 12)

Une Lune dans l'autre, 1960, an example of her more abstract works

Une Lune dans l’autre, 1960, an example of her more abstract works

And what can you say about a poem entitled Rain of Blood, Aix-en-Provence (p.50-51), except that it is not as nightmarish as the title suggests? Or consider To Our Father Who Art (p. 74), which might be about God, but could also be a daughter’s message to her dead(ish) father. Even in her non-surreal poems, she layers meaning and draws lines in prose as elegant as those she put on paper or canvas.

Coming to That was Tanning’s final book of poems, issued in 2011, a year before her death at age 101. It shows a mind still clear, and an imagination in no way diminished with the passage of a century. The poems are simpler, somewhat like the way her painting grew freer of superfluous detail. But are these poems surreal, or Surreal? In places. What can you say about a poem about growing mice in a field, only to have them threatened by a rain of dwarves (Cultivation, p. 6)? Or a dog who can speak (At the Seaside, pp. 34-35)? Monsters appear; time and place are not always concrete. So yes, surreal most definitely. As to the other, the official Surrealist group is a victim of history, and might be ignored, or treated as “…unconstitutional – and pesky” (Visit, p. 48 – although her topic in the poem is not surrealism, the poem itself is surreal).

I should, considering the theme of this blog, recommend Artspeak, which appears on page 44. With an opening line like “If Art would only talk it would, at last, reveal” how can you resist?

Notes for an Apocalypse, 1978. Figuration returns.

Notes for an Apocalypse, 1978. Figuration returns.

If you must insist on the capital-S Surrealism, it can be found, even in such a short book – 52 pages long. Tanning’s poem For Instance includes these lines:

As everyone knows,
dreams come true?
But you have to
dream them first. (p. 43)

NEPHASTER CYANEUS (CLOUDSTAR), 1997. Her very later works were simplified flower forms.

Nephaster Cyaneus (Cloudstar), 1997. Tanning’s last works were abstracted flower forms, simple yet lovely.

Critics noted the elegiac tone of some of the poems, including the title verse, and, when writing about a centenarian, it’s hard not to connect that with imminent death. But death and fear have long been elements of surreal art, and I see no reason to get morbid. Tanning continued to show touches of humor, and not just of the graveyard variety. Books of poems often seem too short, and here I wish I could have read more. Fortunately, she has a novel, entitled Chasm: A Weekend (2004), and two memoirs, Birthday (1986) and Between Lives: an Artist and Her World (2001).

UPDATE: I want to add a small digression, and so here it is. I started paying attention to fortune cookies a while back, not through any belief in prognostication, but because I always felt unsatisfied when reading the little slip of paper within. Even the erratically brilliant McSweeneys included a roll of less-than-inspired fortunes in issue #36 (now sadly out of print). Why, I wondered, is it so hard to write a fortune for a fortune cookie? It’s not like the fate of the world depends on it.

So I was pleasantly surprised to read Fortune Cookies (p.19), one of Dorothea Tanning’s poems from A Table of Content. Here were fortunes both inexplicable and worth pondering, instead of platitudes and rejected lines from Salada tea tags. A sample of a few lines:

Black widow and bluedaughter will precede a bronze fortune. Wait ninety-one dawns.

Wild rapture spins over your personal landscape. Do not hold your breath in the fire. This sign is bliss.

Go mad and you will not become truly insane. Tomorrow you will be chosen

Fortune cookies were made for surrealism. Only surrealism captures the nonsense contained in the heart of life.

Artwork on this page is copyright by the Dorothea Tanning Foundation, and used under the principles of fair use. For more information on the foundation, visit their site here.


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