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Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond

November 24, 2000–January 14, 2001

Birthday announces an artist who emerged into the public eye with a fully formulated vision and exquisitely flawless technique,“ says Ann Temkin, The Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the museum, of Dorothea Tanning’s celebrated self-portrait. Painted in 1942, when Tanning was thirty-two-years old, Birthday was acquired from the artist in 1999, with funds contributed by Charles K. Williams II. The painting is a central icon of the surrealist era, as well as one of the great self-portraits of the twentieth century. To celebrate this major acquisition, the museum will present a salute to the artist, Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond, Tanning’s first one-person exhibition in an American museum.

An Illinois native, Tanning studied at The Art Institute of Chicago. At the time she painted Birthday, Tanning was living in New York City and working as a freelance illustrator for Manhattan department stores. Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, the groundbreaking 1936 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, catalyzed her artistic approach, and it was the Surrealist émigré artist Max Ernst (1891–1976) who suggested the painting’s title, Birthday. While scouting works for gallery-owner Peggy Guggenheim, Ernst encountered the painting at Tanning’s Greenwich Village studio. Captivated by the model as much as her painting, Ernst later married Tanning in a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner in Beverly Hills, followed by a reception at the home of art collectors (and later Philadelphia Museum of Art benefactors) Louise and Walter Arensberg.

An astonishing likeness that pairs verisimilitude with imagination, Birthday presents an unsmiling Tanning in exotic dress, perched on a steeply tilting floor that leads through an infinite recession of doors. Her purple, ruffled jacket reveals bare skin, and tops a long skirt embellished with limb-like tendrils. She is accompanied by a fantastic, furry creature-perhaps an ally in the adventures that wait beyond this hallucinatory space.

Birthday and Beyond was chosen by the artist in collaboration with Ms. Temkin and Assistant Curator Michael Taylor. A selection of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper-some eighteen works in all—will explore the presence of the body in Tanning’s work, and examine the astonishing variety of ways in which she approached the theme of metamorphosis. Among the works joining Birthday are Notes for an Apocalypse (1978), a large-scale canvas in which a tablecloth becomes a nightmare, and the unsettling fabric-sculpture Rainy-Day Canapé (1970), a sofa metamorphosing into a group of writhing bodies. Other works, such as Insomnias (1957), present energized, illuminated fields of crystalline figures.

Birthday and Beyond showcases a quintessential selection of Tanning’s work drawn from five fertile decades in France and the United States. While celebrating the acquisition of Birthday, it will also reveal Tanning as an artist who, at the age of ninety, has invented a realm still to be discovered by American audiences.

Main Building


Ann Temkin, Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art; Michael Taylor, Assistant Curator

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