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Hood Museum of Art
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755

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Dorothea Tanning, To The Rescue

Dorothea Tanning, To The Rescue

Dorothea Tanning

To The Rescue
Oil on canvas
Purchased through the Lathrop Fellows; 2006.15

The Hood Museum of Art recently acquired To the Rescue, a major painting by Dorothea Tanning. We asked Kate Conley, chair of Dartmouth College's Department of French and Italian, to write about Tanning's work.

Whether hellish or heavenly, Tanning’s pale glowing images of etherealized bodies emerging from and disappearing into irrational, seemingly multidimensional mindspaces are among the most ambitious and sophisticated paintings to address the dilemmas of imagination and culture in a new atomic space age.

—Art historian Charles Stuckey, 2005

I have always taught surrealism at Dartmouth through the works in the Hood's collection, most notably Tanning’s The 7 Spectral Perils (1950). It was partly through the experience of teaching this series of lithographs and through the enthusiasm of my students for Tanning's painting that I was drawn to use three of the Perils in a talk and article for a 1997 conference on women surrealists I co-organized in France. Through the process involved in asking permission to reproduce the lithographs in the follow-up book, I spoke to Tanning’s then-agent, John Cavaliero, who urged me to write Tanning directly with my argument that it was important to recognize women artists like her before attempting any comprehensive appreciation of surrealism. (Tanning has notoriously refused to be considered as a woman painter in any venue.) It worked: I was given permission to reproduce the lithographs, and I also received an invitation to visit the Tanning Foundation in New York. When I did so in 1999, Cavaliero told me I might be able to meet Tanning, if I prepared my questions in advance.

In January 2001 I visited Tanning at her apartment for the first time. She would not let me tape our conversation, but I took notes and was delighted to discover that she approved of the ideas I wanted to publish in an article, "Les Révolutions de Dorothea Tanning," in the French journal Pleine Marge (2002). I argue that the swirling bodies in her paintings from the 1950s and 1960s were always anticipated by the dancing couples in her Tango drawings and paintings starting in the 1930s, and that they anticipate the pure corporeality visible in To The Rescue and later in her soft sculptures from the 1970s. We talked about her use of the visual notion of "middle distance" as a poetic device, and she gave me a draft of the poem "Sequestrienne," later published in A Table of Content, which again evokes this idea: "There was a time / of middle distance, / unforgettable / a sort of lace-cut / flame-green filament / to ravish my / skintight eyes" (58).

To The Rescue will be a valuable addition to my teaching because of the way it shows Tanning's transition from small to large canvases, where her pleasure in using color and in the pure corporeality of the human body becomes more evident. To The Rescue also reprises of one of Tanning's most consistent motifs: that of the vigilant animal, usually a dog, whose steady gaze questions what it means to be human.

Katharine Conley
Professor of French
Dartmouth College

Last Updated: 11/14/06