Dorothea Tanning remarked on her childhood in Galesburg, Illinois that nothing happened but the wallpaper, however everything, even wallpaper, is grist to the true artists mill and she succeeded during her long and incredibly productive life to create memorable works set in conventional domestic spaces filled with mystery, confrontation and revelation.
Family Portrait was painted in Sedona, Arizona, where Tanning lived with her husband Max Ernst for part of every year until they moved to France permanently in 1957 . The painting is dominated by the huge father (or husband) figure wearing sinister mirrored round glasses in the background. The size of each figure seems entirely dependent on their status within the family group. The perky daughter (or wife) with her large and expressive eyes sits level at the table with its crisp linen and strange dishes, dwarfing the housekeeper who is little bigger than the small dog on its hindquarters begging for its dinner. The muted colours add to the ominous and oppressive atmosphere. Family Portrait is a suburban Gothic drama of hidden tensions and Wonderland-like changes in scale that lingers unnervingly in the memory.
Max Ernst was intrigued when he first saw Dorothea Tanning’s enigmatic self-portrait, which he suggested should be called TheBirthday; she agreed that it was an apt choice.After playing chess they fell in love, as Surrealist’s were wont to do. They married in 1946 in a joint wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner. They remained together until Ernst’s death in 1976. She would outlive Ernst by a further 36 years, living to the grand old age of 102, the last of the Surrealists.
A writer as well as a painter, Tanning’s memoir is entitled Birthday.
Friday’s Ernst is a gorgeous, grotesque erotic fantasy. Ernst’s art is always cryptic and open to a wide range of interpretations but any interpretation of The Robing of the Bride will fall woefully short before this magnificent, sumptuous masterpiece.
The long-legged, small breasted Bride is robed in spectacular, vivid red feathered cloak which also completely covers the face with the exception of a pair of owl eyes and a beak. To the left is a bird warrior/attendant whose spear (surely the symbolism is deliberate) is broken before the sexual glory of the Bride-Queen. To the right is a tiny weeping four-breasted hermaphroditic monster. Behind is an enraptured pale-skinned naked women with a stunning headdress that Ernst fashioned using decalcomania. The picture on the wall of another bride of another time amidst classical ruins also uses decalcomania for her robes.
Of all Ernst paintings The Robing of the Bride has the most visible alchemical and esoteric elements. The Bride is generally accepted as being inspired by Ernst’s lover and fellow Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. Ironically the painting can be seen in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Both Guggenheim and Carrington were involved in a bitter rivalry for Ernst’s affectation. Guggenheim would become Ernst’s third wife in 1942 but the union was short lived. Ernst married his fourth wife Dorothea Tanning in 1946, they were to remain married until Ernst’s death in 1976
Fashion model, muse, Surrealist photographer, war correspondent, writer and later Lady Penrose, chatelaine of Farley Farm House in East Sussex where the darkroom had turned into a kitchen where she perfected dishes for visiting artists including Picasso, her former lover Man Ray, Eileen Agar, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning; Lee Miller was one of the most exceptional people to have engaged with the Surrealist movement.
After reporting and photographing the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau, Miller photographed dying children in a Viennese hospital and covered the execution of the Hungarian Prime Minister. The war took its toll on Miller, however, after returning to England she would frequently experience severe bouts of depression, haunted by the atrocities she had witnessed in the concentration camps.
Below is a photograph taken just hours after leaving Dachau; in Hitler’s apartment Miller is naked in his bathtub. Her boots are covered with the muck and grime of Dachau and have soiled the bathmat. A few hours later Hitler and Eva Braun would commit suicide in the bunker.