Between Lives: An Artist and Her World

Between Lives: An Artist and Her World

by Dorothea Tanning

ISBN: 9780393050400

Publisher W. W. Norton & Company

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Memoirs, Arts & Photography/Schools, Periods & Styles

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

It is a story you tell lying down, when all the storms have rumbled off elsewhere, the fires abated, the musicians packed up, tents blown away like milkweed, the earth turns—maybe. The story is in the place where you are. The room, unverifiable, is no more than its motes. Silence is soft and asks for nothing save the steady sequence. It is all like water slapping the sides of your boat and you both awash in memories, his own early ones a tapestry of Catholic childhood in Cologne. And mine?

    There in the intimacy of two beings, supine, were my disembodied voice and his listening ears, as we felt our present selves melt away during the telling. But what could I tell, what was there in my childhood to compare with storybook Rhineland and little Max Ernst in his nightie looking for the railroad tracks and falling in with a procession of fanatics who called him baby Jesus? His father, a devout Catholic and a weekend painter, was impressed, even exalted; so that, carried away, he then painted his boy as the Christ Child, thus incidentally compromising his own chances for heaven. (He was later to participate in the excommunication from the Holy Roman Catholic Church of that same son. Part of this solemn ceremony consisted in spitting three times on Max's name—so Max told me.)

    How could Galesburg, Illinois, in the 1910s to '20s, a place where you sat on the davenport and waited to grow up, compare with Cologne: its mighty cathedral shedding stained-glass lambencies that fell about children's shoulders like jeweled capes, turning them into princes and poets? My early memories surfaced, wavered through time, riled the stream—bloated forgotten fantasies rising in murky fluids. But almost always the wrong ones. I fished for vital statistics; even decisive events eluded me like soap in the bathwater. I was born, yes, and ran fast but never away. When I was seven I drew a figure with leaves for hair. Was I a tiny surrealist? Are all children surrealists, visually? Maybe surrealist painters were children with years, playing with the irrational. Maybe they knew that antic imagination is fun.

    Somewhat later, aged eleven, it seemed important to share my élan. One of the ways to bring enrichment to other minds is to set up a lending library, which I did in our abandoned chicken house. The library was stocked with my own and my sisters' books, and these the neighbor children were invited to borrow and thus to read. Of course it took only two or so months to completely wipe me (and my poor sisters) out of books. Had I enriched some little minds?

    Then and gradually, under the same blanket sky as Max's, I strove and fended and believed that my star was as free as anyone's on earth. Later I was hung about with intricate hips and shoulders and round arms and breasts as diffidently worn as the ones in those museum pictures beside which little white cards inform the visitor: erotic (male derma does not seem to rate this qualification). That was me, who rather liked it all, not recognizing the barriers reserved for headlong females and tiny stars. That was me, high flier, skimming forbidden ground, keeping an eye out for snares. No name, no face, but alive behind every man-made facade, a condition only, but invincible in its raw supremacy. To ignore, I said. Keep flying. Steer clear of signals, roadblocks, towers. I was tempered steel, and, after all, if there were no need to overcome obstacles one would become insignificant. So now, wise or foolish, I have landed.

    To this beloved face I cannot accuse. He is mine and I am his and hindrance is elsewhere. Here I confide my tangly self, the oceanography of lost heartbeats and submerged hopes dredged up from the dimmest deeps, brushed and cleaned of their barnacles, offering its details to Max, who says, as always: "And then what?"

