Who is Dorothea Tanning?

'I wanted to lead the eye into spaces that hid, revealed, transformed all at once and where there could be some never-before-seen-image.' – Dorothea Tanning

American artist Dorothea Tanning first discovered Surrealism when she visited an exhibition of Surrealist art in New York in 1936. The artworks on display had a profound effect on her. She later described her visit to the exhibition as 'an explosion, rocking me on my run-over heels. Here is the infinitely faceted world I must have been waiting for. Here is the limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY'.


Celebes 1921

Max Ernst (1891–1976)


In 1942 she met influential Surrealist artist Max Ernst who was impressed with her work and introduced her to the wider circle of Surrealist artists and writers. Ernst and Tanning began a relationship and were married in 1946.

Apart from a few short months at art school, Tanning was a self-taught artist and developed her very individual style during her long art career. Early paintings such as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Some Roses and Their Phantoms are meticulously and realistically rendered, using small careful brushstrokes to create dreamlike scenes.

Some Roses and Their Phantoms

Some Roses and Their Phantoms 1952

Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012)


Tanning's first job on leaving school was as a library assistant. Her love of the gothic and romantic novels she encountered there, full of fantastical scenes and imagery, influenced her subject matter and the mood of her paintings.

What is Surrealism?

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik reflects many of the interests, themes and techniques of Surrealism. Introduce students to Surrealism by watching one of the Tate videos below, as a class.

Video note

  • If you are teaching younger students, the Tate Kids video may be more age-appropriate.
  • The Unlock Art video is designed for older students and self-directed learners. It contains some disturbing imagery and mild references to sex. (We recommend you watch the film before showing it to your class.)

Background notes: about Surrealism

Key facts

  • Surrealism was an art and literary movement founded in Paris in 1924 by the poet André Breton.
  • It was inspired by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
  • Surrealists explored the imagery of dreams and the unconscious mind (the memories, ideas and thoughts buried deep in our minds that we don't necessarily know are there).
  • There are two main approaches to Surrealist painting: realistically rendered images of dreamlike scenes, and images developed using automatic techniques that involve chance.
  • Surrealism continued until the mid-1960s, though is still influential today.
  • Key artists include Dorothea Tanning, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Eileen Agar, Claude Cahun, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Man Ray and Yves Tanguy.


Surrealism is an art and literary movement that began in Europe after the First World War. The term 'Surrealism' was first used by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917. However, it wasn't until 1924 that the Surrealist movement was officially established, with the publication of the first Surrealist Manifesto by French poet and critic André Breton.

'Surrealist Manifesto Volume 1, Number 1', October 1924

'Surrealist Manifesto Volume 1, Number 1', October 1924

cover by Robert Delaunay (1885–1941)

The Surrealists were influenced by the research and writing of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that our minds are divided into two parts – the conscious and the unconscious. Our conscious minds are rational and are what we use to make decisions daily. Our unconscious minds are where our memories are stored and fuel our irrational thoughts, dreams and fantasies.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) 1926

Ferdinand Schmutzer (1870–1928)

Freud Museum London

Processes and techniques

Surrealist artists and writers explored and experimented with processes and techniques to help unlock the unconscious mind and release the power of imagination. Many of these techniques embraced the idea of chance. For example, they often juxtaposed unlikely objects or imagery within artworks to see what the result would be.

Indestructible Object

Indestructible Object 1923

Man Ray (1890–1976)


They also developed techniques to create random marks or blots that would then suggest unexpected images.

Painting (Peinture)

Painting (Peinture) 1927

Joan Miró (1893–1983)


By combining the thoughts and feelings from our unconscious minds with reality, they aimed to create a 'super-reality' or 'Sur-reality'.

Politics and influences

As well as being a revolutionary art movement, the Surrealists were politically revolutionary and aligned themselves with causes such as communism and anarchism.

Surrealism was influenced by Dada, a movement formed in 1916 by artists, writers and musicians. Dada was a response to the horrors and needless deaths of the First World War, and what they saw as the corrupt society that let the war happen. Both Dada and Surrealism aimed to shock the establishment and shared a love of the absurd.


Fountain (replica 1964) 1917

Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)


Lasting legacy

Surrealism as a movement is generally seen to have continued until the mid-1960s, although surrealist imagery can still be seen in contemporary culture in artworks, games, films and fashion.

Pauline Bunny

Pauline Bunny 1997

Sarah Lucas (b.1962)


Analysis notes: Surrealism, symbolism and visual elements

Influence of Surrealism

Dorothea Tanning has used a realistic style to paint the scene, but the images and details included in the painting make it look unreal.

  • The mood or atmosphere of the painting is dreamlike.
  • The sunflower and the girl's hair standing on end add a disturbing quality to the scene.
  • Tanning's juxtaposition of unexpected imagery reflects Surrealism's interest in the absurd – a giant creeping sunflower in a hotel corridor?

