Painted in 1929, the present work is a masterpiece of Surrealism and arguably one of the finest Surrealist portraits. Reaching deeply into the psychology of portraiture, it displays many of the most important elements that were key to Dalí's rich visual vocabulary. It unites two of the movement's pivotal figures – Salvador Dalí and Paul Eluard – and reflects the untamed imagination and technical virtuosity of Dalí's first mature Surrealist paintings. Dalí and the French Surrealist poet Eluard met in 1929, around the time when the artist was staying in Paris where he assisted Luis Buñuel with the filming of Un Chien Andalou. During his stay in the capital, Dalí came in contact with the Surrealists and invited them to visit him in Cadaqués in the summer. Among those who spent the summer with Dalí were Paul Eluard with his wife Gala and their daughter Cécile, as well as Buñuel and René Magritte with his wife. This visit would soon prove to be a major turning point for the young painter, and was to change both his private and artistic life.
Robert Descharnes wrote: 'Dalí felt flattered that Paul Eluard should have come to see him. With André Breton and Louis Aragon, Eluard was one of the leading lights of the Surrealist movement. As for Gala, she was a revelation – the revelation Dalí had been waiting for, indeed expecting. She was the personification of the woman in his childhood dreams to whom he had given the mythical name Galuchka' (R. Descharnes, op. cit., 1994, pp. 148-149). During the summer, Dalí and Gala took long walks along the cliffs near Cadaqués; Dalí fell madly in love with Gala, who would become his legendary, life-long companion and muse. At the end of her stay, 'Dalí saw Gala off at the station in Figueras, where she took a train to Paris. Then he retired to his studio and resumed his ascetic life, completing the Portrait of Paul Eluard which the writer had been sitting for' (ibid., p. 153).
Besides these momentous events in Dalí's personal life, this period also brought a level of artistic recognition and financial success. The dealer Camille Goemans approached him with the proposition of buying three paintings of Dalí's own choice, as well as staging an exhibition of his work at his Paris gallery. In November-December of 1929, Dalí's first exhibition was held at Galerie Goemans, where the present work was included alongside other masterpieces from this period. Accompanied by a catalogue prefaced by André Breton, the exhibition was a great success and, as Simon Wilson pointed out, 'it marked the beginning of his public success and shot him into the front ranks of the Surrealist group at a difficult moment in the movement's history. Maurice Nadeau, the group's first historian later wrote "Yet new forces would replace the old ones. In the evening of this epoch rose the star of Salvador Dalí, whose personality and activity were to cause the entire movement to take a new step"' (S. Wilson in Salvador Dalí (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., 1980, p. 15).
Depicted with minutely executed details, the iconography of the present work combines all the major motifs of Dalí's early – and the most innovative – stage of Surrealism. Whilst Eluard formally sat for this portrait during his stay on the Spanish coast, the imagery that surrounds him is a complex web of Freudian symbols reflecting Dalí's own personal universe. Writing about the present work, Ian Gibson observed: 'It is impossible to resist the temptation to look for allusions to Gala. Perhaps relevant is the fact that the locust has lost its arms and legs and that the former are pushing up through the fingers of the delicate female hand on Eluard's forehead, which presumably are crushing the dreaded insect along with the moth. Might the suggestion be that Dalí senses that Gala could help to allay his sexual fears? One notes, also, the two hands clasping each other, affectionately it would seem, at the bottom of the portrait, linked by a mane of flowing tresses to the rocks of Cape Creus. Beside them a mop of hair suggests a maidenhead. An allusion, perhaps, to Dalí's seaside walks with Gala, to their growing intimacy, to his hopes for sexual potency and liberation' (I. Gibson, op. cit., p. 227).
Beside the bust of Eluard, who looms large over a desolate landscape and looks directly at the viewer, is another head, coupled with a grasshopper or praying mantis. The animal had a highly personal reference for Dalí, who had a youthful fantasy of being a 'grasshopper child', while the praying mantis was a favourite symbol for the Surrealists due to their ritual of the male being devoured by the female immediately after the sexual act. Eluard himself kept a large collection of praying mantises, and Dalí was able to observe their behaviour.
The sleeping head, which here appears to be metamorphosing into a toothed fish, has often been interpreted as the portrait of the artist himself. It features as the main protagonist of Dalí's masterpiece Le Grand masturbateur (fig. 1), as well as in several other paintings of 1929 (figs. 2 & 4), and ultimately in Persistance de la mémoire of 1931 (fig. 5), as part of a complex assemblage with underlying themes of desire and erotic tension. The head is always depicted with its eyes closed; as Dalí wrote in The Visible Woman, 'sleeping is a form of dying': the sleeping head, coupled with the praying mantis, becomes another symbol of the indestructible bond between love and death. The most explicit appearance of this head as a self-portrait is perhaps in L'Enigme du désir (fig. 4), where the rest of the amorphic body is filled with the inscriptions 'ma mere' ('my mother'), a direct reference to the Oedipal complex.
The head of a lion, a Freudian symbol of passion and violence, also appears in several paintings of 1929. Here it is seen in the upper right of the composition, confronted by a jug in the shape of a woman's face, a common Freudian symbol of woman as a receptacle. This confrontation of the male and female symbols has been interpreted as the artist's neurotic apprehension of his relationship with Gala. Furthermore, the image of a detached arm with fingers is in several places superimposed over the figure of Eluard. These fragmented body parts can be seen as phallic symbols, alluding to Freud's castration complex. In the distance behind the apparition of Eluard, minute figures of a man and a child possibly refer to Dalí's fear of the impending break with his father. This rich and complex symbolic imagery, along with its technical mastery and its importance as a document of this pivotal moment in the history of the Surrealist movement, set this painting apart as a true masterpiece of Modern art.