    Could he possibly want to hear about my mother, whose most distinguishing trait was simply her motherness? Could he want to know that this patient, single-minded being loved life instinctively as filtered through her children (three)—the loyalty to and pride in her husband being innate and foregone? How could a tiny artist grow into a big one without that quilt of maternal love with its pattern of solace for hurts, its curving comfort, cloud-soft, its consolation for having to exist, its sweet smell? The mother-goddess (the term would have embarrassed her), doctor and protector, hovered over us in the full conviction that we were worth the trouble; not listening to Uncle Ed, for example, who scoffed that I was a dwarf (he had a daughter of his own, my age, almost twice my size), for she knew I would grow up. She did not, however, plan on my going away so soon. It must have pained her, though she read my letters, the others said, with total seriousness. For, all too sure of my own convictions, I would write, when away from home, preachy letters to the family (sometimes, I am sorry to say, accompanied by an urgent request for money; my father obliged, but sparingly, hoping that when I became blackly discouraged I would come back to where I belonged), telling them how to think, to change their false values for real ones, to live more meaningful lives, to extend their horizons, and so on. How embarrassed they must have been, these gentle people, confronted with the growing proof of oddness in the family, and hoping they could keep it covered up—after all, I was not dangerous. But still, wondering: where did they go wrong?

    My father, a model husband and parent, was at the same time mostly absent, forever immersed in old tomes of history and geography, conveniently distanced from domestic details. Understandably, for his was a household of women, including those who didn't already live there. They would show up with faithful regularity and wardrobe trunk for long stays, strengthening thereby the feminine hold on the place. His hosting of my mother's relatives must have been daunting, though I think there was enough of the rooster in him to keep full control of his flock. As for us, the inhabitants, there was always an aunt or cousin once removed (alas, not far enough) crowding us out of our rooms while their incessant chatter drove my father to his third-floor den. As for me, now aged twelve, I felt a blessed neutrality in his company, the man from a far country (Sweden).

    Now the water is still and I see the shape of a summer day in 1922. Outside the Orpheum Theatre in Galesburg everything glares, so that the street and shops seem to be simmering in a desert hallucination, a mirage without the sand in it. My father and I are out together in the blistering afternoon to see a cowboy movie. No one else would go. Cowboys! Family scorn, unanimous, sends my father on his way, if he really insists on it. But I'll go. In my white shoes and organdy dress. Downtown heat flings up a shimmery veil from the pavement bubbles and our heels indent its black tar like miniature horseshoes. My father wears a panama hat and buys two tickets at the window, one for him and a half one for me. And I remember my sister that morning:

    "Who wants to see Tom Mix!"

    And indeed who does? Certainly not my father, who is there for the horse, Tony, not for the rider. Horse-crazy, my father. Tom Mix is nothing to me either. I might as well have stayed up in my tree fork where nailed to the big branch in front of my seat is a box with key and tin lid, for secret formulas, plans, messages.

    I begin to regret ... but in the dark someone smiles at me from the screen: Lord Churlton. Blue moonlight shows me a careless leg encased in close breeches and sensuously cuffed boot. It swings over a windowsill. In a trice it has been followed by arms, torso, and head, all under plumed velvet hat, lace collar, doublet, gloves, rapier, and great hints of fine linen on pulsing muscles. Two cruel black eyes burn into mine.

    And while my father thrills to the clever Tony, I am lusting after Lord Churlton, the villain. Never mind the secret formulas in the tree box. There is a time for everything. And you, Churlton, don't bother with that simpering lady wiggling her careful curls and swelling her bosom. Leave her to Tom Mix and come to me. I am waiting. Are you really a villain? What is a villain? O passionate Lord Churlton!

    I tried to draw him that evening. Not in his ruffled shirt and velvet redingote or yet as Adam, but standing in a doorway and wearing red-striped pajamas. As the fabric and tanned cheeks had to be colored, out came my box of watercolors, two rows of tiny round pans of faintly colored cement (it tinted rather than colored) accompanied by a brush resembling a glue applicator. The likeness was poor, but then, who could do justice to Lord Churlton? I dreamed of his coming to Galesburg, even as I knew that he would not....

    "And then what?" Max cuts in.

    My father's name was Andrew (or Andreas, back in Sweden) Peter George Thaning. To keep the pronunciation he changed the spelling. A rag of old-world pride made him try to interest his children in the "family book," a compendium of names with rifles, professions, deaths, births, and marriages—the usual. He was self-exiled, a dropout, a runaway from home and country at age seventeen, and it was now all he had left, his precious book about faraway people become as legendary as King Arthur's Round Table, the big comfortable house back there now become a castle, the grain fields an enchanted wood, the river an endless ribbon of ice upon which a little boy skates home fast with the breath of wolves on his neck.

