An exceptional Painting for Private Sale

Salvador Dalí - Mad Tristan

On display in Brussels until 3 December 2016

Through his paintings, sculptures and not least his graphic works, Salvador Dalí’s unique oeuvre achieved enormous popularity over the course of the 20th century. Another facet of his work is no less important, but much less well known: his exploration of the means involved in film and theatre, which influenced Dalí’s art for many years. “Tristan fou”, from the years 1936 to 1938, marks the starting point of Salvador Dalí’s theatrical oeuvre. In his “paranoiac spectacle” the artist not only took on the role of librettist, choreographer and director but also that of stage and costume designer.

Paranoia and Spectacle: The Sets of Salvador Dalí

Through his paintings, sculptures and not least his graphic works, Salvador Dalí’s unique oeuvre achieved enormous popularity over the course of the 20th century. Another facet of his work is no less important, but much less well known: his exploration of the means involved in film and theatre, which influenced Dalí’s art for many years. This turning to the stage enabled him to extend his – in many respects – transgressive gesture in a medial sense as well. Dalí’s occupation with the performing arts strikingly reveals how the artist approached the stage as a conceptual as well as concrete experiment, in order to seek new forms of expression for an art between Surrealism and psychoanalysis, between his reception of Richard Wagner’s work and the Ballets Russes. A complex, richly allusive group of works developed over the years. Compared with the rest of Dalí’s oeuvre, it has been only rudimentarily surveyed and little research has been done on it. The overwhelming stage curtain for “Mad Tristan” – according to its subtitle, the “first paranoiac ballet based on the eternal myth of love and death” – is among the rare documents of Salvador Dalí’s radical theatre.

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Dalí occupied himself with the theatre primarily in the 1930s and 1940s. Between 1927 and 1982 he worked on no less than 39 pieces for the theatre, only part of which were ever performed. A great number of these projects never moved beyond the draft phase on account of their sheer unfeasibility. Over the years Salvador Dalí became proficient in various theatre-related tasks and increasingly took on the role of an intermedially active universal artist (cf. Simone Brandes, Salvador Dalí und das Theater, Petersberg 2012, p. 11): he conceived and designed material for ballets, operas and plays. He created stage sets, costumes and decorations and sometimes personally served as director, choreographer and librettist. In collaboration with renowned writers, choreographers and directors, such as Federico García Lorca, Léonide Massine and Luchino Visconti, he realised a total of 18 projects on the world’s most important stages, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, London’s Covent Garden, Rome’s Teatro Eliseo and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. Visual artists’ engagement with the stage was nothing new at that time, on the contrary: in his cooperation with George de Cueva’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, Dalí was stepping directly into the tradition of artists like Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Joan Miró, who had already worked together with the ensemble of the Ballets Russes under Serge Diaghilev. “Tristan fou”, from the years 1936 to 1938, marks the starting point of Salvador Dalí’s theatrical oeuvre. In his “paranoiac spectacle” the artist not only took on the role of librettist, choreographer and director but also that of stage and costume designer. In terms of content the piece is founded on a wide-ranging exploration of Richard Wagner’s work – a thematic frame of reference that would shape a whole series of Dalí’s productions. Dalí has created a theatre of dreams – or, actually, nightmares – that seems to be formally based on Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The unusual poetics of his intermedial images can already be noted in the hybrid libretto’s superimposed chains of association, which are able to evoke a kind of imagined theatre of images in the minds of the audience. In this text Dalí devotes extensive attention to dialogues, descriptions of scenes and stage directions. He vividly explains the motifs of the stage sets as well as the appearance of the characters involved.

 

 

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For the beginning of the piece he planned a large-format stage curtain, whose motif he initially intended to base his painting “Le sommeil” of 1937. Its unveiling at the start of the performance was to be accompanied by a stormy prelude of Wagnerian music. This link already clearly reveals the leitmotif around which Salvador Dalí based his early stage works: “As a Surrealist artist he takes responsibility for the iconography of the staging, while the themes from Wagner’s musical drama ‘Tristan and Isolde’ were to provide an appropriate accompaniment. Here madness as well as the disorienting interplay between dream and reality simultaneously form the musical, visual and poetic link between Wagner and Dalí. The descriptions of the scenes as well as the studies for sets read like a collage of motivic self-citations that Dalí adeptly anchors within Wagner’s epic and which allow us to recognise Dalí as a Surrealist universal artist.” (Simone Brandes, ibid., p. 58)

