Object Lesson: Guardian Angels by Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning (American, 1910-2012), Guardian Angels, 1946, Oil on canvas, 48 1/8 x 35 inches, Kate P. Jourdan Memorial Fund, 49.15

Dorothea Tanning painted Guardian Angels the same year she left Manhattan to live in solitude with her partner Max Ernst in a small desert town in the American Southwest. Fleeing the chaos of big cities like New York and Paris, Tanning found incredible creative freedom in her self-imposed isolation. Often focusing on the confines of her own home, her paintings transformed ordinary furniture like bookcases and beds into places where magical experiences might unfold. For Tanning, painting was a way of “creating a new reality…a way of showing what was actually happening under the tedium of daily life.”

By seeing her immediate surroundings in a new light, she sought to unlock and access the inner workings of her own mind—to call forth thoughts and ideas often drowned out by the noise of modern life. In this painting, Tanning’s Guardian Angels are poised at the threshold between reality and dreams, a way of “lighting the labyrinth” as Tanning explored—and came into possession of—her own creative power. Alone in the desert, Tanning felt she could finally, for the first time, “give herself up to chaos, dreams, and the liberating world of the imagination.”

Katie Pfohl, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

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