    He had become a fervent American and even went off to the Spanish-American War—with a hometown fellow Swede, Carl Sandburg, American poet. Through the years, Carl Sandburg would call on us when he visited Galesburg. One day—I must have been fifteen—my father showed Carl my drawings, saying proudly:

    "We will send her to art school when the time comes."

    "Oh, no. Don't do that. Not art school. They will stifle her talent and originality."

    How could my father not heed the great poet friend? In contrast, one of his two cardboard concepts, nobility, was not a quality but a class, to which he had been told that he belonged—a shaky position to maintain in Galesburg. Harder to accept, even, than the neighbors' egalitarian views was what the doctor said about his heart condition and to listen to my mother deplore his hiking, running, swimming. "Lying in that lake for hours!" Because the other cardboard concept was physical splendor. And strenuous sports never end for those who aren't going to die anyway....

    He admired Hitler as a glorifier of sports. We listened to the news from remote stadiums: Olympic records being broken as crowds went wild. We listened to the funny new rhythm of marching feet that got mixed up like static in our radio, stronger and stronger.

    Then Hitler started killing people. And that is what really killed my father. Shattered by deception, his heart stopped beating about the time Hitler was marching up the Champs-Elysées.

    "And then?" says Max, wanting nothing left out.

    Oh, Max, what's the use?

    Once in a while, from Chicago, or New York, or wherever, I had to go back there, touch the place, believe it was there and that it had something to do with me. But only a hopeless romantic could like getting off a train at our town, could think that stepping down onto the platform of Galesburg's depot was part of an adventure worth living, something to be savored and treasured like the dear persons who had remained there. Of course you identify with it, if you have been there when you and it were very small, before you went away.

    But, again, how could my student days compare with Max's university capers around raging bonfires on the banks of the Rhine, where philosophical parlance blended so strenuously with Lorelei sirens? Could I imagine there was anything amusing about my buying a pair of satin slippers one size too small because it was the only pair in town, and about the indescribable agony of wearing them to the prom? The bright remarks I had prepared for the ears of hard-to-get boys burned to ashes in what seemed a direct electrical contact with my feet, irretrievable victims of vanity.

    Max listens gravely. "How awful," he says. "And what then?"

    If there was anything at all that troubled my certain destiny as a painter, it was the Galesburg Public Library, looming, massive symbol of pure choice. Imagine a wide gray stone building of vaguely classical design and chunky proportions. It sat in the very center of town, in a modest island of grass surrounded by barberry bushes. On the next corner the post office and, a few blocks away, the college that tried to teach me something, anything.

    For like all nice girls I went to college. Two things dominated the academic life there. One was sports events such as football where on cold November Saturdays we sat on wet bleachers in raccoon coats, screaming ourselves hoarse at the mass of bodies tangling in the mud of the quadrangle. The other distraction involved secret societies with names in Greek letters. Each of these was a kind of mini Ku Klux Klan to which you might experience the bliss of being invited as a member. Blackballed hopefuls could always join up with a humbler one, though the same rituals prevailed in all of them: spooky candlelit seances, condemnations, punishments, unspeakable initiation tortures. Most curious of all, you were supposed to want this amalgam of S and M, all benevolently condoned by the institution that was preparing your mind for the future.

    To the chagrin of my parents, and unlike most of the girls there, I did not select a fellow undergraduate to marry as had been hoped. I had other plans, not well received at home. In fact, for Mother's friends, the very mention of artist was synonymous with bohemian. Art school is not a school. The girl is all turned around. College will straighten her out, will soften harsh lines, will calm the wayward, spinning colors, the oddness, the fever. How needless my parents' worries about the bohemian life I was headed for. They would have solidly approved, poor things, of the big-city art world, a kind of club based on good contacts, correct behavior, and a certain tactical chic involving doing the right thing at the right time.

