Glowing like phosphorus: Dorothea Tanning and the Sedona western

McAra, Catriona ORCID logoORCID: (2019) Glowing like phosphorus: Dorothea Tanning and the Sedona western. Journal of Surrealism in the Americas, 10 (1). pp. 84-105. ISSN 2326-0459


In the mid-1940s, Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst left the urbane, avant-garde circles of Manhattan to build a house and studio in the then remote Southwestern outpost of Sedona, Arizona. Many have written of Ernst’s fascination with indigenous artefacts but there was another pop cultural format that emerged concurrently with their time in Sedona: the genre of the Hollywood Western. Indeed, films like John Wayne’s Angel and the Badman (1947) and Johnny Guitar (1954) starring Joan Crawford were filmed in the immediate vicinity, amidst the iconic red rock landscape. Tanning’s topographical mapping of the desert, as found in paintings such as Self-Portrait (1944), Evening in Sedona (1976), and novella Chasm: A Weekend (2004), feature some of those same scenic locations used as the backdrops in the Sedona Western. Comparisons between the self-presentation of Tanning and the actor Gail Russell are striking especially when one considers Tanning’s own performance in Hans Richter’s film 8 x 8 (1957). Moreover, the feminine, “phosphorus” glow, which Tanning recurrently uses in her painting and writing to describe the appearance of her female characters, matches the typical costuming of the lead women in Westerns, for example Russell’s Penny and Crawford’s Vienna. This article explores the complex role the Sedona Western played in the surrealist art and literature made during Ernst and Tanning’s Sedona period and beyond, particularly in terms of gender politics. In order to rethink this moment of “Western surrealism,” I offer a Tanning-centric perspective through methodological use of Mieke Bal’s feminist “autotopography” (2001). Research involved site visits to Sedona, and archival research at The Dorothea Tanning Foundation in New York. Based on this research, I was invited to give a public lecture at the Sedona Arts Center (January 2020).

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