Dorothea Tanning, A Mi-Voix 1958

A Mi-Voix 1958 Dorothea Tanning 1910-2012 Presented by William N. Copley 1959
Dorothea Tanning, À Mi-Voix (1958) oil on canvas

London has some of the finest publicly owned museums and art galleries in the world and it is all too easy to take them for granted or to dismiss them as mere tourist attractions. Access to these great institutions is currently free, and so it should be. These facilities are great learning resources for children and for adults. Art is an essential human activity and has probably been with us for as long as we have had language. The representation of consciousness, of feelings and ideas is fundamental to our sense of identity, whether it be in words or images. That we are complex beings is to be applauded: it is this complexity which generates great drama, great music, great poetry and great art. We are the only species in nature to ask questions about what we observe in the external world and what we endeavour to understand when we look introspectively into our hearts.

Traipsing round Tate Modern last Sunday, wet through to my soul, and disappointed that the Pollocks I had gone to see were not currently on display there, I needed a piece of art to raise my spirits, and I found several. In particular I was struck by the ethereal beauty of a painting by Dorothea Tanning, À mi-voix, a title which in English means ‘in a low voice’, almost a whisper. This beautifully executed canvas took my breath away, and there is so much that I could say about it, but I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that at its heart I see two figures, male and female, bound by a central spinal column, expressing a love that is so delicately intimate it need not be shouted from the rooftops. But maybe that’s just me! Don’t take my word for it, go and see for yourself.

Dorothea Tanning

Artist and writer Dorothea Tanning was born in the United States in 1910 and trained as a painter in Chicago. She was associated with surrealism early in her career and she was married to fellow artist Max Ernst for thirty-four years until his death in 1976. Among her friends were Man Ray, George Balanchine, Truman Capote, Virgil Thompson, and Igor Stravinsky. Throughout her life she was always busy busy busy, into everything: painting, printmaking, sculpture, set and costume design, and her work was exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Modern, and the Philadelphia Museum. In the late 1990s Dorothea turned to writing poetry and two of her poems are presented below. She also wrote an autobiography entitled Birthday (1986) and in 2004 published a novel Chasm: A Weekend. In an epigraph to one of her poetry books she quotes Montaigne : “it’s hard to be always the same person.” She died in 2012 at the age of 101.

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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.



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



2 thoughts on “Dorothea Tanning, A Mi-Voix 1958

  1. On returning from Cathar country of the Pay D’Oc where the sun shone in an azure sky and the wine flowed, it was heartening to see our intrepid writer J J Lyons battling the elements to visit the museums and galleries of our fine city. He informs, enlightens, and opens our eyes to appreciate all that is out there within our reach if we would only drag our sorry carcasses out there! Maybe we all need D M boots? Having said all that, the Dorothy Tanning picture to me is two people sitting at a table, the low voices are because they are in a cafe and do not want people to hear their conversation.


  2. Lovely to hear from you again, dear Molly Rosenberg. Yes, I will admit it has been hard flying the flag in your absence, but a man has to do what a man. . . you know. I read her autobiography today at the British Library: it’s actually a love letter, so she says, to her husband Max Ernst; as she was writing it, she explains, he would ask her from time to time “And then what happened?”

    But yes, the art is open to interpretation. But what a woman! And what a man! She was painting some illustrations for fashion catalogues one day, neglecting her art, and he leant over her shoulder and said “Why are you doing this work if you do not believe in it?” She replied “It’s only provisional, only for the meantime.” And he replied “There is no meantime!” She knew then that an artist must follow his or her artistic vocation and allow nothing to interfere. She had also at that moment just finished a self-portrait and Max asked what was the title. She said it had no title as yet. He said, “Call it ‘Birthday’ because today you are born as an artist and will never again have to dilute your talent on commercial work.”

    But what a woman, lucid and articulate and creative till the very end of her 101 years. In addition, extremely beautiful and full of fun! Max was a very lucky man to have found her.


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