Surreal: Genre’s oldest living artist a Galesburg native

From the Register-Mail:

Though her feelings about her hometown are complex, world renowned surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning has been strongly influenced by her childhood and college years in Galesburg. Almost 100 years after her birth, Tanning’s life, work and legacy are still tied to the city.

“Our family had a friend, Carl Sandburg, who was my father’s buddy in the Spanish-American War,” she said. “His great friend the poet. Daddy showed him little Dorothea’s sketches. ‘Oh no! Don’t do that! Don’t send her to art school. They’ll spoil her talent.’ As a poet he was self-taught, wouldn’t you know? At any rate, the utterance of these august words deprived the young artist of an early start. Later, after ripe reflection: no doubt it was for the best.”

It turns out that Sandburg was right about “little Dorothea.” Tanning wrote these words in a memoir “Dorothea Her Lights and Shadows (a scenario)” in 1977, years after she had became a famous artist; years after she had left the Art Institute of Chicago after only a few weeks of classes; years after attending Knox College; and years after her growing up in Galesburg….

“At 16 I was employed: The Galesburg Public Library, my House of Joy. In that gray stone building flying the American Flag I was forever corrupted by “Salammbo,” “The Red Lily,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “Against the Grain” — oh, such delicious hymns to decadence, hidden in the stacks among thousands of other bewitching revelations,” Tanning wrote.

The books that Tanning read at the Galesburg Public Library, particularly Gothic novels, greatly influenced her later artistic works.

“It’s where she comes from, the Gothic novels she read at the Galesburg Public Library, and that was with her for her entire life, and she really tapped into that her entire life,” said Michael Taylor, curator of Modern art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Tanning’s most famous works are on display. He’s also a personal friend of Tanning.

Tanning began at Knox College in 1928 where she studied for two years. During her time at the college, she performed with the Players’ Club theater group and was an organizer in the Women’s Self Governance Association, which was devoted to the governance of female student affairs at Knox. Tanning was also the art director for the 1931 edition of The Gale yearbook (produced in 1930), for which she created original art pieces.

Tanning left Knox after the 1930 school year and went to Chicago where she attended classes for only a few weeks; she left when she became frustrated with the art instruction and decided to strike out on her own as an artist. Tanning moved to New York, and then, after World War II and her marriage to influential surrealist Max Ernst, she and her husband moved to France in 1956, where they lived for many years. Following Ernst’s death in 1976, Tanning returned to the United States. She now lives in New York City.