Human Flower Project

The Many Flowers of D. Tanning

Can there be a second act at age 89? And a second language? Just ask Dorothea.


Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, by Dorothea Tanning (1943)

Photo: Tate Online

Several months ago we came upon this work—Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music), from 1943 by Dorothea Tanning. Who wants to venture in—presuming to explain these tense, swooning girls, or the broken sunflower at the top of the stairs? We are, thank you, very much more comfortable hovering at a bit of a distance, above and outside wooden railing. (Note how DT has not just permitted but encouraged that perspective.)

We were even more impressed by this lesser known painting “The Mirror” (no date, sorry.) As Human Flower Projects go, this one manages a sublime, nightmarish comedy minus the screeching and dismemberment typical of 21st century art. Where have you gone, Dorothea Tanning? A nation turns its bloodshot eyes to you….

…Tanning turns 98 today. Not everyone would attempt a career change at age 89. But she did it, or perhaps we should say—is doing it. 

After 60 years of painting and sculpting and set designing in the shadows of surrealism’s Big Boys (she was married to Max Ernst), Tanning has turned to poetry. Here’s one of her recent works.


Dorothea Tanning with her Quiet Willow Walk

Photo: Steve Moss

Before letting go her brushes, though, she completed twelve large paintings, Another Language of Flowers. Unlike her surrealist sunflowers with their eerie suggestions, these are wholly imaginary blooms, huge, and—what a shock!—gentle. They were exhibited at the Boston University Art Gallery in 1999, then reproduced in a book alongside poems by many of her admirers, including James Merrill and John Ashbery.

It appears that DT, steeped in surrealism, found another language, then another medium. It’s never too late. We wish her happy birthday. Thanks for giving us middle-aged pikers something better than hope: proof.

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