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At the Tanning Symposium

By Christopher Poore '14

Knox alumna andDorothea Tanning house marker in Galesburg, Illinois renowned artist, Dorothea Tanning '32, was honored by the Knox College and Galesburg communities on Saturday, May 20, 2011, with a symposium that celebrated Tanning's work and life. The symposium featured members of her family, as well as distinguished scholars, poets, and publishers. Christopher Poore '14, an English Literature major from Colorado Springs, Colorado, recounts delving into Tanning's mythos during the symposium. 

"To say I was there is to be a fossil in an unnatural history museum, acquisition number on my brow."  -- Dorothea Tanning

Galesburg seems full of little eulogies to what has disappeared. A plush red chair where an assassinated president once sat. And the stairs of Old Main, indented with decades of ascents, descents, an osmosis of bodies, diffusion of uncountable students, all of whom came before, will come after, clambering or climbing with grace. Standing in the stairwell, I can almost hear the cacophony of tradition.

But one marker was missing until a drizzling May, when umbrella-shielded figures gathered at 420 Hawkinson Avenue to officially dedicate a regal sign that proclaims: "Childhood Home of Dorothea Tanning, Artist & Poet, Born 1910." It is easy to tell where the people came from. In bright colors and white sneakers, the Galesburg natives greet their neighbors, ask after some shared acquaintance. And then there are the "artists," from supposedly thrilling cities -- New York, most thrilling of all -- though their clothes hardly excite. Swathed in black, they make for a graver portrait.

"It almost looks like a funeral," says Mimi Johnson, Tanning's niece. Someone -- nameless, faceless now in my memory -- grimaces.

And then imagine me, a rain-soaked youth looking the rat after pedaling a rusting bike down Main, now bewildered with the entire scene. Disheveled, I'm sure I look pitiful to either crowd, but such degradations are necessary for worship -- just ask the woman who knelt in the grime to clean holy feet with her perfumed hair.

Artwork between sections of article

I find that to construct a series of consecutive events from the life of Dorothea Tanning '32 and call it history is as difficult as differentiating where one ethereal body gives way to another in her painting Mean Frequency (of Auroras), as impossible as discerning where couch transforms into voluptuous, humanly curve in her soft-sculpture Rainy Day Canape. Biography too often becomes a timeline tracing a path towards the grave.

That said, walking the streets of her hometown and reading her memoir Between Lives provides a blueprint for reconstruction. I can almost see her girlhood in this city where, as she writes, "you sat on
the davenport and waited to grow up." I can even imagine a dazzling caricature of a particular scene. Carl Sandburg, American poet and Tanning family friend, sits in a dim lit parlor, advising her father
against sending her to art school. "They will stifle her talent and originality," she recalls him saying.

Dorothea Tanning painting BirthdayOr imagine her at Knox, imagine the young painter -- future surréaliste -- alongside the giggling college girls whose minds bubble giddy at the thought of marriage. Yes, she is young, she draws for the yearbook, works for the theater, but begins planning an escape from a college whose gravitational center consists of football games and Greek societies. "All," writes Tanning, "benevolently condoned by the institution that was preparing your mind for the future."

Little wonder she chooses instead to walk among the long rows of books at the Galesburg Public Library, propelling herself with the only fuel left for a young, slightly starved genius: curiosity. Poe, De Quincey, Walpole -- these would be the new companions. Leaves of Grass, Salammbô, The Red Lily -- these replace the textbooks, each new novel a delectable, exotic reprieve from Knox and a whispered premonition of the adventure that would soon unfurl in the days of her own living.

Yet the picture blurs as she moves on to Chicago in 1930, where after a brief, three-week stint at the Chicago Academy of Art, she finds herself working as a waitress, learning to French kiss, going on dubious dates with gangsters, and saving to move to New York, a place she considered a launching pad to Paris. Always, however, I think of her in front of the white canvas, open to the possibility of her becoming.

By 1939, my imagination has lost her in Paris, nothing but an obscure romantic blur to my untraveled mind. What could follow from that but a list of facts, dates, hearsays?

In Between Lives she recalls a Paris stark and empty, drained by the anxiety over approaching war. Yet back in New York, the transplanted Parisian milieu awaits her, so that by 1942, she finds herself among some of the 20th Century's key artistic figures: Yves Tanguy, Peggy Guggenheim, and future husband, Max Ernst. In January of the next year, Tanning's painting Birthday hangs as a part of "31 Women," a show at the gallery Art of This Century. And here, a moment of dazzling clarity -- for I have seen the painting -- her ambrosial body standing bare-chested amid an inestimable labyrinth of open doors, wearing a skirt of immaculate, woman-shaped vines.

And yet this moment is a mere threshold to the next 70, during which Tanning creates a corpus of work that is as diverse as it is evocative -- the surrealistic oil paintings wrought in the Sedona desert, the spectacularly erotic soft-sculpture from the late '60s and '70s, the final throb of paint that resulted in her delicate and explosive floral paintings, and more recently, her carefully calculated poetry, which has earned publication by Poetry, The Best American Poetry series, and Greywolf Press. As she told Jane Kramer at The New Yorker, "I have such a long life to remember." But the challenge is ours in this cursed game of biography, where fragments pretend to suffice. For if she is awed by the span and the richness of her own years, how much more wonder for us. To look back on a century spent almost wholly on the birth of splendor dizzies the mind and enthralls the flesh to conceptions of its own.

Artwork between sections of article

When an audience has assembled in Kresge Hall, Michael Taylor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art uses PowerPoint to describe in complex and enthralling detail how Tanning's Birthday focuses a delirious chaos -- from the doors of her own apartment to Dalí to Rodin's La Porte de l'Enfer -- into a searing moment of artistic innovation. What goes unsaid, what seems obvious to all assembled, are her miraculous risks, her hurdles towards apparent chasms in order to land on new frontiers, previously undiscovered. And because of this, because of her own "headlong leaps and dives," we are allowed to sit comfortably in auditorium seats listening to a lecture -- but no, that could never be enough for Tanning, or for that matter, for me. Instead, staring at a 20-foot tall projection of Birthday, I feel called to make leaps of my own.