According to Robert and Nicolas Descharnes, the present work remained in the personal collection of Salvador and Gala Dalí for many decades. After Gala's death in 1982, the work was given to Gala's and Eluard's daughter, Cécile Eluard.
Fig. 1, Salvador Dalí, Le Grand masturbateur, 1929, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid
Fig. 2, Salvador Dalí, Les Plaisirs illuminés, 1929, oil and collage on board, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Fig. 3, Gala, Eluard, Dalí, Valentine Hugo and René Crevel in Montmartre, 1931
Fig. 4, Salvador Dalí, L'Enigme du désir, 1929, oil on canvas, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich
Fig. 5, Salvador Dalí, Persistance de la mémoire, 1931, oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Oil on board
Paris, Galerie Goemans, Salvador Dalí, 1929, no. 9
Paris, Galerie Pierre Colle, Salvador Dalí, 1931, no. 6
New York, Gallery of Modern Art, Salvador Dalí, 1910-1965, 1965-66, no. 29, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Salvador Dalí, rétrospective, 1920-1980, 1979-80, no. 78, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
London, The Tate Gallery, Dalí, 1980, no. 50
Madrid, Museo Español de Arte Contemporaneo & Barcelona, Palau Reial de Pedralbes, 400 obres de Salvador Dalí, 1914 a 1983, 1983, no. 134, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, De Picasso à Barceló. Les artistes espagnols, 2003, no. 11, illustrated in colour in the catalogue and on the front cover
33 by 25cm. 13 by 9 7/8 in.
Salvador Dalí, La Conquête de l'irrationnel, Paris, 1935, pl. 2, illustrated
James Thrall Soby, Salvador Dalí. Paintings, Drawings, Prints, New York, 1941, mentioned p. 15
Salvador Dalí, La Vie secrète de Salvador Dalí, Paris, 1952, illustrated pp. 96-97
Robert Descharnes, Dalí de Gala, Lausanne, 1962, illustrated p. 153
William S. Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art, New York, 1968, mentioned pp. 220 & 226
De Deaeger (ed.), Dalí, Paris, 1968, no. 131, illustrated
Robert Descharnes, Salvador Dalí, New York, 1976, no. 19, illustrated p. 23
Salvador Dali, La vida secreta de Salvador Dalí, Figueras, 1981, pp. 194-195, illustrated pl. 2
Dawn Ades, Dalí, London, 1982, no. 67, illustrated p. 87
Salvador Dalí, La mia vita segreta, Milan, 1982, p. 198
Ignacio Gómez de Liaño, Dalí, Barcelona, 1982, no. 35, illustrated
Robert Descharnes, Salvador Dalí: l'œuvre et l'homme, Lausanne, 1984, illustrated in colour p. 84
Robert Descharnes, Salvador Dalí, London, 1985, no. 19, illustrated p. 21
Meryle Secrest, Salvador Dalí, New York, 1986, mentioned p. 115
Karin v. Maur, Salvador Dalí, Stuttgart, 1989, illustrated p. XXI
Robert Descharnes & Gilles Néret, Salvador Dalí. The Paintings, Cologne, 1994, vol. I, no. 306, illustrated in colour p. 138
Salvador Dalí: The Early Years (exhibition catalogue), Hayward Gallery, London, 1994, illustrated p. 155
Ian Gibson, The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí, London, 1997, fig. 64, illustrated
Felix Fanés, Salvador Dalí, la construcción de la imagen: 1925-1930, Madrid, 1999, detail illustrated p. 157
Felix Fanés, El Gran masturbador, Madrid, 2000, detail illustrated p. 10
Grandes maestros de la pintura, Barcelona, 2001, p. 4
Luis Llongueras, Todo Dalí: vida y obra del personaje más genial y espectacular del siglo XX, Barcelona, 2003, p. LIX
Salvador Dalí, Obra completa. Textos autobiográficos 1, Barcelona, Figueres & Madrid, 2003, detail illustrated
Les Essentiels de l'art Dalí, Amsterdam, 2003, p. 83
Ricard Mas Peinado, Universdalí, Barcelona & Madrid, 2003, p. 132
Laia Rosa Armengol, Dalí, icono y personaje, Madrid, 2003, p. 26
Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Obra completa. Álbum Dalí, Barcelona, Figueres & Madrid, 2004, p. 63
Silvia Borghesi, Dalí, Milan, 2004, p. 37
Jean-Louis Gaillemin, Dalí the impresario of Surrealism, London, 2004, p. 55
Huellas dalinianas, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2004, detail illustrated p. 263
Felix Fanés, La Pintura y sus sombras: cuatro estudios sobre Salvador Dalí, Teruel, 2004, p. 89
Rafael Santos Torroella, El Primer Dalí, 1918-1929: catálogo razonado, Institut Valencià d'Art Modern, Valencia 2005, p. 371
Salvador Dalí: La gare de Perpignan - Pop, Op, Yes-yes, Pompier (exhibition catalogue), Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 2006, p. 221
Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Salvador Dalí, Catalogue raisonné of Paintings (1910-1939), no. 233, www.salvador-dali.org
Salvador & Gala Dalí
Cécile Eluard, Paris (acquired from the above circa 1982)
Sale: Christie's, New York, 14th November 1989, lot 73
Acquired directly from the above