Ambiguous Figures: Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning


It’s the beginning of April, and in honour of Max Ernst’s birthday (April 2) and National Poetry Month, we thought we’d do a little feature on Ernst, key figure in the history of Dada and Surrealism, and Dorothea Tanning, prolific artist and late-blooming poet who also happens to have been Ernst’s fourth wife.

A dashing and charismatic pair, they met in New York in 1942, when Ernst was still married to Peggy Guggenheim. Four years later, upon his divorce from Guggenheim, Ernst married Tanning in a double Beverly Hills wedding with Juliet Browner and Man Ray. Settling first in Sedona, and then the south of France, Ernst and Tanning continued their innovative and ever-evolving artistic practices, encompassing painting, collage, printmaking, sculpture, filmmaking, costume and set design, book illustration, and writing.

After Ernst’s death in 1976, Tanning returned to New York, and while continuing to paint, embarked on a new career in poetry as she neared the age of 70. Critics have spoken of Tanning’s poems in visual terms, describing them as “collages, softly surreal” (Louis McKee, Library Journal), which use “language like paint, limning scenes dreamy in hue yet acute in detail” (Donna Seaman, Booklist).

Tanning lived to the age of 101, leaving behind a body of work spanning six decades upon her death earlier this year. Below, images of artworks by Max Ernst followed by writing and artworks by Dorothea Tanning.


Don’t look at me
for answers. Who am I but
a sobriquet,
a teeth-grinder,
grinder of color,
and vanishing point?

There was a time
of middle distance, unforgettable,
a sort of lace-cut
flame-green filament
to ravish my
skin-tight eyes.

I take that back—
it was forgettable but not
entirely if you
consider my
heavenly bodies . . .
I loved them so.

Heaven’s motes sift
to salt-white—paint is ground
to silence; and I,
I am bound, unquiet,
a shade of blue
in the studio.

If it isn’t too late
let me waste one day away
from my history.
Let me see without
looking inside
at broken glass.

—Dorothea Tanning, from Poetry, April 2002

Unshakable, removed. As he lay there it was stunningly clear that he would die. And that there would be no compromise, no revelation, nothing for me anywhere….

Tonight, gray is the end color, the end result. Ash is the color of the sky, the lid of the town, the fur in the mouth. Time lives with space, unperturbed; Father Time, Mother Space. They are king and queen of the world and the universe and the whole bit. Invincible. They are the only ones.

There is no sound, his breath is feather-silent. A private event is taking place. Not to be disturbed by sorrowing faces, Loplop, Bird Superior, prepares in solitude, in the graceful space of his lofty aerie, his diminishing and his departure…

—Dorothea Tanning, excerpt from Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, 2001

All Hallows’ Eve

Be perfect, make it otherwise.
Yesterday is torn in shreds.
Lightning’s thousand sulfur eyes
Rip apart the breathing beds.
Hear bones crack and pulverize.
Doom creeps in on rubber treads.
Countless overwrought housewives,
Minds unraveling like threads,
Try lipstick shades to tranquilize
Fears of age and general dreads.
Sit tight, be perfect, swat the spies,
Don’t take faucets for fountainheads.
Drink tasty antidotes. Otherwise
You and the werewolf: newlyweds.

—Dorothea Tanning, from Coming to That, 2011

Read more on Max Ernst and see a selection of his work on the Tate’s website
MoMA’s collection of Ernst’s works is extensive and varied; start here

A comprehensive website featuring Dorothea Tanning’s life and work, is rich with photographs, images, and writing—a truly incredible resource
Learn more about Dorothea Tanning’s career as a poet and read some of her poems on the
Poetry Foundation’s website

images and credits:

Max Ernst, Punching ball or the immortality of Buonarroti (detail), 1920; Dorothea Tanning, Amagansett, New York, photograph by Robert Motherwell, 1945, © Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, New York, photograph by Irving Penn, 1947, © The Irving Penn Foundation

Max Ernst, The Couple, 1923, oil and collage on cut printed reproductions on paper mounted on cardboard, 20.3 x 25 cm, courtesy Galerie Daniel Malingue, Paris; Pietà or Revolution by Night, 1923, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London; Ambiguous Figures (1 Copper Plate, 1 Zinc Plate, 1 Rubber Cloth…), ca. 1919–1920, collage, gouache, India ink, pencil, and paint on print mounted on paperboard, 25.4 x 18.5 cm, collection Michael and Judy Steinhardt, New York; Loplop Presents Loplop, 1931, collage of cut printed reproductions and pencil and India ink on paper, 64.8 x 50.2 cm, collection of Dorothea Tanning; all photos from Max Ernst: A Retrospective, © 2005 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, except Pietà, from Tate/London, Art Resource/New York

Dorothea Tanning, Même les jeunes filles (Even the Young Girls), 1966, oil on canvas, 65 1/4 x 80 1/4 inches; The Philosophers, 1952, oil on canvas, 30 x 35.75 inches; Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Poppy Hotel, Room 202), 1970-73, fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and ping pong balls, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Rainy-Day Canapé1970-73, upholstered chair, tweed, and wool, 31.5 x 47.25 x 33.5 inches, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, ParisEvening in Sedona, 1976, oil on canvas, 45 x 57.5 inches

Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, 2001, New York: W.W. Norton & Company
Dorothea Tanning, “All Hallows’ Eve” from Coming to That, © 2011 by Dorothea Tanning

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