A painter, draftsman, sculptor, and later, a writer of fiction and poetry. The accomplished Dorothea Tanning, before her death at the age of 101 last Tuesday, saw the success of the suffragists, the emergence of the avant-garde, the fall-out of two world wars, the civil rights movement and just perhaps, the slow transformation in the world at large of her obligatory title as a “woman artist”—a moniker she reportedly detested—to simply, “artist.”
Currently at LACMA, the exhibition In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States covers a period from 1931 (two years after Breton’s second Surrealist Manifesto was published) to 1968 and pairs several key works by Tanning with pieces by forty-six other (women) artists. On view is her poignant, momentous self portrait, Birthday, 1942, as well as other paintings and lithographs and her later soft-sculpture forms from the sixties. Others featured in the exhibition include iconic figures such as Frida Kahlo, Maya Deren, Francesca Woodman, Louise Bourgeois and Lee Miller, as well as lesser known people like Gerrie Gutmann, landscapist Doris Lindo Lewis, and Pasadena’s own Helen Lundeberg, whose paintings provide one of the main highlights of the show.
Lundeberg, like Tanning, was born in the Midwest. Also like Tanning, her self-identification with Surrealism was short lived. Along with her husband, she wrote her own manifesto, on view at the LACMA exhibition. Titled, the New Classicism Manifesto, it calls for the pictorial elements in painting to function only in creating subjective forms that are, “either emotional or mood entity or intellectual or idea entity.” Lundeberg took argument with the celebrated male artists classically associated with Surrealism such as De Chirico, Max Ernst (Tanning’s husband of thirty years) and Dali, claiming that their style did not break enough with the essential principles of pictorial patterns in Renaissance art to be truly historically relevant. A brave accusation for someone living in Los Angeles in the late thirties!
Helen Lundeberg, Cosmicide, 1935, oil on Masonite, 40 x 24”. Gift of the Peter Kiewit Foundation. Sheldon Art Museum.
Lundeberg’s own work in the show is effervescent, playful and reveals little influence. Cosmicide, her painting from 1935, opens the exhibition: the canvas is in the shape of a trapezoid; on it, a moon hangs over a flowering plant. The internal structure of one of the blossoms is exposed, as if part of the painting had been ripped off, and reveals a fly inside, submerged in liquid. Below this, a wrench is depicted bending a nail emerging from another liquid pool and to the right, a classic Western motif of a cactus. Lundeberg often painted herself alongside elements of the cosmos. She would later move onto more purely abstract forms (her painting, Blue Planet, 1965, was another standout at the Getty’s recent show, Crosscurrents) but her work here evinces a particularly American reaction to Surrealism’s legacy—one that is profound not for her gender, but for her vision.—Kate Wolf
Top Image: Dorothea Tanning, Canapé en temps de pluie (Rainy-Day Canapé), 1970, Tweed, upholstered wood sofa, wool, Ping-Pong balls, and cardboard, 32 1/4 x 68 1/2 x 43 1/4 in., Philadelphia Museum of Art. Anonymous gift.