For various reasons “Tristan fou” initially remained unperformed, however, the idea of linking the visual universe of Dalí with the musical work of Richard Wagner continued to occupy the artist: after his “Tannhäuser” adaptation “Venusberg” (1939), which also remained unrealised, he finally celebrated its premiere on 9 November 1939 in the formof the slightly modified “Bacchanale” at New York’s Met. In his 1942 autobiography “The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí”, the artist tersely states: “As with everything else, my ‘Mad Tristan’, which was my best theatrical work, ‘could not be played’, and became transformed into the ‘Venusberg’, and the ‘Venusberg’ into the ‘Bacchanale’, which became its definitive version.” (Salvador Dalí, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, trans. by Haakon M. Chevalier, New York 1942, p. 379). Almost definitive, we might say, because in 1944 – thanks to the generous support of the flamboyant impresario Marquis de Cuevas – Dalí finally did receive an opportunity to bring “Tristan” to the stage. His friend and patron de Cuevas not only placed his “Ballett International” ensemble at Dalí’s disposal, but also $60,000 for production costs (cf. “Dalí’s ‘Mad Tristan’ Tonight”, New York Herald Tribune, 15 December 1944). As with the previous ballets, Léonide Massine was engaged by Dalí as choreographer.

Before the piece celebrated its premiere at New York’s International Theatre on 15 December 1944, Dalí subjected his 1938 draft to fundamental revisions. While the first draft for “Tristan fou” still followed the leitmotifs of love’s transformation into madness and death as well as Dalí’s paranoiac-critical interpretation of Jean-François Millet’s 1859 painting “L’Angelus, Dalí clearly positioned his “Mad Tristan” of 1944 in closer proximity to Wagner, borrowing several elements from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” for his piece (cf. Christian Sauer, Bühne frei: Salvador Dalís Theater- und Filmprojekte 1934 – 1944, Berlin 2015, p. 247). Unfortunately, however, no libretto of the modified piece has been preserved. Nonetheless, as the text of the New York programme demonstrates, the motif of madness and unfulfilled Eros continued to substantially define the piece: “There are two kinds of music. Absolute music, like that of Mozart, could be heard with closed eyes. Wagner’s music, in contrast, is best heard with eyes wide open to the accompanying pageant of fantasy, hallucination and legend. “Tristan, in Dalí’s conception, has been driven insane with love, and in this state he sees himself slowly devoured by Isolde’s Chimera, a horrible and awesome transformation of his beloved. Thus in the sublimity of human being, are reincarnated the perverse and tragic nuptial rites of the praying mantis, wherein the female devours the male in consummation of their union. “Dalí sees the whole romantic philosophy of Wagner as an uninterrupted complex of impotence, an exasperating procession of wheelbarrows, heavy with the earth of reality, struggling up toward the inaccessible heaven of the ecstasy of love, at the summit of which there is only a precipice love in death and death in love.” (cited in Brandes, Petersberg 2012, p. 242)

While Dalí substantially transformed the piece’s plot relative to the 1938 draft, the stage curtain, in particular, embodies an associative element of special relevance. The juxtaposition of Tristan and Isolde as well as the references to the consuming nature of the praying mantis, the transience of life and an omnipresent impotence complex in the form of the wheelbarrow clearly echo Dalí’s occupation with “L’Angelus” and herald “the first paranoiac ballet based on the eternal myth of love in death”with a force that is almost disturbing. In terms of content as well as form, the stage curtain functions as a link connecting the two versions of Tristan, which can be seen as a key work among Dalí’s theatrical pieces on account of its early conception and complex development. Its significance thus goes far beyond the function of a decorative element for the theatre. As an autonomous artistic as well as biographical system of references, it represents the central themes of Salvador Dalí’s pioneering theatrical oeuvre.

„Wonderful how Dalí turns whatever pictorial reference he offers into a symphonic insignia of the unconscious world within us.”
New York Herald Tribune, 16 December 1944

Following its world premiere in New York, “Mad Tristan” travelled across Europe and was presented in London (Covent Garden, 1949), Barcelona (Gran Teatro del Liceu, 1949–1950), Monte Carlo (Opéra, 1950), Venice (Teatro La Fenice, 1950) and also Paris (Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 1950/1958). It is thanks to Dalí’s patron George de Cuevas and his wife Margaret as well as her second husband Raymundo de Larraín Valdés that the enormous stage curtain for “Mad Tristan” could be preserved and thus survive through the decades as a unique testament to the theatre of Dalí.

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