    Every time I passed the Galesburg Public Library I would see myself hidden in the stacks, making the kinds of discoveries that were not likely to be made at my college. This had already happened, in fact. For at age sixteen I was employed there, part-time it is true, but the employment provided a certain illusion of independence and even included a vacation—mine, that took the form of a rented cabin at Lake Bracken, a sprawling and appropriately named country club. My earned money would pay for two weeks.

    Alone. Self-consciously, uncompromisingly alone. No to sisters. No to friends. No to boys. No, no. Instead, the clean ritual of laying out paper, pencils, crayons, watercolors, the usual stuff, on the deal (ah, the simple word!) table. Something would happen, had to happen. It filled me up and down, back to front, and my head said that it would spill out cornucopiately onto paper or canvas. This two-week evasion, bought with the ugly money I had earned drably, would produce flowers or monsters—I didn't care which, for they would be mine. Sometimes I stared for hours at the very white paper.

    Beyond the screens of the porch, mosquitoes and lake danced and rippled, respectively, under moon and sun (for there was a moon, I had calculated with that), and inside the musty little cabin four camp beds sagged, all empty and uncovered but one; the pallid cushions, pancake-flat, exhausted, unable to sit up straight; the deal table. I had dragged it to the screened porch, such a reasonable place for a worktable in July. Reasonable, too, to go to bed early after an interminable day, for this would certainly bring on tomorrow, a better event in all its glow and promise. Sweaters and raincoat covered my blankets at night, for it was cool and often rained.

    There were visits, just three. My sisters came out and looked at me. Baffled, hurt. They brought a pecan pie that sat on the drainboard, wrapped in its checkered towel. Another time, wearing fluffy afternoon dresses, three more or less buddies came visiting, girls who had thought I was one of them until this. Their violent unsatisfied curiosity floated around the afternoon cabin in a positively miasmal drift, a heady effluvium that mingled with the reek of crushed verdure and lake water. Unabashed questions did not even linger unuttered but seeped into the vapid conversation on the porch, heavy as gases and as hard to wave away.

    Once a boy came, ah, he would have made sense for them—came dragging his tennis racket and his courtly (courting) manners; looked a lot at the empty cots and then back, in clumsy longing, at this weirdo trying to tell him a little something and failing utterly. Because that was not it, and he had to be got rid of, sweetly, no fuss.

    After that there were the long solitary days, the ungodly silence into which dipped the rain's whisper, faraway boaters' banter sounding surprisingly near (that voice, was it someone I knew perhaps?), an evening bird lighting on the roof, hopping on it. Cats could be counted on to fight up there, too, and numerous twigs to snap at night.

    There was no fear, no boredom; only the leaden concavity where fullness failed to appear. Because failure was the shape of two weeks at Lake Bracken and the thought grew and spawned a crystal answer that froze into a certainty: lakes are made to drown in.

Among my duties at the library was a weekly reading of the stacks, according to the then-prevalent classification, the Dewey decimal system. The trouble was, once I had got back among the shelves, it was hard to find me, and the head librarian, a resolute, imposing woman, wearing pince-nez that trembled on her nose when she walked, would sometimes flush me out herself, in a perfect towering rage. Standard-bearer of morality according to her lights, she had instituted an ingenious method of marking with a small red cross under the catalogue number any book that she considered immoral, unfit for minors. Thus I had no difficulty in finding the best books.

    Erewhon, Leaves of Grass, Salammbô, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Lily, Down There—and Poe, Coleridge, De Quincy, Walpole ... those spell-binding revelations, those delicious hymns to decadence, dozens and dozens of them, getting all mixed up with the others on the shelves of that corrupt stony structure, with its American flag and the names of great men incised around its entablature. Several of these hallowed names were also on the books with red crosses. Over the years, the library became my haven, its treasures slyly challenging the voice of "art," in the tug-of-war for my ambitions, its sirens singing and crying by turns, its weight crushing my fatuous certitudes forever.

    As the days became nights and the months years, my soul detached itself with reckless finality from that warm and comfortable quotidian. It watched gravely from a distance as the body went about its vain gestural procedures. It waited with patience while the big trunk, sporting brass corners and five latches, got secretly packed. Goodbye, Galesburg. Goodbye, Anatole France. Goodbye, Public Library. I will "visit" friends in Chicago.

