Lot 118
  • 118

Dorothea Tanning

200,000 - 300,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Dorothea Tanning
  • The Magic Flower Game
  • Signed D. Tanning (lower right)
  • Oil on canvas
  • 36 by 17 1/8 in.
  • 91.4 by 43.5 cm


Julien Levy Gallery, New York (until 1949)
Albert Lewin, Los Angeles (and sold by the estate: Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, December 16, 1970, lot 100)
Acquired at the above sale


New York, Julien Levy Gallery, Dorothea Tanning, 1944, no. 7
San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Contemporary American Paintings, 1945, n.n.
Washington, D.C., Caresse Crosby Gallery, Dorothea Tanning, 1945, no. 11
Hollywood, American Contemporary Gallery, Dorothea Tanning: Paintings, 1949, no. 19
New York, Museum of Modern Art (on loan)


Howard Devree, "From a Reviewer's Notebook: Definitely Modern," in The New York Times, April 9, 1944
"Shocks, Fun, Fine Painting by Surrealist," in Daily News, Los Angeles, April 9, 1949, illustrated n.p.
Joseph Cornell, "Diary Notes, 12/26-7-59," in Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letter and Files, New York & London, 1993, p. 264
Joseph Cornell and the Surrealists in New York (exhibition catalogue), Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, Lyon, 2013, illustrated p. 51

Catalogue Note

Exquisite and intricately painted, The Magic Flower Game is a scintillating example of Tanning’s dark and dreamy imagery and is arguably the artist’s most important work to ever appear at auction. Painted in the critical year of 1941, the oil is suffused with signs and symbols that would dominate her best work for the next decade, demonstrating the author’s acute understanding of the mystery of the subconscious, a concept which would play a vital role in the development of Surrealism and which would ultimately inform Tanning’s unique aesthetic.

The seminal 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art was of great formative importance to Tanning’s oeuvre; she later went on to describe the show as a “real explosion, rocking me on my run-over heels. Here is the infinitely faceted world I must have been waiting for” (Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives, New York, 2001, p. 49). It was there that she was first inspired to explore the deep recesses of dreams, translating them into finely executed oils. After a brief stay in Paris at the brink of the war, a trip initially intended as an investment in her long-term artistic development, Tanning quickly returned to New York and took residence on the Upper East Side. A self-taught painter, she initially supported herself by creating a number of commercial advertisements primarily for Macy’s.

It was in 1941 that Tanning met the influential dealer Julien Levy. Levy championed a number of other vanguard artists and movements, and in 1932 his gallery hosted the first Surrealist exhibition in New York, ultimately introducing the work of Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí to the wider American and international public. He eagerly hosted Tanning’s first solo exhibition in 1944, where The Magic Flower Game was on prominent display. With so many European artists seeking refuge from the war in New York at the time, Tanning suddenly found herself in a prominent position at the very heart of the international avant-garde.

This period was also one in which Tanning developed personal relationships that she would maintain for the rest of her life: in 1942 Levy introduced Tanning to her future lover and partner, Max Ernst, and in 1943 she met Joseph Cornell, sparking a profound friendship which would prove highly influential for both artists. Cornell was particularly taken with The Magic Flower Game, which he first encountered at Julien Levy Gallery in 1944, even writing about the painting in a diary entry (“…and the dog in the chimney place in the background with a clearing summer sky”).

The Magic Flower Game reveals a haunting image of an adolescent girl in an unidentifiable dreamscape, her body dressed in—her limbs perhaps even composed of—an intricate tangle of myriad flowers. Such takeover by nature was a common theme in the art of other female Surrealists of as well, including Toyen, Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington & Leonor Fini. The central figure here, seemingly taunting the viewer to join her, to play her game, is depicted holding a skein of wool which thinly transforms itself into a blooming sunflower, thereby evoking Greek myths and Homerian figures, the world of mythology and labyrinths, in which weavers were seen as authors of destiny. The sunflower itself is a recurring motif in Tanning’s art of the period, an allusion to the artist’s Midwestern American roots and, as she herself once stated, a “symbol of all the things that youth has to face and to deal with.”  Her imagery also seems to echo the theme of metamorphosis, of an ever-changing state of flux, of life and death. This tale of the ages, echoing stories of men and gods, magic and mysticism, is here reimagined in a mysterious modern space, a roofless room in the sky, one where a menacing shadow and a second figure above the distant mantle both portend the challenger’s fate.

Tanning’s The Magic Flower Game is characteristic of her most evocative work, and it underscores her talent as one the most important Surrealist artists of the twentieth century. After a period on view at the Museum of Modern Art, the painting was sold by Levy in 1949 and was acquired by Albert Lewin, the famed screenwriter, director and producer. Lewin was both an avid collector of Surrealism and a close friend to many of the best-known artists of the period. He famously created an art contest for one of his film projects, The Private Life of Bel Ami, to which Tanning and Ernst entered submissions, as did nearly every other well-regarded artist of the movement. Ernst won the competition, and it was with the prize money that he and Tanning purchased the land for their home in Sedona.