Symbolism and motifs

  • The door could be seen as a Surrealist symbol, a portal to the unconscious and a way of shutting out our secret fears and desires. (Tanning often includes doors left ajar or leading to other doors in her paintings.)
  • Tanning saw the sunflower in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as representing the 'never-ending battle we wage with unknown forces, the forces that were there before our civilisation'. She also saw it as 'a symbol of all the things that youth has to face and to deal with'.
  • She frequently includes young girls or figures on the threshold between childhood and adulthood in her paintings. These are often pictured near a doorway and presented as a figure who disrupts familiar and domestic settings.

Visual elements

Tanning has used scale and perspective to create the unreal, dreamlike look of the painting.

  • The sunflower is huge, if you stood it upright the flower head would be as tall as the girl!
  • One-point perspective draws our eye down the empty corridor, exaggerating its length and adding a sense of mystery. We wonder where it leads to.
  • Surrealists often used strong perspective lines to exaggerate receding streets or squares.

Colour draws our eye around the composition, and highlights key elements within the painting.

  • The bright yellow of the sunflower and the white dresses of the girl and doll make them stand out against the dull greens, browns and dark red of the hotel corridor.
  • Tanning has also added a yellow light emanating from the last door of the corridor, which is ajar. The light suggests someone is in there or has just left – or perhaps something mysterious and unexplained is happening in the room.

Surreal sculptures

Surrealist artists made sculptures as well as paintings. They often used unusual art materials, such as found objects, and non-traditional techniques for their sculptures.

Look at the sculptures by Dorothea Tanning, below.

  • Do they remind you of anything?
  • What words would you use to describe them?
  • What do you think they are made from?

About the sculptures

The sculptures seem to lie somewhere between objects and figures or creatures. 

They are constructed from cloth and stuffed with a range of materials. If you look at the materials list for the sculptures on the artwork pages, you will see some surprising things including ping pong balls and a plastic funnel! (Click on the images above to go to the artwork page for each sculpture.)

Hard objects add structure to the soft sculptures. Look closely at Nue couchée – can you spot the ping pong balls?

Activity suggestions inspired by Surrealism

Creative writing projects

Write a story inspired by a Surrealist artwork

Write a story inspired by a Surrealist artwork. Choose a painting from the carousel below as a starting point, or browse Surrealist artworks on Art UK.

  • Think about who or what you can see.
  • What might be happening?
  • What is the mood or atmosphere of your story?

Surrealist poetry project

Write a poem inspired by a Surrealist artwork. You could start by writing notes in response to what you can see. These could be words or sentences.

  • Think about the objects and/or figures in the artwork.
  • Are you inspired by the shapes and colours?
  • Think also about the mood of the artwork and how it makes you feel.

Some Roses and Their Phantoms

Some Roses and Their Phantoms 1952

Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012)


For example, in response to Dorothea Tanning’s painting Some Roses and Their Phantoms, I wrote:

What's for dinner?
Dead, dry roses
Folds in the cloth
A beetle.
A monster insect with twig legs (it's scary, what is it up to?)
Floating shapes like crumpled bubbles.
Sepia browns and greys like an old photograph.
Soft and otherworldly.
Waiting to see what will happen.
A bad dream.

Arrange your words and sentences to form a poem. Or develop some of the ideas and imagery from your notes into a poem.

For a quicker activity, have a go at writing a haiku. A haiku is a short Japanese poem. In their English variant, haikus tend to be composed of three lines with the following syllabic structure:

Five syll-a-bles first,
then sev-en syll-a-bles next,
then a fin-al five.

Experiment with Surrealist writing techniques

Surrealist writers invented games that relied on chance to help them write poems or texts inspired by the unconscious. One of these was called consequences.

Have a go at the game as a group – and write a collaborative surreal poem or story. Here's how:

  • The first person writes a word, line or phrase at the top of a piece of paper, and then folds the top of the paper down to hide what they have written.
  • They then pass the paper on to the next person, who writes a word, line or phrase, folds the paper down and passes it on.
  • The next person adds their contribution, and so on, until you have an absurd story or poem with each player having no idea what the previous players have written.
  • If you are working in a small group you could pass the paper around the group a few times.
  • When you are ready to reveal your absurd story, open out the paper and read it aloud!

Drawing variation

Artists invented a collaborative drawing version of this game called Cadavre Exquis (or Exquisite Corpse). It involved each artist drawing different parts of a body without the others knowing what they had drawn. This technique continues to influence contemporary artists.

Take a look at our Exquisite Corpse activity for more instructions.

Consequence: Jellyfish

Consequence: Jellyfish 2006

Matilda Tumim (b.1963) and Christopher Prendergast (b.1962)

Orkney Islands Council

Create a surrealist sculpture

Have a go at making a Surrealist sculpture from everyday objects and materials.

Dorothea Tanning used everyday objects and materials including velvet, ping pong balls, a plastic funnel and dress-making pins to create her sculptures. Other Surrealist artists transformed everyday objects by juxtaposing them with unlikely objects or images.

