Syrupy prose flows thickly in this art-world autobiography.
As the subtitle suggests, the American-born Tanning is a fairly well-known figure whose creative contributions to the surrealist movement came not only in the form of her own paintings and sculptures, but in her supportive role as wife of Max Ernst. She convived with many surrealist heavy hitters (Tanguy, Duchamp, Breton, Levy) as both participant and observer—more often than not as the latter. She came to lament both her role (as the good wife of the better artist) and her good looks (“for a girl there is no greater handicap to creativity and self-fulfillment in the solitary arts than physical prettiness”). Such provocative ruminations on the perils of the artist-wife come late in a memoir largely comprised of famous visits and expatriate adventures—much in the tradition of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. But, unlike Stein’s revealing window on the modernist art scene, most of Tanning’s glimpses into the surrealist world come to us in sentences as hazy and convoluted as their subject. For example, here is a waxing passage on life pre-Ernst: “The moments immediately preceding our first gaze weren’t really more decisive than, say, a day twenty years before when he was perhaps composing with glee and with Tzara a dada manifesto, while I in my eleven-year-old optimism was trying on a bra which, receiving nothing, was as wrinkled as a fallen parachute on the breast of the earth.” When the author eventually reveals her fear of transparent writing, one may surmise that being at the root of such painterly prose. Regardless of the cause, these overburdened images unfortunately detract from the precious unveiling of the author’s extraordinary life.
Twelve chapters in search of an editor . . . or a canvas.