Defense Date

2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

Art History

First Advisor

Kathleen Chapman

Second Advisor

Margaret Lindauer

Third Advisor

Eric Garberson

Fourth Advisor

Wesley Chenault

Abstract

Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012) was an American artist and author whose expansive, complex, and forward-thinking oeuvre has been unduly misrepresented by art historians repeatedly labeling her a lifelong “Surrealist.” Tanning indeed began her career in the early 1940s among European Surrealist émigrés in New York, and she shared the group’s fascination with the realm of imagination and the unconscious. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, she also primarily created illusionistic paintings of fantastical, dreamlike scenarios that defy reason and subvert the repressive norms of conservative bourgeois life—all very much in keeping with general art historical conceptions of Surrealism. Yet, by 1955, Tanning deliberately began to develop her work in other directions; and over the next five decades she went on to explore a range of styles and themes that have been obscured by Surrealist-centric interpretations dominating scholarship on her art. Untethering Tanning from the Surrealist label in order to achieve a clearer understanding of her evolving concerns is one of the two main purposes of this dissertation.

The other purpose of this dissertation is to shed light on Tanning’s visual and literary representations of nonhuman animals, and it is the first in-depth study to do so. I argue that a significant, yet consistently overlooked, thread in Tanning’s oeuvre is her anti-anthropocentric attentiveness to interspecies relationships—including human relationships with dogs as well as human relationships with other apes—and I draw upon recent posthumanist theories to provide a critical framework for elucidating and synthesizing these complex areas of her practice. The crux of my argument is that specific animals and human/animal entanglements frequently appear in Tanning’s art and writing in ways that call into question the ontological uniqueness, autonomy, and supremacy of humans over all other beings—bringing her work into alliance with present-day posthumanist discourse that challenges human exceptionalism and the harmful, speciesist underpinnings of western humanist thought.

Rights

© The Author

Is Part Of

VCU University Archives

Is Part Of

VCU Theses and Dissertations

Date of Submission

12-17-2021

Available for download on Wednesday, December 16, 2026

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