    Now the trunk can be sent for, openly. My letter—"It's in my room," and "Just take it down to the depot"—was read aloud like a death knell by two shocked parents. Their grief: a warm luxury that I could not but treasure, because I was alive.

    Thirty-five years later the Galesburg Public Library burned to the ground, its 200,000 volumes feeding the sky-high flames while the town's water supply sputtered out and my sisters watched with tear-stained faces. Thank God I wasn't there.

    Not that I never went back. At first, needing pretexts such as holidays and Mother's birthday, I went often. (One of these cost me my job in Chicago. But more on that later.) Thus, I am remembering Mother's colors: jade green, American Beauty red, peacock blue, old rose. While she sews them into her lazy-daisy quilt I am on the Chicago train to Galesburg. Last gasp of memory here: we are four, we are going down to the homecoming football game. I have not the faintest interest in football. My pretty friend is thrilled The two boys are happy medical students with medicine bottles of government alcohol, 140-proof—something extravagant like that. We are at the water cooler in the swinging train, where you slip out cone-shaped paper cups and fill them with ice water at a miniature spigot. Fire sears the throat at the jaunty tilting of the little bottle and there is a scratch of laughter to mask the first time. (For God's sake do not cough.)

    How the train speeds through the stupid landscape! How screamingly funny it all is at the dance! My future medico clings to me as I to him. We are in stitches. When you have four feet you can keep standing up. I have his two besides my own, he has my two. Not only we do not fall, we manage the slides, the turns, the sudden rhythms. Each held fast to the other and my eyes were mostly closed, not to see the mile-high waves I felt around our slanting floor. I was probably happy the way people have always been happy on the dance floor. The mirror ball sends its chips of light circling the universe, nobody watches you, nobody cares, the musicians are all Olympian benevolence in their smart pink tuxedos, gods smiling down into your half-open mouths, providing gently pagan rhythms that coax you into wanton concupiscence and make you forget that tomorrow is Sunday and church where the stained-glass windows are jade green, American Beauty red, peacock blue, and old rose.

    Now after two years a sudden desire sends you back, just a short visit, your valise stuffed with hand-carved notions wrapped up in a tender woolly image of the separate little person you once were.

    Separate you still are. And you think you know everyone, that they know you and that you will somehow amaze them. But the town has grown, though this may not be at first evident in stepping off the train. In fact it appears to have shrunk. There is a lot of hollow wind in the depot, blowing dead train tickets and gum wrappers across the floor, but there are no people except an old man with a broom who stops sweeping to stare at you when you ask about taxis. The coffee shop? He doesn't remember.

    A car drives up and delivers your sister, who hugs you and takes you away from there. Sitting beside her, half listening, you are quite lost. It is the wrong town.

    Can this be Main Street, so queerly empty to the eye, so drab and quiet? Itching with ghosts in the crisscross gusts that slice past empty store windows and that separate the dust on the inside from the dust in the street. A parking lot gapes where once you tried on gloves at a mahogany counter or bought a hat for too much money. What happened to Lescher's soda fountain, and the Alcazar, smoky macho haven where my father, being a male, could buy his Sunday cigar? Where is the big bank window where shaky paper currency from all over the world was displayed on a panel, with a United States one-dollar bill in the middle and the legend: Good old American dollar, always remains the same?

    The big trees, lofty Sherwood Forest trees, where are they, our proud Galesburg trees? They leaned together in long ogival files that made tents of the streets, gallerias with leaves for glass. Where are the trees? The town is dense and fat, cubic, a smoke stain on the land; and now you are not a part of it at all but only a speck among many unknown specks that you see as in a culture, starkly, darting around oblivious of your mixed feelings. It is simpler that way, you tell yourself, another place altogether, bottled and corked and labeled, an elixir gone dry.

    "But you wouldn't know."

    Max: "I think I do. The place you had to leave. Everybody has one."


Excerpted from "Between Lives: An Artist and Her World" by Dorothea Tanning. Copyright © 2001 by Dorothea Tanning. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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