You will need:

  • A selection of everyday objects and materials. (These could include cardboard and plastic bottles from your recycling bin, old toys or clothes and scrap fabrics – in fact, absolutely anything that you don't mind cutting up!)
  • Tools such as scissors, glue, string, tape and a hacksaw. (Younger students should be supervised if using glue guns, craft knives or hacksaws.)

Explore Surrealist drawing and painting techniques

Use perspective to create surreal settings

Surrealist painters used perspective to create the impression of endless corridors, buildings or roads disappearing eerily into the distance.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943

Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012)


They were influenced by Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico who used exaggerated perspective in his dramatic and disorientating paintings of empty courtyards and cityscapes.

You will need:

  • Drawing or painting materials
  • Paper or card

Create a drawing or painting of a building, cityscape, landscape or interior that uses perspective to evoke a dreamlike or eerie atmosphere.

  1. For inspiration, use the carousel below to explore how artists have used perspective to create dramatic, mysterious or eerie atmospheres.
  2. Decide what you will draw or paint. Think of settings where you could make good use of perspective – such as a street, tall building, path, fence, wall or tunnel.
  3. Plan your artwork using quick thumbnail sketches to create possible compositions.
  4. Paint or draw your artwork. If you are painting, think about how you could use different colours to add drama to your artwork.

Experiment with automatism: frottage, grattage and decalcomania

Surrealist writers and artists often explored techniques that generate an element of chance. These techniques are referred to as automatism.

For example, some Surrealist artists created images from random mark-making or doodles.

Peinture (Painting)

Peinture (Painting) 1925

Joan Miró (1893–1983)

National Galleries of Scotland

They believed that by adding an element of unpredictability to their approach they could tap into their unconscious mind – and that of the person looking at the artwork.

Max Ernst experimented with various techniques for creating unplanned and unpredictable textured mark-making which he used as the starting point for drawings and paintings. 

Decalcomania involves pressing a sheet of paper onto a painted surface and peeling it off again to reveal a blotchy, textured surface.

Antediluvian Landscape

Antediluvian Landscape

Max Ernst (1891–1976)

University of Edinburgh

Frottage is a drawing process that involves placing a piece of paper over a textured surface and using a pencil to transfer the texture to the paper. His first frottage drawings were made by laying a piece of paper onto roughly grained floorboards in his home. (We might be familiar with the technique as it is used for processes such as brass rubbing.)

From frottage, Ernst developed grattage – a painting technique where paint is scraped across a canvas that has been laid over a textured surface. Ernst used grattage as the starting point for the painting below. He then added colours and details to alter the image and make it into a mysterious and disturbing forest scene, with the textures suggesting trees.

Take a chance: make a frottage drawing or collage

You will need:

  • A range of textured surfaces (such as grained wood or laminate, rough woven cloth such as hessian, bubble wrap, bark, stone or brick)
  • Paper
  • Pencils or crayons
  • Collage materials (optional)
  1. Lay your paper over a textured surface.
  2. Gently scribble with a pencil or crayon on your paper so that the textured surface becomes visible. You might choose to stick to one texture or include various textures in your drawing.
  3. Look at the marks and textures on your paper. Do they suggest anything to you?
  4. Use your pencil or crayons to refine the suggested shapes or imagery and create your artwork. You could also add collaged shapes or textures to the surface of your drawing to help define your image.

Make a decalcomania painting

An Exceptional Occurrence

An Exceptional Occurrence 1950

Eileen Agar (1899–1991)

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

You will need:

  • 2 sheets of heavy paper
  • Paint and brushes
  • Newspapers or plastic table coverings (it could get messy!)
  1. Slowly pour a small amount of paint onto one sheet of paper.
  2. Place your second sheet of paper over the top and gently press down the back of the paper – or roll a roller over it. This will help spread the paint and transfer it to the top, overlaid paper.
  3. Lift the top piece of paper to reveal a transferred, textured mark or stain.
  4. Look at the transferred stain – does it suggest anything to you or remind you of anything?
  5. Work into the stain with paint and brushes to define shapes and imagery and add details.

Extension activity

When we hear or read about Surrealism the focus is often on Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and other prominent male artists involved in the movement. But women artists such as Dorothea Tanning, Claude Cahun and Eileen Agar made an important contribution to Surrealism and the development of its style.

Use the links below to find out more.

Activity suggestion

Task students with selecting one of the artists from the list below and researching their life and work. They could use their sketchbooks to store notes and images. Their research could be the starting point for an art and design project.

Eileen Agar
Art UK: Eileen Agar
Tate Kids: Who is Eileen Agar?
The Art Story: Eileen Agar

Claude Cahun
The Art Story: Claude Cahun
Wikipedia: Claude Cahun
Explore artworks on Tate's website

Leonora Carrington
Art UK: Leonora Carrington
Tate Shots video: Leonora Carrington, Britain's lost Surrealist
The Art Story: Leonora Carrington

Meret Oppenheim
Art UK: Meret Oppenheim
The Art Story: Meret Oppenheim
MOMA: Meret Oppenheim

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