2019 saw a major retrospective of the Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern. Tanning’s retrospective is part of an upswing of interest in female Surrealists in popular media, museum exhibitions and the art market. Now is a good time to buy the works of female Surrealists, whose work has still not found an upper limit.
Prices for the works of female Surrealist artists are rising, and this is most easy to read in auction results. Between 2007 and 2014 the price for a Kay Sage painting, Le Passage (1956), rose almost a hundredfold: from $72,000 in 2007, to $7,077,395 in 2014; in 2014, Leonara Carrington’s The Temptation of St. Anthony (1945) was sold for $2,629,000 and Remedios Varo’s Hacia la Torre (1960) sold for $4,309,000. The last 5 years has also seen the top prices for Tanning’s work, the most being $1,152,500 at Christie’s in 2018. These prices reflect the mounting market value placed on female Surrealists, an interest also reflected in the quantity of museum exhibitions including: In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States (2012), Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Carrington’s solo show in Tate Liverpool (2015); the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Frida Kahlo exhibition (2019); and currently, Dora Maar at Tate Modern.
Major commercial galleries are also exhibiting female Surrealists: last year Di Donna in New York presented the work of Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo in an exhibition of Surrealists in Mexico in New York, whilst Alison Jacques is exhibiting the work of Tanning until March this year in London. Gallerist Wendi Norris recently sold two works by Leonora Carrington to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Considering the increased prices that Tanning’s works are achieving at auction, some buyers may be hesitant to purchase. However, the market for her work remains remarkably open and there is reason to believe that prices will continue The top 3 prices (all in the last 5 years) have been achieved for 1940s works, owing to Tanning’s proximity to the Surrealist inner circle at that time and her exploration of Surrealist imagery. As the Tate retrospective expressed so clearly, Tanning had a remarkably long and varied career as she tirelessly re-examined her technique and medium, at no detriment to the strength of the pieces. From the late 1950s and 1960s Tanning’s work evolved to become semi-abstracted or ‘prismatic’, using light and colour to vivify imaginary worlds. These kaleidoscopic works are sold at auction at significantly lower estimates than 1940s works: the top price for a 1960 oil in this vein was sold at Sotheby’s in 2016 for $105,917.
There is no doubt that museum shows in the last 5 years focussed on the work of female Surrealists has driven interest in the art market. Fortunately the prices for works on the secondary market are reasonable, although the expectation is that they will rise. Buyers have the opportunity to bid at the upcoming Impressionist & Modern Sales in February at Sotheby’s on a small 1957 oil by Tanning is being offered at $19,513 - 26,017, and at Christie’s, a 1960s oil on canvas with an estimate of $15,610 - 23,416. Additionally a collaged postcard of Santa Claus’ head pasted on a classical nude Tanning sent as a party invitation in 1998 is being offered for $1,100 - 1,600. The work is testament not only to the flexibility of her market, but to Tanning’s wicked sense humour, as described by her niece, Mimi Johnson, when I met her at the Tate.
February auction results proved strong for the two Tanning works featured in this article, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1945-46, which sold for $1,152,500 USD Premium, and Untitled (recto); An Amaryllis (verso), 1998, which sold for 2,000 GBP Premium ($2,586 USD).