Dorothea Tanning’s “foray into imaginative botany,”
“In the months before beginning this series, at the age of 86, the artist thought she had finished painting in her New York studio but then remembered a set of stretched Lefebvre-Foinet canvases, which she had purchased years earlier while living in Paris, and was compelled to use one. Her discovery provoked “a burst of energy and obsession that lasted the better part of eight months and was responsible for 12 outsized, hauntingly erotic flower paintings” (Jane Kramer, The New Yorker, 2004).
“I had a vision of a mauve flower,” Tanning says of that time, “Then more and more wanted to be painted. I could hardly finish one before I’d start the next one”
(Boston Globe, 1999). Using preliminary sketches as “touchstones on the way to the flowers,” the artist represented “naked, precise depictions of visions as real to me as botanical specimens are to the scientist” (Another Language of Flowers, 1998).
Tanning painted 12 flowers over the course of a year, from June 1997 until April 1998; one for each month of the year, or one for each hour of the day or night. Her preoccupation with the female figure, which is evident throughout her work from the 1940s onwards, remains present in these last paintings, where bodies and limbs embrace the flowers or blend into her dream-like landscapes. Tanning’s hybrid flowers take us on a journey through a never-before-seen garden, which she described as a “foray into imaginary botany”.
As she wrote, each flower “had the good fortune to be identified and blessed with the words of twelve poets, friends of the artist, who have given them their voices” (Another Language of Flowers, 1998). With the exception of James Merrill, who is quoted posthumously, the poets were inspired by the images themselves to write poems and create fictitious Latin names, sometimes with a faux-translation in English: Agripedium vorax Saccherii (Clog Herb); Siderium exaltatum (Starry Venusweed); Zephirium apochripholiae (Windwort); Pictor mysteriosa (Burnt Umbrage); Victrola floribunda; and Convolotus alchemilia (Quiet-willow window).
Tanning was born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1910 and attended Knox College before moving to New York in the 1940s. There she began exhibiting at the Julien Levy Gallery, becoming known for her very personal and powerful surrealist paintings. In New York she met and married Max Ernst, moving with him to Arizona in the mid-’40s, and then to France in the mid-’50s. Two decades later, after Ernst’s death, Tanning returned to New York where she embarked upon a new and ambitious series of paintings, increasing both the scale and the scope of her work.
In addition to her activities as a painter, printmaker, and sculptor, Tanning designed sets and costumes for ballet and theater in New York, London and Paris. Her work is included in collections at the Tate Gallery, London; the Georges Pompidou Center, Paris; the Menil Collection, Houston; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
She died in 2012 at the age of 101.